Gideon Baah, in the fall of 2015, was strapped to a rocket and set for the stratosphere.
“These were good times,” said the 30-year-old Ghanaian, quick to laugh.
The defender, then in his early 20s, had led unfancied FC Honka to second place in the Veikkausliiga (Finland’s top flight). He was named Rookie-of-the-Year and the league’s best defender too. His play, in both defense and attack, earned him a move to HJK Helsinki, where he won a title and a chance to play in the UEFA Europa League group stages of 2014.
“Finland was the place to start because I wanted to have a big career in Europe,” said the soft-spoken Baah over the phone from his home in Morristown, New Jersey, recalling his opening goal in HJK’s famous 2-1 win over Italian Serie A side Torino.
“It was an amazing time and things were really happening. I mean the Europa League group stage is a high level. Aside from the cold,” the Ghanaian joked, “everything was great [in Finland]!”
Those two outstanding seasons in Scandinavia earned Baah a first cap for Ghana’s senior Black Stars, a 1-1 friendly draw against Canada in October of 2015 in Washington DC.
Ghana Debut a Dream Come True
“Every player, every kid, wants to represent his country. It’s just that pride you feel,” said Baah, who came on as a sub in the 87th minute. “I wasn’t surprised I was called up because I was in the shape of my life.”
His international debut was a long way from his roots as “just another kid on the streets of Accra, where people worship the game.”
But not all rockets clear the launchpad. It’s often the cruel reality of football. And life. Baah, one of the game’s top defensive prospects of the time, couldn’t have known that his international career wouldn’t extend past the five minutes he spent on the pitch at RFK Stadium that day.
He also had no way to know that it would be the likes of Шахтер" футбол клубы (FC Shakhter Karagandy of Kazakhstan) and its Shakhtyor Stadiony, not Real Madrid and its Bernabeu in his future.
“I had so many career-threatening injuries,” said Baah, who was handpicked by now-Leeds United manager Jesse Marsch to replace Chelsea-bound U.S. international Matt Miazga in his New York Red Bulls team ahead of the 2016 season.
MLS Next Step Proves a Tumble
It was a move which looked, on paper, so promising for club and player. But it turned into a mutual disaster. Baah tore his hamstring three weeks into the season. He rehabbed and returned, only to break his leg (for the second time in his career) against the Portland Timbers. That ended his 2016 season.
The recovery process proved trickier than expected and Baah missed the whole of the Red Bulls 2017 season – and their run to the Final of that year’s U.S. Open Cup. He managed only a handful of games near the end of the season with the club’s second team (Red Bulls II).
That’s where Baah’s time in Major League Soccer ended and his career prospects, once so bright, dimmed.
But despite on-field woes in the Garden State, Baah found personal stability. He made a home first in Pennsylvania and then in Jersey, raising two daughters there. It’s here that Baah will join the U.S. Open Cup in the First Round – usually the domain of Sunday-league dreamers and wide-eyed college kids.
“I’m here to take the club to new heights,” he said of Morristown, New Jersey-based FC Motown, whose colors he’ll wear in the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. “It’s a kind of a semi-pro team, but they do things in a professional way. There are a million clubs I could have joined, but I like this Motown bunch.
“They have a lot of good young players,” added Bah, who went on to play once again for Honka in Finland and then in the top flights of faraway Belarus and Kazakhstan as recently as 2021. “And maybe they can learn something from me.”
If the young locals from in and around New York City’s metro area can learn from Baah the way he learned first-hand from Michael Essien and John Terry, it will leave them in good stead.
Weird road to Chelsea trials
“[Ghana international Michael] Essien welcomed me to London and treated me well – he gave me a tour of Stamford Bridge and took me into his home,” Baah said of the “long time ago” when, as a 16 year-old, he won a reality show for top youth prospects in his native Ghana with the prize of a two-week trial at Chelsea’s academy. There he was able to see, and train with, some true legends of the game.
“Seeing all these big players. Big cars and their extravagant lifestyles was crazy, but on the field it was all very serious. It was their business and that was clear to me – and it stuck with me,” he said. “Watching guys like that you learn a lot about touch, composure, second touch – it’s basic stuff, but executed at the highest level it becomes something else.”
When he returned to Ghana after his Chelsea trial, Baah signed with legendary Kumasi-based club Asante Kotoko, where he won two Ghana Premier League titles. “This club [Kotoko] was a great springboard for me. The fans there are crazy and the expectation was so high that you learn there’s no room to be soft.
“I got all my confidence there,” he said. “I learned there how not to panic.”
It was at Kotoko that he grew into a talent with a ceiling somewhere past the clouds. It was also where injuries, those unprepared-for career threateners, began to appear. In a March 2010 game with capital giants Hearts of Oak, he broke his tibia and fibula.
“I’m still aspiring to play in Europe again,” said Baah, who’s working on his coaching licenses and managing Allentown United – a new club set for its debut season in NISA Nation (in the all-amateur fourth tier of the American game). “With my coaching and my playing [with Motown], I’m getting double sessions and that’s a good way to rebuild fitness.”
Baah’s not the only member of the FC Motown crowd with roots in the professional game. Dilly Duka, the 32-year-old veteran of four different MLS teams, is still putting an arm around the young ones and letting his experience and guile guide him on the field.
And coach Sacir Hot, who tapped Baah for this Open Cup run, came up through the New York Red Bulls academy and played one year in the first team before injury blunted his progress.
Experience Key to Motown Method
“A guy like Gideon [Baah] with his level of talent and the caliber he played at is huge,” said Hot ahead of the team’s First Round showdown with local rivals and three-time Open Cup participants West Chester United (March 22 live on ESPN+). “This is a player with serious ability and serious experience. Some of the young guys can be a little intimidated with a guy like that, and all he’s done.”
Baah, who missed out on the Red Bulls’ historic Open Cup of 2017 but did play the year before in a Fourth Round win against the Rochester Rhinos, has high hopes for this year’s Cup.
“The goal is to move as far as possible,” he said. “Not many teams have the chance to play for the Open Cup and I know what it means.
“I’ll be disappointed if we don’t find a way to meet one of the big teams from MLS,” said the experienced Baah, before adding, quietly, as if to prove his faith remains strong: “I think we can.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.