WASHINGTON — Born and raised in the Ghanaian metropolis of Kumasi, Patrick Nyarko wasn't familiar with the American sports landscape until he moved stateside for his freshman year at Virginia Tech in 2005.
After embarking on a transatlantic flight to Dulles Airport near Washington and a four-hour drive through rural Virginia, he finally arrived at the Blacksburg campus and spotted Lane Stadium, the Hokies' 65,000-capacity football cathedral.
Nyarko found himself in awe — until he realized it was the wrong kind of football.
"You enter Virginia Tech and the first thing you see is a massive football stadium," Nyarko said on the Goal USA podcast. "Coming from Africa and not knowing anything about American football, I thought it was a soccer stadium. I got really excited about that. I don't ask a lot of questions, so I didn't ask anything. So the next day we're going to the soccer stadium to train and I'm like, 'Oh, this is the training field.'
"Out of nowhere, I think I overheard the conversation about, 'Oh, there's football and all that.' I was a little disappointed — it was crazy, a little bit of culture shock."
Much has changed for Nyarko over the past decade, with the D.C. United midfielder growing accustomed to life stateside while establishing himself as a sturdy MLS veteran. While he credits much of his prosperity to the Virginia Tech coaching staff and teammates, who helped him acclimate on the field and off it, the crafty winger still chalks up that raw skill to pickup games as a youth in soccer-mad Ghana.
"It's just what we did in school," Nyarko recalled. "Anytime we got a five-minute break — it doesn't matter, five-, three-minute — we'd try to make a game out of it. It doesn't matter where — it could be in the car park, it could be in the street. We just wait for the cars to go by, we set our goals and we'd play.
"There has to be a winner and there has to be a bragging right for whatever the game is."
That competitive nature continues to fuel Nyarko, who has 23 goals and 47 assists to his name over nine MLS seasons. Acquired from the Chicago Fire in an offseason trade, Nyarko has enjoyed a resurgent campaign with United, with his four goals matching a career high and his eight assists marking his best total since 2011.
Sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference, United has clinched a playoff spot and will be playing for home-field advantage in the knockout round when the club travels to face Orlando City in its regular season finale Sunday.
Averaging less than a goal per game through the end of July, United has scored a remarkable 33 times over its past 12 matches — going 6-1-5. Although a formation shift and the midseason acquisitions of Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam have largely been credited for United's turnaround, getting Nyarko back from a six-game absence following a May concussion also has been crucial.
"Every team in MLS goes through the highs and slumps during the year, and you're lucky to have your slump early rather than later heading into playoffs," Nyarko said. "I think we figured out our identity. Early in the year we were toggling between a couple of formations, we didn't know a set lineup and stuff. ... It starts from the willingness to work for each other, and that's the identity I think we've formed of this team."
Drafted by the Fire in 2008, Nyarko saw that side advance to the Eastern Conference final in his first two seasons before falling on tough times. Over Nyarko's final six campaigns in Chicago, the club played just one postseason match.
While United has grown accustomed to the playoffs, qualifying each of the past three seasons, Nyarko is thrilled to take part in his first postseason game since 2012.
Come the playoffs, "there has to be winner" — just how Nyarko liked it on the streets of Kumasi.
"I show up in the locker room and some of the other guys, it's like 'whatever' — they've been in the playoffs the last couple years," Nyarko said. "And I'm like, 'Guys, come on, this is exciting! I'm back in the playoffs!' I was really appreciative, really blessed."
Check out the full episode of the Goal USA podcast above as Nyarko discusses United's scorching form, the path that took him from Ghana to MLS, the opponent he most relishes facing and much more.