DeKALB – Neither Brent McIntosh nor Akim Suraji knew what to expect when the DeKalb coach put the senior from Ghana into a scrimmage against Kaneland this summer.
Suraji had approached McIntosh late last season, hoping for a spot on the team, but McIntosh told him he’d have to come back in 2013. The Kaneland scrimmage was the first time he’d see Suraji play with his team.
Only a few minutes had passed in that summertime scrimmage before Suraji settled the ball, took on two defenders and blasted a shot into the back of the net. Just like that, McIntosh knew DeKalb’s 2013 fortunes had changed.
“Within a matter of minutes, he scored a goal, and it was a dynamic goal,” McIntosh said. “Right away, we saw, ‘Wow, he’s pretty special.’ ”
A few months later, Suraji has scored 15 goals and has five assists as DeKalb has steamrolled its way through the first six matches of the conference schedule.
Similarly, Suraji had no idea what to expect from the Barbs when he arrived in DeKalb last year to join his mother, who had moved here a year earlier, and his step-father, who has lived here for several years. He didn’t know he’d have a similarly talented strike partner up top in Dylan Hottsmith. He had no idea DeKalb had dynamic playmakers in Trevor
Freeland and Sean Woodford in the midfield.
In his soccer-breathing home country, where he played varsity soccer since his freshman year, American soccer isn’t held in high esteem.
“They don’t see it to be that good. Coming here, I was thinking that, but it’s not as easy as I thought. I’m working hard and I’m adjusting to my physical level,” Suraji said. “I came here, I see people play, and there are good teams and good players. At DeKalb, we have good players, but we need to work on it.”
The way Suraji has meshed with the parts already in place in DeKalb has turned the Barbs into a legitimate force to be reckoned with in the Class 3A playoffs. DeKalb already had plenty of talent after winning back-to-back Northern Illinois Big 12 East titles, but Suraji brings skills that his team simply didn’t have.
“He’s so creative with the ball, he’s so dynamic in small spaces, he does a good job of engaging defenders and going to the goal,” McIntosh said. “He’s very hungry for goals. He’s just brought that kind of dynamic attitude to our team that has definitely benefitted us.”
Suraji said he’s had to adjust physically, and his fitness is always improving. But the biggest adjustment from soccer in Ghana to soccer in DeKalb is the team attitude that surrounds the Barbs.
“They don’t criticize us on our mistakes,” he said. “They let us know it’s the scoreboard that matters, no matter how good you play. It’s just a team. We’re a unit on the field.”
When he came to DeKalb, he wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to balance his time with school and soccer. But he’s realized that his time on the soccer team has been crucial to his assimilation, and he and the Barbs have benefitted greatly from the partnership.
“We’re not only a team, we’re a family, too, and I’m happy to be a part of it. It’s not only about soccer, you get to meet new people,” Suraji said. “Everybody has what he is good in, and we all help each other in different ways.”