From New York Red Bulls to HJK Helsinki – Macoumba Kandji’s dream turned into reality
After losing the previous encounter between the two sides 2-0, HJK have been crowned Veikkausliiga champions and, just five days ago won the Suomen Cup on penalties against FC Inter – No relation – which has lifted the mood at the Sonera Stadium.
“The players, the coaches, the club, everyone is happy after winning everything there is to win in Finland,” Kandji exclusively told Forza Italian Football.
“We only have the Europa League to worry about now. So, I think we should have enough time to concentrate on the competition, and enough time to rest properly between games.“
Reflecting to the match against Torino two weeks ago, the 29-year-old was a little unhappy with the performance of his side, but is sure everything will be different on Thursday evening.
“It was hard, that game, our level just dropped,” he stated. “But that is going to change in this coming game.
“We tried to defend and tried to counter, but the way Torino play with three centre-backs and one defensive midfielder makes it hard.
“I have never run that much in all my life. I gave everything I had in that game. Even when we played Barcelona – in a preseason friendly – I didn’t run that much.
“Obviously in this game we are looking to go at them. We are not going to sit back like we did in the last game. I expect us to go out there and press them. Isolate players one against one. I think we will be a lot better.
“It’s not gonna be like it was in Torino!”
He went on: “I didn’t move to the USA because of football, I moved with my family to live there and soccer, or football as you call it, just happened a bit later.
“When I was younger I did have dreams of playing professionally. To be honest, I didn’t want to play in the USA, I wanted to finish school then move overseas and play. But opportunities arose that were best at the time so I stayed.”
Eleven goals and five assists in the USL First Division for the Silverbacks attracted the attention of many MLS clubs, as well as Mexican sides. But for Kandji, there was only one destination.
“Lots of teams were interested,” he said, “but New York came with a deal I couldn’t say no to. I didn’t want to move away from home at that moment, but the interest from New York came about three-quarters of the way through the season, then I started playing really well, and they were looking for a replacement for Jozy Altidore. So they thought I was their guy and made an offer.
“The coach wanted to develop me but I went to play football, not to be developed, I wanted to play. So I worked hard every day in training, obviously playing next to Juan Pablo Angel makes it easier to learn things faster.
“As a professional, the way he [Angel] took care of himself, of his body, and the extra work he did on the training field. Your movement and first touch, which you always have to work on.
“I remember asking him once ‘what does it take to play overseas?’ and he told me ‘you have the skills, you have everything, the one thing you can improve on is your first touch. When you master that, the sky is the limit.’
“It was great to learn from him as he had played as such high levels. Then to top it off, in my last year at Red Bulls Thierry Henry came in.
“He [Henry] also took me under his wing, spoke with me about things I could do better. He always said that talent is something you have, but you have to use it all the time, not just once in a while. Every time you go on the field.
“With some players age doesn’t matter, they are gifted. This guy is an amazing player and he can probably keep playing till whenever he wants. His movement, his touch. He is one of a kind.”
Henry’s arrival, despite being something of a dream, had a ripple effect on Kandji’s time in New York.
“With Henry coming and Angel still there, plus Salou Ibrahim. They tried to move Angel to Colorado, in order to get Freddie Ljungberg in, but Angel wasn’t ready to leave, so there wasn’t much chance I would play.
“As luck would have it, Colorado wanted me too, and had a number 10 – Mehdi Ballouchy – New York wanted, so it seemed like a good opportunity to move.“
He was then traded to Colorado Rapids,, though he did win the MLS Cup with the Denver based side, tearing his ACL playing while scoring what would be the winning goal, and the fifth best ever MLS Cup moment.
After a year or so recovering from that somewhat bittersweet injury, Kandji spent one year at Houston Dynamo before his MLS deal expired, and he joined Greek side Kalloni on a short term deal.
“I had made my name in the MLS, and I knew what I had,” he went on. “I am confident in my ability and will do the work to win my starting position.
“I wanted to try new things. It was always a dream to play in the Champions League or Europa League, so I had to come to Europe to realise that dream.
“But, after I spoke to my family, I decided to fly to Greece. I met the owners, the players and was shown around the place. It was on a nice island, so I decided to do it.
“We had to finish in the top three to get promoted, so I stayed and helped them get into the top three.
“It was one of the biggest moments of my career, to see how happy the people of the island were, how happy the owner was. The people coming up and saying ‘thank you’, it was an amazing feeling.
“I do want to go back to the MLS some day. To go back and win more MLS Cups.
“And right now, if I had to chose I would like to go to New York, either New York Red Bulls or New York City FC [NYCFC], or David Beckham’s new Miami side.”
He then moved to Levadiakos in the Greek Super League, but his European journey didn’t work out as he hoped.
“At Levadiakos, I was paid the first month, then I wasn’t paid for two-and-a-half months after that. I kept on playing, but I wasn’t happy.” The relationship between player and club deteriorated, with Kandji taking drastic action.
“So I left, I packed my bags went back home,” he stated. “They called me and asked if I was coming back, but I told them I wasn’t. They said I had a contract to fulfil, and I told them so did they. It was then I decided I wasn’t going back at all.
After not receiving any salary for over three months, the Senegalese born striker went to FIFA to be released from his contract. After months of wrangling he was finally free of his Greek nightmare, and in April 2014 his Finnish fairytale began.
“HJK then came along at just the right time,” he smiled. “They explained to me the history of the club, and that they could play in the Champions League or Europa League, which grabbed my attention.
“I then went to their website and seen that Teemu Taino was there, and he played at New York Red Bulls. I spoke to a friend who plays in Finland and he said I would like it here, and I would do well here, so I came to Helsinki, liked the place, then signed the contract.
“I have come here, won the league, won the cup, and qualified for the Europa League. It’s like a dream.”
One thing is for sure, after Torino’s visit to the Daughter of the Baltic, Kandji will be hoping to keep that dream alive.