Matt Olosunde’s budding soccer career has been built around a series of journeys in search of better competition. Each new one much longer than the previous one. The quest has taken Olosunde from New Jersey to England for an opportunity he could only have dreamed of when he was a youngster.
Olosunde is the latest American to ply his trade at Manchester United, one of the world’s biggest clubs and a place where making the jump from youth prospect to first-teamer isn’t easy. The challenge doesn’t scare Olosunde though. If it did, he never would have passed up the chance to sign with his hometown New York Red Bulls for the opportunity to pursue his dream of reaching European soccer’s top flight.
That was the decision Olosunde faced more than a year ago when, after a series of trials with several top English clubs, an offer from Manchester United came along. The Red Bulls were eager to sign Olosunde as well, seeing him as the latest gem from their academy and a player who could be their starting right back sooner than later.
It wasn’t much of a decision. For Olosunde, the lure of joining a high-profile club was too strong, even if the fight for survival there would be much tougher.
“I just felt like getting to play for Manchester United was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Olosunde told Goal of his decision. “If I missed out on it I might not get the chance again so I had to jump at it and make the most of it.”
So far, Olosunde’s decision is looking good. He played his way into a regular starting role with Manchester United’s Under-23 team as one of its younger players, impressing enough to be one of a handful of youngsters to be brought up to the first team to train and travel for the final matches of the season.
“That was a pretty amazing experience, an eye-opener really,” Olosunde said of his stint with the first team. “It’s really good when you get to train with the first team and play with them, you see where you’re at and how you compare with them, and what you need to work on to improve and be better than them.”
Olosunde is a 19-year-old right back prospect whose 6-foot-2 frame and top-end speed combine with excellent technical ability to make him the kind of prospect scouts drool over, and a player with the tools to one day develop into a U.S. national team regular.
He’s exactly the kind of prospect you would expect to find in Manchester United’s pipeline, a young player who has made a habit of thriving when faced with new, tougher challenges.
For Olosunde, the journey to Manchester began in the leafy Trenton suburb of Hiltonia, where he impressed as a youth soccer standout but still wasn’t sure how he stacked up against better competition. At the age of 13, his family drove him an hour away to Newark, New Jersey, and a tryout with the Red Bulls academy, the best program in the state.
“I didn’t know what to expect, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it and didn’t know how good the kids were I would be playing with,” Olosunde said. “Once I got there I knew I could play at that level.”
One of the other standouts who arrived in the Red Bulls Academy at the same time as Olosunde was Tyler Adams, who is now a starting midfielder for the club’s first team. Adams and Olosunde spent years partnered up in central midfield before eventually becoming teammates on the U.S. U-17 national team.
“The first thing you notice is his athleticism. He’s a freak athlete,” Adams told Goal when asked what first caught his eye when playing with Olosunde. “It’s unbelievable. His stride is unbelievable. His strength. And then to see how good he is on the ball is something pretty special. You don’t see players with that type of athleticism and a soccer brain as well.”
The next step in Olosunde’s journey to Manchester United was much longer than the one-hour drive from Trenton to Newark. He had an opportunity to join the U.S. U-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Florida. It’s a program that was, at the time, the only true full-time development program in the United States. Olosunde was fortunate enough to have had his god brother, Wesley Wade, go through the same program, so he had a good idea what he was getting into.
Of course Olosunde still had to play his way into an invitation, and he did that by scoring a goal the first time then U.S. U-17 coach Richie Williams saw him play.
“What caught my eye was his ability to get forward from the right back position,” Williams told Goal. “The ability to just get up and down. You could see his athleticism, his stamina and quickness, but on top of it his ability with the ball. He could combine, put balls in the box, and score.”
“When residency started, he was one of our better players,” said Williams, now an assistant with the U.S. national team. “Unfortunately he went over to Europe for training with some European teams after we qualified for the World Cup and pulled his hamstring and that kept him from being able to show what he could do.”
Olosunde was part of a U.S. Under-17 residency class that included U.S. national team star Christian Pulisic as well as Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie, developing in the same program that has produced the likes of Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez. U.S. Soccer closed down the program in May, after an 18-year run, but not before it helped players like Olosunde develop.
“It’s a shame that they’re getting rid of it,” Olosunde said of the residency program. “I really enjoyed it. I think I grew a lot as a player and a person being there. Working with Richie (Williams) was really good, he was really helpful to my development. I think they did a great job with us.”
Along with helping players like Olosunde develop on the field, it also helped them develop their personalities in a competitive environment away from home. A soft-spoken person by nature, Olosunde came out of his shell in the residency program, and surely developed confidence that has helped him thrive at Manchester United.
“He loved residency, and was kind of the class clown of the group,” Adams said of Olosunde. “You wouldn’t notice that at first, but once he makes that close group of friends he’s hilarious. He’s a really outgoing person once you get to know him.”
After leaving the program following the 2015 U-17 World Cup, Olosunde embarked on his quest to secure a contract in Europe and eventually signed with Manchester United in March of 2016. He impressed with the club’s U-18 team before taking the step up to becoming a regular with the U-23 team last season.
Olosunde returned to Manchester last weekend as he embarks on another preseason with the club. No longer the wide-eyed newcomer, Olosunde is now focused on taking the next step in his development.
“Making my (first-team) debut is the goal,” Olosunde said. “I feel like I’ve improved a lot, especially technically, and I just have to keep working hard so I can impress the coaches and earn that chance with the first team.”
It might sound a bit ambitious for a 19-year-old to want first-team minutes at Manchester United, but Olosunde need only look toward some former teammates of his to see that such a goal isn’t that far-fetched. Pulisic has become a regular with Borussia Dortmund and the U.S. national team at the age of 18, while McKennie made his first-team debut with Schalke last spring.
“It really motivates me to make it to that level as well,” Olosunde said. “Seeing (Pulisic) do it makes me believe I can get there if I keep working at it.”
Pulisic has become the inspiration for an entire generation of young Americans trying to break through in Europe, and while his rapid rise surprised many, Olosunde spent years playing with Pulisic and isn’t at all surprised to see him shine.
“You could always tell that he was a level above,” Olosunde said. “Obviously no one knows how things will turn out but I always thought he would be a big player.”
Olosunde will be hoping to join Pulisic as the latest American to break through in Europe’s top flight, while also joining a list of Americans to play for Manchester United’s first team that includes Tim Howard, Jonathan Spector, Jovan Kirovski and Giuseppe Rossi.