Manager Peter Nowak admits he was extremely surprised to see college soccer’s most prolific offensive player in the past two years available in the third round of Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft. Yet there Levi Houapeu was when the Union were on the clock with the 41st overall selection after picking Zac MacMath and Michael Farfan in the first two rounds.
Houapeu, a 21-year-old attacker known for his breakaway speed, is capable of playing as a winger or withdrawn striker. The Ivorian led the nation in points in his final two years at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), accumulating a whopping 30 goals and 17 assists.
While those lofty numbers are unlikely to translate to the professional ranks, Nowak feels as though the club managed to capture another building block up front to go along with teenagers Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney. MLSsoccer.com mock drafts had Houapeu going as high as 11th overall, with one pundit ranking him sixth on a list of the top 30 SuperDraft prospects.
“Levi has great explosiveness and everyone saw it at the combine,” Nowak told a group of reporters at the draft. “He can play a bunch of positions. A guy like that needs to be in an environment like ours, and at the end of day he will help us tremendously. We watched him, we interviewed him, and we were very impressed with his overall appearance.”
While Houapeu wasn’t in attendance when his name was called, his proximity enabled him to meet up with a group of Union supporters at a post-draft event just blocks away from the Baltimore Convention Center. Evidently he’s already sold on his new club, thanks to a warm welcome from the Sons of Ben and a group of Founding Members who made the bus trip down.
“I’m already falling in love with Union fans,” he told philadelphiaunion.com. “They’re great. I’m just excited right now and really trying to embrace the moment.”
WATCH: SuperDraft Special
Houapeu, who was an integral member of Union PDL affiliate Reading United A.C. last season, is well aware that he doesn’t have long to revel in the accomplishment of being drafted. Preseason is right around the corner, and the high school track and field star understands that he’s about to experience a level of play unlike anything he’s had to face previously.
“I spoke to a lot of coaches at the Combine and I spoke to my UMBC coach, who was also a professional,” he explained. “I have some friends in MLS who I also spoke to, and they pretty much told me the speed of play is different. You have to be sharp at all times, be on your game. And you have to come in fit. As of now I’m looking forward to my first preseason training and learning from the veteran guys. Hopefully I can pick up the system quickly.”
If anyone knows about elevating his game, it’s Houapeu. After registering only a single goal as a sophomore, he exploded for 15 goals and 17 assists as a junior in 2009, a formative year for the youngster.
“After my 2008 season I put a lot of work into my training over the summer,” he said. “I went back to UMBC in 2009 and I was playing the supporting forward role, so I was able to be around the goal a lot and find ways to put the ball in the back of the net. So that’s how I was able to score the 15 goals – and also with the help of my teammates.”
Houapeu is wisely choosing to enter the next phase of his career with humility. While the newest member of the Union is aware of his strengths, he also understands that he'll have to adapt to excel in MLS.
“I like to rely on my speed and quickness and my ability to beat defenders 1-on-1,” he said. “But that was college. I’m coming to preseason open minded and trying to do anything I can to help the team.”
WATCH: Houapeu highlight reel