Call him the Jennifer Lopez of Major League Soccer. New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul, acquired from the Colorado Rapids in June, hails from Lopez’ old neighborhood – Castle Hill.
The 27-year old was a teen when he left Senegal for the Bronx. He lived with three older brothers at Castle Hill and Westchester avenues. Coundoul attended soccer powerhouse Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Manhattan but spent his downtime in the Bronx.
“There under the 6 train,” said Coundoul. “My brothers, my sister and my uncle are still in the Bronx. When I go on vacation, I go to Castle Hill.”
Coundoul was born in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a West African country crazy for soccer. He always played goalkeeper; leaping and swatting at the ball helped him grow. Coundoul was a small child but stands 6-foot-2 today.
“In Senegal, soccer is the number one sport,” Coundoul said. “When I was six years old, someone told me “You have what it takes.” I never forgot that.”
The Bronx shocked Coundoul. Although he found a Senegalese-American team and a Riverdale team to play with, the teen had trouble adjusting to cold weather soccer.
“In Senegal it’s 90 degrees every day,” he said. “I got to the Bronx in October. It was too cold. In Senegal, we played until late. In the Bronx, at 5 p.m. it was already dark.”
Coundoul spoke no English; he relied on his brothers for help. Two are engineers; the third works for a telephone company.
“When I was in high school, there wasn’t pressure on me to work or pay rent,” Coundoul said. “My brothers supported me. They told me to focus on school and soccer.”
Coundoul won a spot at the University of Albany, where he studied information science. He left Albany in 2005 for Colorado, where he earned Major League Soccer humanitarian awards. Coundoul built a reputation on hard work and the tagline, “It’s Bouna Time!” He has appeared in only one game for the Red Bulls but is thrilled to be close to home. The team competes in New Jersey, a hop-skip-and-jump from Castle Hill.
“I know that my friends will come to watch me play,” he said. “It’ll be easier to hang out with my family.”
Now that Coundoul is with the Red Bulls, he hopes to “give back” in the Bronx.
“I want to talk to kids about the value of education,” Coundoul said. “Education first. Soccer second. Nothing is impossible. I want people from the Bronx to support our team.”