Pittsburgh Riverhounds forward Tola Showunmi has certainly taken the long road to get to Pittsburgh, but this season has provided him with a great platform for the rest of his career.
When you look across a roster of athletes, regardless of what sport you pick, it’s very rare that you’ll find two athletes who have made the same journey to get there. Each one has their own mix of triumph, good luck, bad luck and heartbreak to get there.
And in the case of Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC forward Tola Shuwunmi, that’s no exception. The Englishman might only be 23 years old, but he’s already gone through a number of clubs before making himself home in Western Pennsylvania this season on a one-year deal.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Pittsburgh Soccer Now, Shuwunmi talked us through his footballing life so far, how he’s settling into his new surroundings as well as the ups and downs that he’s been through in his debut season at Highmark Stadium.
Pittsburgh Soccer Now: Tola, I think the obvious place to start is the journey that you’ve taken to get here because you’ve certainly been around the houses. Borehamwood and Cheshunt in England, Merrimack College, The University of New Hampshire, Atlanta United and now the Riverhounds in the United States. How’s the journey been having bounced around so much at such a young age?
Tola Showumni: Looking back at it, it looks like a wild journey. When you’re in it, especially in England, I was just trying to have fun playing football. So I was kind of going where my mates were going and bouncing around teams like that. Every year has looked a bit different, and I’ve always just tried to complete my goals and move to the next target. And it’s funny how it’s kind of worked out like that if you look back at clubs and what’s happened.”
PSN: How did the move to the USA come about and Merrimack College specifically?
TS: I was planning to go to college in England and I just knew that coming to America to go to school was a possibility through soccer. I lived in London my whole life and really liked the city either wanted to go to college there or just maybe try abroad, try just a different scenery and I really just went to try a different kind of experience and see how it went.
PSN: By the way you’re amongst British friends here, you can call it football, don’t worry about that.
TS: Sounds good, perfect.
PSN: So why Merrimack specifically, was there something that drew you to them?
TS: So it was a funny situation, it was really late and that was only offer academically I was kind of considering with just the vast amount of schools in America, and I just wanted to make sure I got a decent education, so that’s kind of why I picked Merrimack. They started Division Two, but I knew they were going to Division One my sophomore year, which my goal was to play Division One football in America. So it kind of lined up and I just went for it.
PSN: And what was the decision behind switching and going to New Hampshire?
TS: I just felt like I had achieved my goals in Merrimack and I just wanted to see if I could push to a higher level and New Hampshire were a top 20 school nationally when I was transferring, so I knew if I went there I’d be able to showcase my talents to the scouts and see where it could go from there.
New Hampshire reached out to me and it was nice because they were only maybe an hour away so I got to watch a game there, introduce myself to the coaches and it kind of went from there.
PSN: Obviously then you got drafted out of college by Atlanta United in the MLS, but didn’t quite make the grade for them. How did you deal with getting cut?
TS: So it was obviously a great opportunity and I enjoyed my time there, but it was definitely tough not to get signed on there and I think definitely it’s hard in all sports to face the rejection and have to come back. But I just kept working hard, it wasn’t an easy process and it wasn’t easy to get my confidence back but with me I’m just going to keep working every day. Regardless if it’s going good or bad.
PSN: And then the move to the Hounds?
TS: After Atlanta I went back to college and did a graduate year. The team did pretty well, made the tournament and after the season I signed with an agent and was invited to the Riverhounds’ combine. It had maybe another 60, 70 players there on the day, you play some games and if you do well you get invited back to preseason so I just went for it.
PSN: How much did you know about the city of Pittsburgh and the Riverhounds before you came here?
TS: Actually not much at all really. I spoke to Point Park a bit for my first initial recruitment phase, so that’s about my knowledge. Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers I’d heard of, but not much. I didn’t know much about the Hounds, but I was happy to come here and join a club where the community cares a lot, the people care a lot, the players care a lot.
PSN: So how have you found settling into life in Pittsburgh, you’ve obviously moved around a lot but do you think this is somewhere that you could settle?
TS: I think I’m getting there. I think it’s been a good transition because the players have been really welcoming, the staff are nice and you feel that community sense. Even though it’s a city, you still feel the community after the games you get to speak to a lot of the fans with kids or families with parents and it gives you a good feel.
PSN: Have the team taken you to Primanti’s yet?
TS: No not yet, but that has been suggested a couple of times.
PSN: Now back to football. What’s this year been like with the Hounds? The team has had such a great season, has that helped you at all, starting off with an established team and a good franchise rather than one which loses every week?
TS: I would say it’s helped. I’m someone who’s competitive and always want to get better, so there’s no better place to be than on a team that’s competing for trophies. Maybe at the beginning I’d say it’s harder because the intensity is higher because we’re here to win, but I’m feeling comfortable and I feel like I’m improving, so it’s good.
PSN: So with a combined seven goals (4) and assists (3) this year you’ve made a reasonable impact in your debut season, but I just want to focus on two moments in particular. We’ll begin with your goal against FC Cincinnati in the U.S. Open Cup, and whilst it was obviously a late consolation goal, was there anything special in the fact that in that moment you’d managed to score against an MLS side?
TS: It was my first professional goal as well, I think it was a really cool feeling for it to come against an MLS team because I’ve had my rejection from MLS teams as well, so it was a good overall feeling to get the goal, get the first one off my back as well against an MLS team. The result was unfortunate, but it will definitely be a moment I remember.
PSN: And then the assist for Arturo Ordonez down in Tampa Bay this past weekend to wrap up the Player’s Shield. What was it like to play such a key role in not just a big moment in terms of the season but also the history of the club?
TS: Unreal, I would say just kind of shows the process, coming to a top team, fighting for your place, fighting every day and to be able to be in a moment like that, you almost have to be thankful that you get opportunities like that to win the league away and thankfully I was able to take it. So yeah, that’s a great memory, I won’t forget as well.
PSN: And then there’s just one final question. Obviously at age 23, you’ve still got a lot of your career ahead of you. What exactly what are your aims short and long term, there are still plenty of opportunities out there, the most obvious example is Jamie Vardy playing non-league at 25 for instance. So the world is still open for you, but what are your aims?
TS: I think it’s funny because it kind of goes with my journey. I dream as big as possible, but I take it day by day. So my only goal year to year is to improve as a player. And I feel like if I improve as a player who knows where I’ll go and that’s really the main goal.