Four days before the Chicago Fire’s March 24 home opener, Dominic Oduro was on a practice field next to Toyota Park in Bridgeview. As the wind whipped his blue training jersey, the wiry striker from Ghana worked through drills, dishing out one-touch passes and receiving through-balls in a short-sided game. But each time Oduro found himself with room to run, the end line of the condensed field was there to meet him. He was itching to stretch his legs.
“I’m the fastest man in MLS, so I don’t worry, I will run a lot this season,” Oduro said after the practice, flashing a toothy smile.
Built like a marathoner, Oduro was once clocked at 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash and may very well be the fastest soccer player in America. He said he could beat that time today—and his highlight montages back up his claims.
“He can run, that’s for sure,” Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said of Oduro after an exhibition last summer. “It’s crazy,” echoed Patrick Nyarko, Oduro’s teammate and fellow Ghanian. “It doesn’t matter where I put the ball, he can run it down.”
Before Oduro arrived in Chicago, he was nothing but a runner—across the pitch and from city to city. At 25, the former first-round MLS draft-pick was a journeyman, having played for three teams in six seasons, once traded two times in five months. His rap was all speed, no touch. When an early-season deal last year brought Oduro to Chicago he was an afterthought, swapped for an injured forward. In a new town on a new team, though, the runner has become a scorer. Oduro had 12 goals last season, good for fifth in the league and the highest output by a Fire player since 2004. He’s added three more in six games this year.
Oduro was named the Fire’s Most Valuable Player and was a 2011 finalist for Comeback Player of the Year. Then, in February, his breakout campaign earned him a call-up and a start for Ghana’s national team. “I have to say, I’m enjoying the ride,” Oduro said, still grinning.
For the beginning of Oduro’s redemption, go back to the nightmare of March 19 last year. It was opening night of his third season with the Houston Dynamo, a stint filled with flashes of brilliance, but marred by unrealized potential. The Dynamo trailed 1-0 late in the game when a teammate set up Oduro in front of the net with a perfect cross. A simple touch would have meant a goal, but Oduro sailed the ball over the crossbar. The Houston crowd voiced its displeasure, and four days later Oduro was traded to Chicago.
The Houston Chronicle was no kinder than the fans upon his exit, writing, “It’s clear the patience ran out with a Dynamo organization that put in many hours of extra practice in a futile attempt to try to convert Oduro into a quality finisher.”
Strikers are the wide receivers of the soccer pitch–brimming with athleticism, yet often undone by vanity, or insecurity. “It’s a position that’s all about confidence,” said Fire coach Frank Klopas. In Chicago, the Fire offered Oduro a chance to do what he does best—run. “In the past, he was a guy who was in and out of lineups and he didn’t have the continuity,” said Klopas. “We thought his pace would fit well…and it’s worked out pretty good.”
Oduro netted his first goal in his fourth game with the Fire and has started every game since—first in the midfield before settling atop the Fire’s 4-4-2 formation. The Fire added Argentinean Sebastian Grazzini to the midfield last July, teamed Oduro and Nyarko together at forward, and catered to the pace of the Ghanaian tandem. Oduro now gleefully stretches defenses, chases down long balls, and generally wreaks havoc.
“Sometimes coaches try to fit you into their system, but here they set me free,” Oduro said. “No disrespect to any other team, but I feel wanted here.”
Off the field, he rides to practice from his home in the Loop blasting Ghanaian oldies with Nyarko. He cracks up his teammates with locker room raps. He jokes—sort of—about putting out a CD. “He’s really awful,” said Nyakro about his countryman’s rhymes.
Oduro came to the United States as a college junior in 2004, transferring from the University of Ghana to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He was an instant sensation, earning All-America honors in his first season.
VCU coach Tim O’Sullivan discovered Oduro playing on grassless fields in Accra, Ghana’s capital, on a scouting trip. “I didn’t grow up poor, but I didn’t grow up rich,” said Oduro, whose parents have never seen him play live professionally. His father is in the military and mother buys and sells food and clothing for wholesale stores. His early soccer memories involve making balls out of pieces of plastic tied with string. As he recalled stories of pickup games on cement lots and gravel alleys, he showed off the scars on his shins.
“When Dominic came to VCU, it was like he wanted to say thank you for the opportunity with his play,” said O’Sullivan. “He can play with such purpose. He’s finally comfortable in Chicago, and they’re getting the same thing we got in college.”
Oduro’s run of luck continued when the Ghanaian national team’s star striker, Asamoah Gyan, announced he was leaving international soccer days ahead of Ghana’s February friendly against Chile in Philadelphia. Oduro got the call and donned the Blackstars shirt as a starting striker.
This season, Oduro has helped the Fire to a 2-2-2 record. In the Fire’s first home game against the Philadelphia Union, Oduro flicked home a gorgeous header for the Fire’s only goal in a 1-0 win. It was his first MLS goal through the air.
Speed, though, remains Oduro’s calling card, as his FreakyFast8 Twitter handle reminds. As his profile grows, he’s hoping one of his next calls is from Jimmy John’s, the sandwich chain, which advertises its “freaky fast delivery.”
“I would be a great pitchman,” said Oduro.
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BEN STRAUSS, Associate Editor, is a writer born, raised and living in Chicago. He contributes regularly to The New York Times. Reach him on Twitter @bstrauss1.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house. All photos courtesy Chicago Fire.