Danny Mwanga puts on his Philadelphia Union sportscoat and checks his hair in the mirror after a recent game.
A couple of his teammates toss multiple jokes his way and Mwanga handles it in stride.
“Got to be cool,” Mwanga quips.
Mwanga is calm, cool and collected. In every way. Especially for a 19-year-old kid who was the No. 1 overall pick by the Union in the Major League Soccer SuperDraft.
He was actually 18 when selected by the Union on Jan. 14 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Over this short stint with the Union, Mwanga has developed into quite a player, arguably the league’s Rookie of the Year. Forcing his way into the starting lineup on June 10 after three straight stoppage time goals, Mwanga has since increased his goal total to seven to lead all rookies.
Mwanga’s poise under pressure has also been tremendous.
“I really have been impressed with Danny’s progression,” said Coach John Hackworth. “He came to us with a great attitude and he has worked extremely hard every day. He’s not perfect, and there are technical aspects he needs to work on. He has shown the desire in training and the matches to get better every day.
“I think we did our homework on Danny and he has been outstanding as a rookie. His upside is off the charts. Danny is such a great kid and he wants to be the best player he can be.”
As the 2010 MLS SuperDraft approached, the secret had leaked. The Union had plans to select Mwanga with the first pick in front of their hometown fans. So expected was the selection that a chant was created and unveiled when his name was officially announced - a chant that can now be heard whenever Philadelphia plays a home game at PPL Park.
“I was very happy and yes, a bit overwhelmed,” said Mwanga, who starred for two years at Oregon State. “Hearing Commissioner Don Garber call your name to the world was something special. I felt so great. Having the chance to play for Peter Nowak was a big reason why I wanted to be here. It has been everything I expected and more. Peter is demanding, and he gets the best out of you. I feel like because I’ve had the chance to play for Peter and Coach Hackworth, I have improved so much.”
Nowak never wanted to put pressure on his top draft choice. That’s why he eased him into the lineup.
Make no mistake: Mwanga earned his way into a starter’s role.
[inline_node:286791]“A lot of people think because he was the No. 1 draft pick, he was supposed to come here and score a bunch of goals and that's just not how it happens,” Nowak said. “He has a lot to learn, but he has come a long way already and he has a mind that just soaks up information. It has taken a lot of work to get him to where he is now, but we knew this day would come. He will be dangerous because he has the abilities and the work ethic to make his game perfect.”
Mwanga was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and his family fled the Civil War that claimed his father’s life in 2006. After arriving in the United States, Mwanga found his niche at Oregon State where he scored 18 goals and was named Pac-10 Player of the Year as a sophomore.
Competing in MLS has been a whole different ballgame.
“I didn’t come in and expect to dominate or anything like that,” Mwanga said. “For me, it was about working hard like I always have. I think that has helped me through my rookie season. I feel like I have taken steps forward in so many ways.”
Looking down the road, he could take a step forward to play in the World Cup for the U.S.
Many members of the U.S. Men’s National Team had direct relatives who were immigrants of this country.
Mwanga holds a U.S. refugee travel document, a U.S. Green Card and resident alien card. However, he is not yet an American citizen. The duration of his citizenship process is undetermined -- which is not unusual when applying for U.S. citizenship -- with timing ranging anywhere from several months to years.
How about playing for the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup?
“It would be an honor,” Mwanga said. “Playing for the U.S. in a World Cup would be something I would enjoy. I don’t know what’s going to happen. For now, I’m focused in on helping the Union. To be a member of the U.S. for the World Cup is something I’ve thought about a lot.”
Nothing would surprise Mwanga’s teammates.
“Danny is an incredible talent,” said forward Sebastien Le Toux, who is ahead of Mwanga by two goals for the club lead. “His attitude and work ethic are what you’re looking for. His development is going to happen quickly.”
“Danny has had a great season,” added defender Jordan Harvey. “You can forget that he’s only 19. He has such maturity for his age. I have been very, very impressed.”
Mwanga's first goal was of the game-tying variety in stoppage time against FC Dallas on May 15. He's since added six more, many of which displayed the timing and finishing ability of a savvy veteran.
All of this could add up to Rookie of the Year honors. But winning awards is not why Mwanga plays hard.
“If I win an award like that, I’ll be happy, sure,” Mwanga said. “I want to win. I’ll do anything to help the Union win. I love it in Philadelphia. I want to help the club accomplish great things here.”