A new face in the world of professional football has recently signed with Forward Madison, Wisconsin’s member of the USL League One, the third tier of professional American soccer, ahead of their 2020 season. That new face, Michael Vang, brings a Saint Paul connection to the Madison-based club, and marks a rare acknowledgement from the fields of professional sports for the many Hmong athletes in the state of Minnesota.
Vang, who most often goes by Mike, found his footing for the beautiful game both at home during his time at the US Soccer Development Academy, located at Shattuck-Saint Mary’s boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota.
His time at Shattuck-Saint Mary’s helped lay the foundations for his footballing education, leading him to involvement in the youth national teams catching attention from colleges as high school graduation neared. “Shattuck has helped me grow as a player and individual,” Vang explained. “I would say everything that I went through as a youth helped me get to where I am. All the coaches and teammates that I’ve learned from. They all played a big part.”
On top of his education in the sport, Vang puts an immense portion of the credit on his family, particularly his father. “I would say the biggest person [for me] is my father, Tay,” the midfielder noted. “He was the one who trained me my whole life and always worked on what I needed to work on. I would go home on weekends when I was at Shattuck and do extra training with him. Still to this day, he puts in the time to help me become a better player. Of course, the rest of my family plays a big part too.”
Vang’s move to Madison was prefaced by a move to Sociedade União 1 Dezembro, who compete in the third tier of Portuguese football. The move came after Vang decided to not pursue college soccer, despite having an option to attend Pacific University in Oregon. Placed in the team’s under-19 side for 2018, Vang would impress his way into the senior side despite encountering doubters in and outside of the club, who felt that very little could be expected from the young American.
On top of mixed expectations, Vang had to adapt to a different style and philosophy from what he’d encountered in American academies. “I definitely had to adapt to the playing style over in Portugal,” Vang continued. “It was more compact, and you had less time on the ball. I would take time outside of team training to work on it. Being by myself over there meant I had to be more disciplined. Meaning, training on my own and putting more hours in outside of practice.”
Assumptions and barriers wouldn’t slow Vang much, however, and the Minnesotan managed to develop as a player, setting up future progress in his career. “Once, I adapted and felt more comfortable, everything started to come together. Playing overseas definitely shaped me into the player I am today. I’ve learned a lot and I’m glad I got the experience.”
When Vang finally found his way to a fully professional club at Forward Madison, it wasn’t through a conventional transfer. Instead, he took part in a ‘combine’, which allowed players to enter a series of trials and challenges which would be observed by Madison’s coaching staff. The best of the trialists, it was then theorised, would be considered for contracts at the club. That same trial process had led to the signing of Vital Nizigiyimana the year before.
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Vang entered the combine through the recommendation of his brother, Brian, and coach Jeremy Bonomo. Both men are part of the UW-Green Bay men’s team, as a player and a coach respectively, and advocated for Mike’s entry. “I’m so thankful for my brother Brian and his college coach Jeremy for getting me invited to the combine,” Vang continued. “I’ve been rejected over and over again by clubs, so it feels that much sweeter when it does finally work out.”
Shining bright at the combine, Vang was eventually offered a spot on Madison’s roster, a chance he had every intention of taking. “It feels great,” Vang declared. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid. I’m thankful to Forward Madison for the opportunity.”
Even sweeter for Vang is the fact that his first professional home will be relatively close to his home of Saint Paul. Just over 260 miles apart, the trip will be minor compared to his previous stint in Portugal. “It’s great because I’m closer to my family and friends. I don’t feel so far away like I used to. They’ll be able to come to my home games and cheer me on in person.”
This makes Vang one of the relative few Minnesotans, by birth or childhood, currently playing professionally. That list includes the likes of Ethan Finlay, Eric Miller, Brent and Brian Kallman, all of whom currently or recently played for Minnesota United.
In addition to being one of a select few Minnesotans to go professional, Vang is also one of the few Hmong Americans to take their athletic passions to the professional stage. Hmong families began to move to the United States in large numbers following the withdrawal of American forces from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. A significant portion of the Hmong communities in neighboring Laos were recruited by the US to fight the North Vietnamese and communist Lao, leading to what many have called the Secret War.
Following the end of the war, Lao and Vietnamese forces continued to target the Hmong, adding to an already devastating situation. Hmong refugees were eventually accepted into the United States with thousands coming over the course of the late 1970s, and more following in the 80s and 90s.
Vang is both aware and proud of his unique position as a modern Hmong athlete and as one of the few being paid for their craft. “I would say the love for soccer is a big thing in the Hmong community,” the Forward Madison player continued. “I’m really happy that people are supporting me and I’m grateful that there are Hmong kids that look up to me as someone they’d like to be.”
Vang also made sure to emphasise that he’s far from the only Hmong athlete with potential, nor likely to be the last that makes their way into a gameday roster in the USL or MLS. “There’s a lot of talent in our community and I know there will be others in the future that will make it professionally. I know I have a lot of people behind me and I’m extremely thankful for that. I promise to do my best.”
The football scene in Minnesota is a diverse one, with the state’s many communities taking part in various ways. While few Hmong players feature in the professional game, the impact of Hmong communities on the sport up north is far from minute. Examples of this can be found in many corners of the Twin Cities. A love of football is shown at the annual J4 sports tournaments, held as part of the Hmong Freedom Festival, and at clubs like the Minnesota Twinstars.
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The Twinstars operated as an academy and amateur club for over 20 years, competing in the amateur NPSL for many years alongside the likes of Minneapolis City, Chattanooga, and Detroit City. The club’s senior team experienced various levels of success in the NPSL over its decades of history while operating alongside the well-known Twinstars youth academy.
The TwinStars were founded by Hmong Americans in the late 1990s, before branching out to other communities in the Twin Cities. The organisation has since merged with other academies, including Maplebrook and MN Eclipse. Needless to say, the presence of Hmong contributions in the state of Minnesota to sport, amongst many other parts of life and society, is invaluable.
The obstacles preventing what the 2010 US Census showed to be a 66,000 strong Hmong population in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area from receiving certain levels of recognition are many and complex. Despite this, seeing talented individuals prosper is always a good sign.
Mee Vang of The United Hmong Family Inc, a non-profit organisation which hosts annual events for both the 4 July Freedom Festival and Hmong New Year, spoke on the importance of Hmong people paving the way for others in fields like athletics. “It’ll be great for kids to be able to see Michael playing and get inspired, but it also can mean a lot for older members of the Hmong community. For them, people like Michael finding success can feel like a great moment for all the hard work their generation has done.”
Vang noted that football tournaments have a long history in Hmong American communities, going back 40 years. The growth of these gatherings, which serve as important networking and social centres, has gotten to the point where teams travel to the Twin Cities from California to Florida.
While the new Forward Madison signing is great news, Vang also noted that the way the community responds and builds on it will be a big part of how it impacts people. “Part of what effect this has on the Hmong community depends on what we as a community do with it. That’s something we need to figure out.”
That being said, Vang feels there’s a great opportunity for individuals and the community to grow and perhaps find a new level of justification. With a dash of history under his wing, Vang’s goals are simple but strong: he wants to make a name for himself on the pitch. “My goals are to earn a starting spot, score/assist goals, and most importantly to win,” he explained. “Winning is the most important thing at this level and I’ll do everything I can to help the team achieve that.”
In addition to a friendly against second division side Saint Louis FC on 29 February, Forward Madison’s season will officially begin with an away game against the Richmond Kickers on 28 March, with their first home match on 11 April where they face Toronto FC II. What role Vang will play in the team’s season is yet to be determined, but it’s clear the Saint Paul-based player is determined to make his first professional season a memorable one.
By Dominic José Bisogno @DJBisogno