The old question goes: Would you rather be lucky or good?
USL Championship side Tampa Bay Rowdies and their fans get both with Luckymore ‘Lucky’ Mkosana. The 35-year-old striker, who finished last year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in a three-way tie for top-scorer, is looking to make an impact in American soccer’s oldest tournament yet again.
“It’s such a good tournament,” said Mkosana, who scored four goals in last year’s Cup, flashing the same ever-there smile that infuses his play with a sense of joy and gratitude. “I always enjoy it when I play in the Open Cup.”
Mkosana’s been tangled up with the Open Cup for more than a decade. He lined up in the summer of 2011 with the Michigan Bucks (now the Flint City Bucks), famous for their giant-killing antics. And while he didn’t see any Cup action for those Bucks, he sure did with the now-defunct New York Cosmos – where the Zimbabwean striker scored in a famous Cupset of MLS’ New York City FC in 2015.
At Home in the Cup
“It [the Cup] brings back so many memories from the past,” Mkosana said after scoring one and setting up the other for the Rowdies in their 2-0 Second Round win over amateurs Nona FC. “Where I am now in my career, as an impact sub, it’s a way for me to get my chances.”
It’s not just getting the chances that keeps Mkosana smiling on the pitch. It’s taking them. He calls soccer his “way of detaching and feeling free” and says he’s “enjoying the game like a kid again” after regaining fitness ahead of the current campaign.
He’s a man who’s always sniffing around for half-chances. It’s a constant that goes all the way back to the game that got him noticed and brought him from his home country to the United States in 2007.
“We never watched cartoons,” he said of growing up in Zimbabwe where soccer was “the only sport anyone played. We were always outside and when you move to a higher level you get a sense of the passion of the fans. The effort has to be there because if you lose a game, you can tell the fans get really pissed at you.”
When he was still a teenager, in 2007, Mkosana got his biggest chance yet. It was a take-it-and-your-life-changes-forever kind of chance.
“It was one of those things, where I didn’t even want to go,” smiled the veteran, who went on to earn his first cap for Zim in 2018. “I’d tried out for a scholarship before and I didn’t like the process, but my friend kept pushing me to go…”
He went. And he dominated. “I think I scored five goals,” he said of the game, played at noon in the city of Bulawayo near his home village of Plumtree, in blazing sun and soaring temperatures. “I remember it vividly. There were no subs and we played 90 minutes. It was the hottest game I ever had.”
A Life-Changer Chance
Soon after, Mkosana boarded a plane for the first time in his life.
He’d earned a scholarship to study and play at Dartmouth College. But first he had to spend a year getting his grades up at Kimball Union Academy, a private New Hampshire boarding school. “My SATs weren’t good,” said Mkosana, now in his 11th season as a pro, about that transition year where he got his scores up, saw his first snowflakes and terrorized defenders in the private school leagues – scoring 37 goals in his one season there.
When he got to Hanover, he kept on making the most of his chances. He was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year as a freshman and later broke the school’s 50-year-old scoring record. Mkosana was named the Ivy League’s MVP his senior year and his 34 career goals still stand as the best in Big Green history.He left Dartmouth with a degree in international development. What he didn’t have, coming out of the Ivy League, was a guaranteed path into the top tier of Major League Soccer. He was picked 23rd overall in the second round of the SuperDraft by the Chicago Fire, but he never signed a contract with the club.
Instead he joined Penn FC (formerly the Harrisburg City Islanders), where his sharpness and nose for goal saw him score 22 times in 44 games. A stint at the New York Cosmos, and two NASL national titles, followed. There was a short time in Finland with IFK Mariehamn before he turned a loan deal into a permanent contract with the Rowdies in 2014.
And though he’d leave the Florida club (for Penn and Louisville City) before returning again in 2019, he made a firm connection to the city of Tampa. To the local club and its fans too.
Mkosana is a hard player not to like – always with a smile on his face or lurking somewhere near the surface. “Arms were always open to me here,” he said of the Rowdies where he wants “to stay and keep giving back.”
“Lucky is as consistent a finisher as you’ll find both in our league and in this country…” said Tampa Bay coach Neil Collins – once a teammate of Mkosana’s. “With his experience and knack for finding the right spots to pop in front of the goal and in the box, he’s really an ideal player for the kind of situations you find yourself in during a tournament like the Open Cup.
“But really what makes him a special player is his ability to always be ready to perform when called upon, no matter what the moment is,” the coach added.
Major League Opportunity for the Rowdies
A chance in the top tier of Major League Soccer eluded Mkosana through his long career. But now, in the 2023 Open Cup, he can show he’s got what it takes to get it done against the top pros in the land. It’s an opportunity that’s shared through the entire Rowdies’ squad.
Mkosana’s goal in the last round helped set up a home date at Al Lang Stadium against the 2018 Open Cup champions Houston Dynamo of MLS in the Third Round.
“These are the games we live for,” said Mkosana, chipping in this season as the Rowdies sit mid-table in the USL Championship’s eastern standings. “We’ll be seen as the underdog and we’ll give it all out there for the fans because they live for these games too.”
Tampa Bay haven’t hosted an MLS team in the Cup since 2013. And their Zimbabwean ace, in the autumn of his playing days, is ready, once more, to do his part in the Cup he’s come to love. “To beat them [The Dynamo] on our own field would bring big pride for us,” he said. “And for our fans too.
“With the guys we have, anything is possible,” added Mkosana, who’s made a career of taking the full and half chances that come his way. “Everyone is buying in and it’s a chance for us, against a top team, to show who we are.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.