In July of 2009, 15-year-old Lindo Mfeka nervously stepped off a plane at Louisville International Airport.
A year prior the South African soccer prodigy had been identified by talent scouts and was offered a chance to relocate to the U.S. for a formal education and to play the game he loved.
After a mountain of paperwork and a journey of nearly 9000 miles from his hometown of Durban, Mfeka was greeted by a host family he had never met, speaking a language he barely knew.
“I was scared,” he said. “It was intimidating because I was young.”
Two years later, Mfeka, 17, has gotten past the initial butterflies and is making strides in the classroom as a rising junior at Walden School and on the soccer pitch for back-to-back State Cup Champion Javanon ‘94.
While it took him a few months to catch up in school and nail down the language, his soccer skills needed no remediation.
“He’s without question the best player in his age group in the country,” said Javanon ’94 coach Jason Bell. “He’s a phenomenal player and can do some pretty spectacular things on the field.”
Quick and advanced
A left-footed central midfielder, he is equally adept at taking players on individually or combining with teammates – part virtuoso, part connector.
He is quick, technically advanced and his composure on the ball belies a fierce competitiveness according to Javanon club manager Ali Ahmadi.
“On the surface, he might be very calm, but I promise you, inside of him is a volcano ready to erupt,” said Ahmadi. “Of the 150 or so college-level players that we’ve produced in the last 15 years, I would definitely put him in the top 10.”
Before arriving in the U.S., Mfeka competed internationally with the South Africa U17 National Team and in 2007 was invited to train as part of FC Barcelona’s youth development program.
The Barcelona deal eventually fell through (an organization arranging his transfer reneged), but Mfeka’s reputation as a gifted young player remained intact.
In the wake of the embarrassing Barcelona mix-up he was contacted by Thabiso Khumalo, a talent scout and former D.C. United star, about coming to the U.S. to pursue academic and soccer opportunities. All Mfeka needed was a host family.
Steiers step up
Enter the Steier family of St. Matthews.
After learning of the situation from a coach at Javanon, Tony and Sandy Steier agreed to host Mfeka and Sabelo Tsambo (another South African transplant who plays for Javanon ‘95).
A parent of four already – Brooks, 7, Grace, 13, Colson, 16, and Eleanor, 19 – Sandy said the addition of Mfeka and Tsambo was a breeze.
“When you have a house full of kids it’s easier to add a couple more to it,” she said. “Lindo’s a great kid and people are drawn to him. He has a great sense of humor.”
Mfeka, at 5-foot-4 and weighing only 120 pounds, has found the physical style of play in the U.S. a bit jarring, but said he looks to his Barcelona heroes Iniesta and Xavi for tactics to compensate.
“I really like their style,” he said. “They don’t play physical. They’re pretty small but they just play smart.”
Another state title
Earlier this month Mfeka’s Javanon side edged Mockingbird Valley SC ‘94 Premier 1-0 in Kentucky’s State Cup final, the first leg of the U.S. Youth Soccer Championship Series. They outscored opponents 23-1 en route to their third state title in four years.
This weekend they head to Fox Cities, Wisconsin, for the Region II Midwest Championships where they will square off against qualifiers from 13 other states.
Pool play begins Saturday and a champion will be crowned Wednesday. The four regional winners advance to Nationals in Phoenix July 27-30.
As for the next step in Mfeka’s development, Bell said “he will be able to write his own ticket” when it is time for college. He also added that U.S. Youth National Team coaches have inquired but Mfeka is unable to participate because he is here on a student visa and is not a citizen.
Sandy Steier thinks his best days on and off the field are still to come.
“He’s a great soccer player and it brings me to tears when I watch him on the field,” she said. “But (soccer) is just a stepping stone to great opportunities for him in the future.”