It was grass and farmland as far as Leo Sosa’s eyes could see. The flat landscape and country roads stretched out in every direction. He was in a new country, a long way from home, on his way to a new school and a new life in the middle of nowhere. “I looked out the window,” said Sosa with a warm smile, “and asked myself, ‘what am I doing here?’”
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He was heading to Concordia, Kansas – population 4,200 – and about a million miles from where he started. “If you’ve been to São Paulo then you know: it’s like New York City – so picture that, but with many, many more people!” the FC Wichita midfielder told ussoccer.com, his English smooth and still accented with his native Portuguese. He considers life’s twists and turns and how they can catch you off guard and drop you right where you’re meant to be. “I came from a place where I’m taking trains, subways – everything’s packed all the time and there’s a crunch of people everywhere and traffic and noise….and then here I am, all of a sudden, in Kansas.”
(Since 2015, FC Wichita has gone from strength to strength in the NPSL)
Sosa never heard the word Kansas before. He didn’t know anything about it – where it was, what it meant. “I looked out the window and I thought, ‘what am I going to do? How will I make myself busy here?’” he laughed, on the eve of his team’s 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Third Round game against NTX Rayados in Dallas.
Sosa & Kansas: A Love Affair
But Sosa fell in love with Kansas. “I guess I just realized I didn’t want all that other stuff anymore. The craziness,” said Sosa, the son of former Uruguay international and professional player Charles Sosa. The 25-year-old was reared in the academies of some of Brazil’s top clubs. Juventus first and then Corinthians, where he spent his formative years between 8 and 16 playing with and against the likes of future global superstars Neymar Jr. and Marquinhos. He learned his trade as a deep-lying midfielder with vision and smarts. He was called into camp for Brazil’s youth national teams and he had a future spreading out in front of him with a ball at his feet.
“At my first school in Kansas, at Cloud Community College (in Concordia), they took me in and they treated me like family,” said Sosa, who remembers his father’s lessons – the way he always stressed the importance of education. Charles reminded his talented son that soccer careers end early and you need to have a plan. “I was thousands of miles from everyone I loved, from my family and all of my friends, but they took care of me there in this little town in the middle of a new country. The people were so humble and they taught me the language. They treated me like their own family and I never forgot that.”
(Leo Sosa is among the top midfielders playing the NPSL - Photo courtesy of KWCH 12)
Sosa wasn’t the lone foreigner at Cloud – not by a long shot. The team, in his first year, was comprised of players from all over – Brazil, France, Spain and a handful of kids from Kansas too. “Can you believe that?” asked Sosa, who's developed a deep affinity for country music that his friends back in Brazil find puzzling. “All of us there in the middle of Kansas. We all learned so much every day. We learned so much from each other.”
One thing Sosa didn’t need to learn was his way around the field. He brought with him from Brazil a technical ability and tactical awareness that was above and beyond that of his teammates and opponents. He stood out in the Western Division of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference. He won everything on offer before transferring to Friends University in Wichita, where he still has one semester in his business administration degree before graduating in December. In 2015, he was called in for preseason with United Soccer League (USL) pro team St Louis FC, but his international status complicated matters and he was passed over. Reading United and Ocean City Nor’easters, Premier Development League (PDL) sides always on the hunt for top talent, came calling too – but Sosa couldn’t afford a plane ticket to Pennsylvania or the Jersey Shore.
“That was the year FC Wichita started up and so I decided I’d stay the summer in Kansas and play with them,” said Sosa, who likes to talk about being in the right place at the right time – on the field, in the Open Cup and in his new home in the geographical middle of a vast country. And just like he was in his first steps in Concordia, Sosa was folded up into the community at his new club, competing and making big waves in the amateur National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). “The people just made me feel at home right away – they treated me so well. The love was just crazy. I got offers to go to different teams, but I just didn’t want to leave Wichita. I’ve been here ever since.”
FC Wichita, a Club on the Up
With players like Sosa and the Tayou Brothers (Frank and Uzi) and all-time top-scorer Matt Clare, FC Wichita has grown into an NPSL power. They won their region two out of the club’s three years in action and they’re now just one game away from meeting a Major League Soccer (MLS) team in the Fourth Round of the 2018 U.S. Open Cup. The win in the last round, a 4-3 scorcher over USL pros Tulsa Roughnecks, was considered a shock result to those outside the club. But Sosa and Co. don’t think so. “We expected to win, so for us it was no upset,” said Sosa, who was in the side that was unlucky to lose out to Saint Louis FC 3-4 at this same stage in the 2017 Open Cup. “We let something slip away last year. We’re ready to do it this year for real – we know we have the quality to win.”
The next round is a tricky test against NTX Rayados, wild card amateurs from Dallas, Texas who also beat pro opponents in the Second Round. Both teams know the winner gets a dream date with a top-tier pro team and, as a result, Sosa expects fireworks, “It will be a battle,” said the midfielder, a sudden steel in his voice. “Two amateur teams fighting to play a first division [MLS] team. It’s all or nothing and a chance to put yourself out there to show how good you are. There should be lots of contact – lots of physicality. We’re not gonna’ give up and neither will they. Everything’s on the line.”
(FC Wichita are now one win away from playing an MLS team in the 2018 Open Cup)
Regardless of what happens, Sosa’s found a home. And that’s no small thing. If, as he expects, FC Wichita put down stakes as a pro club in the next few years, he’ll remain there and play the game he loves. If he has to travel to realize his dreams on farther fields, he won’t turn his back on the state of Kansas and the city of Wichita, where he’s been welcomed so warmly. “It’s a peaceful way to live life here,” he said, thinking about the long road from there to here and then to now. “Wichita is a pretty big city, but in 15 minutes you’re out there on those country roads again. You’re watching the sunset. They say there’s no place like home and you know it when you find it.”