Kind of a ‘big deal’: Ansu Kanneh made pro soccer debut at 14, hopes to revive career at GCU after injury

Ansu Kanneh, once the youngest player in the USL Championship at 14, reflects on overcoming setbacks as he pursues his soccer dreams at GCU. (Photo courtesy of GCU Athletics)

PHOENIX – Stepping onto the pitch for Phoenix Rising against LA Galaxy II on Oct. 3, 2020, Ansu Kanneh was at least a year and a half younger than anyone else on the field.

In fact, at 14 years, 10 months and one day of age, Kanneh was four months younger than anyone who had ever played in the USL Championship at the time. Prior to Kanneh’s debut, only one 14-year-old had ever played professional soccer in the United States.

However, breaking records wasn’t on Kanneh’s mind.

“At the time I wasn’t really thinking about it,” Kanneh said. “I was just trying to play soccer. I was like, ‘I’m here. I’m having fun.’ Now looking back, it was a big deal. But back then, I didn’t understand how big of a deal it was.”

Kanneh, now a 17-year-old sophomore at GCU, has had three years to contemplate just what an accomplishment that was as he tries to get his career back on track after he suffered serious injury a year after his Rising debut. In an odd twist of fate, his former Rising team takes on Charleston Battery Sunday in their first USL Championship final since 2018, while Kanneh watches from afar.

After looking like a sure thing so early into his career, the setbacks Kanneh had to endure have helped him develop resilience and a work ethic that was shaped by his remarkable life of defying the odds since childhood prior to Rising.

He moved to Glendale from Liberia when he was 10 after his mother was selected for the Department of State’s Diversity Visa program. Only 55,000 visas are issued worldwide every year.

Kanneh’s talent as a soccer player immediately stood out. At the age of 12, he scored 32 goals for North High School’s freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams. A year later he scored 20 goals for the varsity team, playing against athletes up to five years older than him.

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Scouts from all over the Valley started noticing him. His current coach at GCU, Mike Kraus, was made aware of him while working as the Academy Director for Real Salt Lake and started tracking him.

However, Rising got to Kanneh first.

Former Rising manager Rick Schantz noticed him at a scrimmage against local youth players, all of whom were older than him. Kanneh scored five goals and was instantly signed to Rising’s academy.

Within a month he was promoted to the first team. For the first time since coming to America, Kanneh was playing against fully grown adults, some of whom were old enough to be his dad.

“They were pros,” Kanneh said. “That was their job, they were there to make money. I’m this kid that’s having fun while they’ve got kids home that are probably my age. Sometimes I was like, ‘That could be my dad.’ But it was fun. They all helped me. They try to make me better every day. So it wasn’t that weird. They tried to make me comfortable as much as possible.”

Kanneh wasn’t the first name on the team sheet anymore, something that he found difficult after years of being a star at the youth and high school level.

“I was a little challenged because I wanted to progress,” Kanneh said. “Not just being part of the team. I should be making an impact on the team, which is making the travel team, playing games, getting game time. So I was pushing myself.”

Kanneh got his first breakthrough late in the 2020 season, when he was selected for Rising’s squad against LA Galaxy II on Oct 3. With Rising comfortably winning 4-1, Kanneh made his debut in the 87th minute. Despite the momentous occasion, Kanneh was only focused on soccer.

“Before the game, to be honest, I was pretty nervous but when I got on the field it was just soccer,” Kanneh said.

However, disaster soon struck. He tore his ACL the season after he made his debut. Both mentally and physically, it was a serious setback for Kanneh.

Although his professional prospects were diminished, he was in the unique position to go to college earlier than most due to being a year ahead when he arrived in the United States and because of online classes that were available to him at the academy.

As well as paying for Kanneh’s medical bills, Rising helped him find an alternative path to progressing through the academy.

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“They tried to get me onto the right path, moving from the pros because they knew for me, mentally, it was going to be hard, but at the time I didn’t understand how hard it was going to be,” Kanneh said. “They were just trying to set me up for the future.”

Kanneh made the decision to play for GCU over a raft of other suitors, joining the team in 2022 when he was 16. Even now as a sophomore, Kanneh is the youngest on the team.

According to Kraus, it can be a tough learning curve for Kanneh at times.

“Each day there’s other guys around him that might have experienced some troubles and some mistakes and things that you learn and grow from,” Kraus said. “He’s experiencing some of those day in and day out. But he’s learning from them.”

However, if there’s anyone who would learn from mistakes, it’s Kanneh.

“I have a growth mindset,” Kanneh said. “Like every single day I come here, I’m ready to learn again. I’m ready to get back to myself, and every day I make sure I talk to my coaches – and not just about soccer, but also life in general.”

Despite his often “goofy” demeanor off the pitch, his diligence and effort during training stands out to his teammates.

“Sometimes we’ll be partnered up together during drills and he’ll just be super focused and even ask me questions to explain to him,” GCU defender Samuel Lossou said. “Like, ‘How is this working?’ He’s definitely focused on trying to implement his game into how we play.”

Kanneh’s work ethic is even more impressive considering the obstacles he’s had to overcome.

Kanneh had to rehab an ACL injury when he was 15 while also overcoming disappointment at experiencing a career setback, and without the presence of most of his family who still remain in Liberia.

“It’s tough because the majority of my family are over there,” Kanneh said. “It’s just me and my mom here in Phoenix for the most part. I talk to my family back home, but sometimes I wish I could just go home, especially to see my grandma. She’s my favorite person ever. Just being away from her for six to seven years now is a lot. Sometimes I’m like, ‘I wish one day I could just go and see her and come back.’”

Kraus is consistently impressed by Kanneh’s dedication.

“He has a passion for the game,” Kraus said. “He’s one that is always staying late to do extra work. He’s coming in on his own to do extra stuff, whether it’s physically or technically with the ball. He’s a player that has a great internal motivation and drive to become better.”

After not playing his freshman year, Kanneh’s improvements in training sessions have not gone unnoticed by the GCU coaching staff.

“He’s getting better every single day in training,” Kraus said. “There are more and more training sessions that he’s become influential in, and we’re just waiting for those to become consistent. He’s definitely progressed from last fall and the spring. Being more consistent every single day is his next step to making the final jump.”

After experiencing so many setbacks so soon into his young career, Kanneh is on the right track to succeed, both on and off the pitch.

“Since being at GCU, there’ve been setbacks, like with my ACL injury,” Kanneh said. “Coming here, I’ve had to build my confidence and try to get back to myself.

“Every day is pretty much a fight. But I have the right team behind me, the coaches that make me understand that it’s not just about just soccer, but it’s about life.”

William Scott(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

William Scott expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Scott has interned as a communications assistant at Phoenix Rising football club.