Dreamer to Top Keeper: Rashid Nuhu Holds Union Omaha’s Hopes TightWe take a closer look at reigning USL League One goalkeeper of the year Rashid Nuhu, his journey to the States from Ghana and his crucial role in Union Omaha’s underdog run to last year’s Open Cup Quarterfinals.
Thanks to the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana, he was not only able to get an education in the United States but is now thriving in a pro soccer career and reigning as USL League One’s top goalkeeper for a second straight year.
"I'm very appreciative about the Academy. This was an opportunity to get an education,” said Nuhu, a native of Ghana and one of the heroes of Union Omaha's double-Cupset 2022 Open Cup run to the Quarterfinals. "I'm always grateful for that. I never take it for granted. There are kids who would love to be in my shoes and play football. I have to keep working."
Which Nuhu has. In 2021, he backstopped Union Omaha to a first-place regular-season finish in USL League One, in the third tier of the U.S. professional system, before the team captured the national championship. To top that off, Nuhu has been named the league's latest Golden Glove winner with an over 70-percent save percentage.
Big Experience Pays off
Nuhu, 27, would not be in the position he’s in if not for the Right to Dream Academy.
He joined the Academy when he was 12 years old. Three years later, he accepted a four-year scholarship to attend the Kent School in Connecticut. In many respects, he was following in the footsteps of his older brother, Razak Nuhu, a former Ghana international left-back who signed with Manchester City and played on loan with clubs in Norway, Cyprus and Saudi Arabia.
Nuhu said the organization has helped many “young talented African players to follow that dream to become a professional soccer player and get an education…They keep working with the kids to become better people in general.”
When he first came over to the States, Nuhu admitted he didn't know what to expect -- although he got useful advice from some former Academy students.
"So you kind of had an idea," said the goalkeeper who made save after save in 2022 Open Cup wins over MLS sides Chicago Fire and Minnesota United last year – before losing out to eventual Semifinalists Sporting Kansas City. "You didn't really have the full experience."
Departing from Accra and landing in New York City can be quite the culture shock, as Nuhu learned.
"That's definitely a shock even though I've been to Europe," he said. "It's definitely a big shock, how big the city is, how tall the buildings are. When I came [officials]…showed me around on what to do or what not to do."
New England Winters Need Adjustment
Nuhu was not prepared for the weather in Connecticut.
Accra has a tropical climate. Temperatures can range from a low of 66 degrees to a high of 102. The country's mean temperature is 83. In contrast, Kent experiences four seasons and temperatures can range from very cold (15 degrees) and snowy (an average of four feet a year) in the winter to temperatures as high as 82 in July.
"When I came, it was the fall. It was pretty decent," he said.But then came the change of seasons.
"I didn't have any winter clothes," said Nuhu, who went out and immediately purchased a heavy coat. "I don't think I'm used to it [the cold] yet."
One thing the 6foot1, 174-lb Nuhu is used to is stopping shots.
Not unlike many goalkeepers, Nuhu became one out of necessity. When he was 11 years old, the regular keeper of his youth team didn't show up and his coach asked one of his defenders to fill in.
"I was like the tallest on the squad. I was like ‘yeah, sure, why not?’" said Nuhu, who played right and center-back at the time.
Growing into the No1 Spot
It wasn't a one-shot deal. "I played well," he said, adding that he enjoyed denying and frustrating the opposition with save after save. "Stopping guys from scoring, I just had joy at that," he added. "Guys were shooting as hard as they could. They got mad at me. I was doing my job."
Nuhu began to learn the intricacies of the position: when to come out of the net, when to stay home and how to stop penalty kicks.
So, not surprisingly, Nuhu learned something about shootouts too. Since coming to the States, he has participated in four and has won them all. Two came while guarding the Fordham University nets.As a sophomore, he stopped three penalties by Virginia Commonwealth University in the tiebreaker in the 2016 Atlantic Championship final, helping the Rams reach the NCAA Division I tournament while being named the Most Outstanding Player of the competition.
During underdog Fordham's amazing run in the NCAAs, Nuhu made three more PK saves against sixth-ranked Duke University to boost his team into the quarterfinals.
Then came the 2022 Open Cup's Third Rounder against the Fire. Nuhu made a few vital saves early on to keep Omaha in the match.
"Every time you play a team like that, at that level, you're going have to have two or three big saves early on to keep it going," said then Coach Jay Mims, who moved away from Union Omaha at the start of the current season. "He [Nuhu] gave us a chance those first 20 minutes, making two or three big saves and then after that the game settled down."
Omaha forced the shootout when second-half substitute and defender Alexander Touche scored from 12 yards to tie the game at 2-2 two minutes into stoppage time of extra-time.
Big Save Douses the Fire
On the Fire's sixth and final shootout attempt, Nuhu denied Miguel Navarro before Dion Acoff stepped up to drill his winning kick past keeper Richey Spencer.
Nuhu's general philosophy on penalties?
"Just stay calm," he said. "I can't get frustrated because whenever you start getting frustrated, you misread stuff. I just try to stay calm and have confidence. I'll just do my best. Hopefully, that helps us all out."Nuhu, who was chosen by the New York Red Bulls in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft before playing for Red Bulls II, explained his shootout strategy while he eyes the shooter.
"Kind of how they put the ball down and line up to the ball," he said, adding that he also looks for body language. "I just pick a spot and just go all-out for that spot."
It’s worked well in general, including two of the biggest wins in Union Omaha's four-year history – first against the Fire and then against 2019 Open Cup runners-up Minnesota United in the Round of 16.
The Nebraskans are already off to a good start as they try to set off similar fireworks in this year’s Open Cup. Nuhu was outstanding – predictably – in Union Omaha’s Second Round home Cupset of USL Championship side El Paso Locomotive.
And he’ll need to be so again in the Third Round when the Owls head to MLS’ debutant high-flyers St. Louis City with hopes of upsetting the established order yet again.
Michael Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Soccerwriter on Twitter. His book (ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers) is available for purchase.