Bafana Bafana midfielder Njabulo Blom is blossoming in the US at St Louis City
The midfielder says the high standard of football in the Major League Soccer has been a pleasant surprise and he’s happy he made the move.
By his own admission, Njabulo Blom (23) was sceptical about a move to Major League Soccer (MLS) in the US. He had been hoping instead that, as his contract at Kaizer Chiefs neared an end, he might get a chance to play in Europe.
But, six months later and part of a sensational success story at St Louis City, the Bafana Bafana midfielder says it was the right move.
“To be honest, I had doubts in my mind because I thought the style of football was not anything like we do back home,” Blom tells Daily Maverick.
The newest team in MLS – what the Americans call an expansion franchise – has broken new records for a rookie team, climbing to the top of the table and looking handily placed for the end-of-season playoffs.
Blom was one of the last pieces of the puzzle as the squad was put together over the past year by coach Bradley Carnell and sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel.
He had six months left at Chiefs and was adamant that he wanted to move on. St Louis paid a bargain fee and are delighted with the purchase.
“The way he glides over the pitch makes me nervous. Sometimes I think his legs look like they are going to buckle and he will hurt himself, but he is a quality addition,” enthuses Pfannenstiel.
Blom says the standard of football in the North American league, where Lionel Messi is due to debut later this month, has surprised him.
“I know that the MLS is not rated among the best leagues in the world, but the standard of football is very good. It’s not what people think outside.”
Increasingly, it is no longer a retirement haven for marquee names (apart from Messi) but a league full of promising young players. European clubs have spent more than $100-million buying players from MLS clubs over the past two years and Blom hopes to be part of a future migration.
“But right now for me it is – apart from football – being away alone, learning new things in a new country, meeting new people,” says Blom.
For a while, he says, he wanted to break away and find an opportunity to “grow as a young man”.
“Also, I wanted to be alone and be out of my comfort zone. I feel like when you know what you want in life, you will be able to take those risky decisions.”
It was decidedly more uncomfortable than Blom thought, however, when he initially arrived in the US. Getting his paperwork in order took time, which meant he was behind when he joined his new teammates in their preseason preparation, and he had to catch up on his fitness.
Then came a bout of Covid-19. But in recent weeks he has finally been able to forge a regular place in the team.
“I came here to learn. I didn’t come here to prove any points. I think when you come with that kind of mindset, it’s easy to adapt,” says Blom.
“In the beginning I couldn’t keep up with the guys because the tempo is very high and they would get used to taking the ball from me. But, like I said, I came in with a learning mentality.
“When you come into a new team, I wouldn’t necessarily say you have to prove yourself, but you have to earn respect from your teammates.”
Any transition, however, has its bumps along the way. “Sometimes you come to training and miss your family, feel like you don’t want to train. You’re frustrated. It’s not easy, but it’s part of what we do. It’s part of what we love to do.”
And adaptation also depends a lot on the individual’s personality.
“Most of the time I come to training and then I go straight back home because I’m more of an introvert. It’s not like I don’t like to be with other people, but I prefer my own space,” says Blom.
“But I know I must change that – be more extroverted and spend more time with my teammates. That’s one of the comfort zones that I need to come out of: be more like out there with the guys … I’m not perfect yet but I’m getting there. I’m improving day by day. I’m trying to improve day by day.”
Blom says he still spends hours on Skype talking to his mother and brother back home. He also plays the Fifa video game with fellow South African Tsiki Ntsabeleng, who is at FC Dallas.
St Louis riding high
He made his MLS debut in St Louis’s opener, coming on after only 17 minutes for an injured teammate and helping the new club to a surprise 3–2 win over Austin FC, one of the previous season’s high-fliers.
St Louis went on to win their opening five games – a record for an expansion team – and have since been victorious in 11 of 20 outings to sit at the top of the Western Conference. Blom says he is generally happy with how he has done to date.
“I think there’s always room for improvement, but I think so far I’ve done well.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve had rusty games where I could have done better, but I think the only thing that I have to work on now is my consistency.
“Sometimes I’m up there, sometimes I drop a little bit. I think I have to find my performance and be able to stay there. But so far, so good. I’m happy how we are playing and I’m helping the team to get maximum points,” he says.
His advice now to compatriots offered the chance to play in the MLS?
“Come play, because it’s really a great stepping stone to go to, to grow. It’s like an introduction to a high level of football.” DM
This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.