By his own admission, Ngapolo Bloom, 23, was skeptical about moving to Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US. He hoped instead that, with his contract with Kaizer Chiefs coming to an end, he might get a chance to play in Europe.
But after six months and part of an exciting St. Louis City success story, the Bafana Bafana midfielder says it was the right move.
“To be honest, I had doubts in my mind because I thought the style of football was not like what we do back home,” said Bloom. Daily Maverick.
The newest team in MLS – what the Americans call an expansion franchise – broke new records for a rookie team, climbing to the top of the table and handily looking for a place in the season-ending playoffs.
Bloom was one of the last pieces of the puzzle as the team was put together over the past year by Coach Bradley Carnell and Athletic Director Lutz Pfannenstil.
He had only six months left at the Chiefs and was adamant that he wanted to move on. St. Louis paid a bargaining fee and is pleased with the purchase.
“The way he slides up the pitch makes me nervous. Sometimes, I think his legs look like they’re going to stumble and he’s going to hurt himself, but he’s a good addition,” enthuses Pfannenstiel.
Bloom says the level of football in the North American League, where Lionel Messi is set to make his debut later this month, has surprised him.
“I know the MLS is not ranked among the best leagues in the world, but the level of football is very good. It’s not what people outside think.”
Increasingly, it is no longer a retirement haven for big names (with the exception of Messi) but rather a league full of promising young players. European clubs have spent more than $100 million buying players from MLS clubs over the past two years and Bloom hopes to be part of the future migration.
“But for me now – apart from football – to be alone, to learn new things in a new country, to meet new people,” says Bloom.
For a while, he says, he wanted to break away and find a chance to “grow up as a young man.”
“Also, I wanted to be alone and be outside of my comfort zone. I feel like when you know what you want in life, you’ll be able to make those risky decisions.”
It was certainly more uncomfortable than Bloom had thought, when he first arrived in the United States. It took time to get his papers in order, which meant he was falling behind when he joined his new teammates in pre-season preparation, and had to make up for his fitness.
Then came the bout of covid-19. But in recent weeks he has finally managed to find a regular place in the team.
“I came here to learn. I didn’t come here to prove any points. I think when you have that kind of thinking, it’s easy to adapt to it,” Blum says.
“In the beginning I couldn’t keep up with the players because the tempo was so high and they used to take the ball away from me. But, like I said, I came with a learning mentality.
“When you join a new team, I wouldn’t necessarily say you have to prove yourself, but you have to earn respect from your teammates.”
However, any transition has its bumps along the way. “Sometimes you come to training and you miss your family, you feel like you don’t want to train. You’re frustrated. It’s not easy, but it’s part of what we do. It’s part of what we love to do.”
Adaptation also depends a lot on the personality of the individual.
“Most of the time I go to training and then go straight home because I’m more introverted. It’s not like I don’t like being with other people, but I prefer my own space,” Bloom says.
“But I know I have to change that – be more outgoing and spend more time with my teammates. That’s one of my comfort zones I need to break out of: being more like with the guys… I’m not perfect yet but I’ll get there. I’m getting better day by day. I’m trying to get better day by day.”
Bloom says he still spends hours on Skype talking with his mother and brother back home. He also plays the FIFA video game with fellow South African Tiki Netsappling who is at FC Dallas.
St. Louis rides high
He made his MLS debut in St. Louis’ opener, coming on after just 17 minutes for an injured teammate and helping the new club to a shock 3-2 victory over Austin FC, one of the best in the previous season.
St. Louis went on to win their first five games—a record for an expansion team—and have since won 11 of 20 games to sit atop the Western Conference. Bloom says he’s generally happy with what he’s done so far.
“I think there is always room for improvement, but I think I’ve done really well so far.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve had rusty games where I could have done better, but I think the only thing I have to work on now is my consistency.
“Sometimes I’m up there, sometimes I fall a little bit. I think I have to find my performance and be able to stay there. But so far, so good. I’m happy with the way we’re playing and helping the team get the most points.”
His advice now to his compatriots offered a chance to play in the MLS?
“Come and play, because it really is a great springboard to go to and grow. It’s like an introduction to a high level of football.” DM
This article first appeared in The Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication DM168, available nationwide for R29.