Special Report on Lansing United: Part 3 — The Franchise’s First Signing

Lansing United’s first signing has quite a story behind him.

From South Africa to the MLS to Lansing, 33-year-old Thabiso “Boyzzz” Khumalo was revealed as Lansing United’s first-ever signing and the key building block that the team’s predicted success will be built around.

Khumalo will wear no. 10 as a player-coach when Lansing United's season begins in May 2014.

Khumalo will wear no. 10 as a player-coach when Lansing United’s season begins in May 2014.

“I decided to join the team because I want to help the sport of soccer to grow not only in Lansing, but the country,” Khumalo said in a statement released by the team. “I think I can help the team develop because I have played in all different levels. As a player and a coach, I can relate to the players and I can help players to improve each and every day.”

Thabiso or “Boyzzz” (Boy-ZEE) as he singularly is known by will act as a player-coach during Lansing United’s upcoming summer season.

“’Boyzzz’ is the first committed player which is huge,” head coach Eric Rudland said. “I think he helps us attract better players to play with a guy who has his pedigree of soccer and his experiences. Some of these younger players would be pretty thrilled to play next to him.”

Khumalo’s journey to Lansing began at the age of 16 when he came to the United States from his home country of South Africa. He left his family and all the comforts of home to settle in Kentucky as part of a student exchange program. During the first couple of years in his new country he excelled at the high school level of soccer earning him a chance to play for one of the most successful NAIA college men’s soccer programs in the country at that time.

The striker/midfielder’s success on the field would continue throughout his college career as he would be awarded for when he would ultimately be drafted by the Chicago Fire in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft.

Khumalo would, however, struggle to break onto a starting roster and spent years bouncing around lower divisions of professional soccer. Ultimately, “Boyzzz” would return home to South Africa after his vision of playing professionally began to dissolve. However, in 2007 Khumalo was enticed by a former teammate to return to America and play soccer again.

Eric Rudland (head coach/GM, left), Thabiso "Boyzzz" Khumalo (player-coach, center), Jeremy Sampson (Owner/CEO, right).

Eric Rudland (head coach/GM, left), Thabiso “Boyzzz” Khumalo (player-coach, center), Jeremy Sampson (Owner/CEO, right).

After returning to the U.S., “Boyzzz” was given the opportunity to try out for D.C. United, a MLS club, and he would ultimately make their squad. Khumalo would play three seasons with D.C. United before being waived by the club in 2010.

In 2013, Khumalo would join the assistant coaching staff of Madonna University’s men’s soccer program which included Lansing United’s future head coach Eric Rudland.

“Eric is a good guy and I just met him three or four months ago at Madonna and I just got here,” Khumalo said. “I have learned a lot from Eric already. I am looking forward to working with him and hopefully learning more from him.”

Khumalo is currently the only signed player for Lansing United. “Boyzzz” will wear number 10 and most likely act as a creative central midfielder as well as a role model for the young athletes who will be placed around him.

“Having somebody to build your team around who’s four years removed from playing in the MLS is amazing for us,” owner Jeremy Sampson said. “The thing about “Boyzz” is he’s a great teammate and younger guys who are in college are going to want to play with somebody like him. He’s a playmaking midfielder and he’s going to get other people involved and they’re going to love playing with him.”

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Khumalo’s Story: From South Africa to the MLS to Lansing

* * *

Coming To America

Thabiso Khumalo was born Oct. 27, 1980, in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. Nicknamed “Boyzzz” (Boy-ZEE), Khumalo came to the United States as an exchange student from the township of Soweto. He lived with a host family in Bardstown, Ky., and blossomed into a soccer star at Bethlehem High School.

“In the beginning, it was very difficult,” Khumalo said in a 2008 interview with the Washington Post. “Where I come from in South Africa, I was surrounded by black people. In Kentucky, my host parents were white and almost everyone in the school was white.”

Despite the cultural difference, Khumalo chose to stay in the U.S. for years to come and to continue to excel at soccer. After high school he chose to stay close to his new home in Bardstown and attend Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky., which was only a hour and a half away. Along with location, Lindsey Wilson College also offered other advantages for Khumalo, including one of the nation’s top NAIA men’s soccer programs. Prior to Khumalo’s commitment to Lindsey Wilson, the Blue Raiders had won five of the last six NAIA National Championships from 1995-2000.

Khumalo began his college career in 2001 with a bang. As a freshman, “Boyzzz” played in 24 games and started 19 for the Blue Raiders. The freshman forward was the team’s second leading scorer with 21 goals and 11 assists. Khumalo’s 2001 performance led to him becoming the first-ever freshman to win the NAIA National Player of the Year and an additional National Championship for the Blue Raider men’s soccer program.

The following season Khumalo lead his team in scoring with 26 goals and 20 assists. The sophomore forward played in a total of 23 games while starting 22 matches. For the second year in a row, Khumalo was named a First Team NAIA All-American.

After his sophomore season at Lindsey Wilson, Khumalo elected to transfer to a NCAA Division I soccer program. “Boyzzz” moved out of Kentucky and into South Carolina when he transferred to Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

During his junior year, Khumalo led the Chanticleers to a program-best 20-3-0 record and a Big South Conference title. Khumalo earned First Team All-Big South, the NSCAA/Adidas First Team All-South Atlantic Region and Third Team All-America honors in 2003. His seven goals and ten assists made him one of the more dangerous players on his new team.

During his senior campaign at Coastal Carolina, Khumalo started 20 of the 23 games he played in and tallied eight goals and 16 assists becoming one of the nation’s leading assisters and earning MVP honors at the Big South Tournament.

Throughout Khumalo’s college offseasons, “Boyzzz” also played seasons in the Premier Development League with the Michigan Bucks (2001-2003) and the Chicago Fire Premier (2003-2004).

* * *

Breaking into the MLS

In 2005 the Chicago Fire drafted Khumalo 36th overall in the 3rd round of the MLS SuperDraft.

Khumalo spent the next two years with lower division teams trying to break into the MLS. In 2005, he tallied one assist in 19 games with the second-tier Charleston Battery. In 2006, the South African signed for a third-tier team in Wilmington, N.C., the Wilmington Hammerheads. There the striker/midfielder recorded only one goal and two assists in 1,205 minutes of play.

Dispirited by his lack of success after college, Khumalo returned to South Africa in 2007 playing in the SAFA Vodacom League for Alexandra United. With Khumalo’s MLS dreams appearing to dissolve, former Battery teammate, Jason Kutney, the youth development director for the third-tier Pittsburgh Riverhounds, asked if Khumalo would be interested in returning to the U.S. and playing American professional soccer again.

“It was like a calling from God,” Khumalo said in a 2008 interview with the Washington Times.

Khumalo indicated his interest and returned to U.S. soccer. The South African led the Riverhounds in 2008 with six goals and three assists in 1,723 minutes of play and was selected to the All-League team.

This time Khumalo’s talent would not go unnoticed as D.C. United, one of the 14 MLS clubs at the time, had strong managerial ties with Khumalo’s new club, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. United’s General Manager, Dave Kasper, decided to bring “Boyzzz” to Washington for a closer look.

* * *

D.C. United

After getting a chance to impress D.C. United, Khumalo was offered a three-month loan that he signed in early Sept. 2008. He joined United’s starting lineup immediately and played a variety of positions for the Black-and-Red.

VIDEO: Get to Know Boyzzz

In his MLS debut and as a striker, he assisted on a goal from Jaime Moreno in a 2-2 tie with FC Dallas on Sept. 13, 2008. He scored his first MLS goal as a midfielder in United’s 5-2 loss against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Sept. 20.

VIDEO: Khumalo’s Goal against LA Galaxy

Khumalo completed his first ever MLS season with seven MLS appearances including six starts and tallied a goal and an assist in 468 minutes of play. Khumalo also started four and played in six CONCACAF Champions League games for D.C. United as well during the 2008 season.

After exciting D.C. United on a late loan in 2008, United signed “Boyzzz” before the start of the 2009 season to his first professional contract.

In 2009, Khumalo was a big part of United’s U.S. Open Cup run, playing in every of the team’s first five games and scoring three goals. The U.S. Open Cup is a knockout tournament that is open to all United States Soccer Federation affiliated teams, from amateur to professional. D.C. United would ultimately reach the tournament final against the Seattle Sounders and fall 2-1.

During the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup, Khumalo suffered a broken radius, which is one of the two larger bones within the forearm. The injury would liger as it would get infected and sideline “Boyzzz” for over nine weeks.

VIDEO: D.C. United’s U.S. Open Cup Semifinal

Khumalo would return with five games remaining on the Black-and-Red’s schedule and the South African would pick up where he left off scoring two goals and tallying an assist in the five remaining games.

In total, Khumalo played 19 games (11 starts) and scored five goals and tallied two assists in his first full season in the MLS.

VIDEO: Khumalo Speaks about Injury and Looks Ahead to 2010

However, after almost three seasons with D.C. United, the Black-and-Reds waived Khumalo during the 2010 MLS season. “Boyzzz” completed his MLS career with 27 appearances, six goals and four assists all in the black and red of D.C. United.

* * *

Post-MLS

After losing his roster spot on a MLS team, Khumalo turned to the Premier Arena Soccer League to continue his soccer career. In November 2010, the Louisville Lightning announced they had signed Khumalo to play in the 2010-11 season.

In March 2011, Khumalo signed a contract to return to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, then playing in the USL Pro league.

Most recently, Khumalo has joined Lansing United’s head coach, Eric Rudland, on the assistant coaching staff of Madonna University’s 2013 men’s soccer program.

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Special Report on Lansing United: Part 1 – A New Team, a New Era of Soccer in Lansing

Special Report on Lansing United: Part 2 — The Head Coach

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Jonathan Yales is the host of Corner Kick for Impact Sports

Photos: Jonathan Yales

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