From the neighborhoods of Tamale, Ghana, to Francis Olympic Field: The men’s soccer assistant coach’s journey to the top
New Washington University men’s soccer assistant coach Oscar Umar has been a game-changer for the Bears this season as the team fights for its first outright University Athletic Association title since 1999 (and its first title since sharing the championship with three other teams in 2012).
Umar’s journey to WashU reflects the talent, determination and profound love for soccer that has made him such an asset for the Bears this season.
“He’s brought the drive since day one,” sophomore John Daniels said. “He’s like, ‘It’s gonna be intense. We’re gonna act professional. We’re gonna train like the top team.’”
Joining the coaching staff in April 2021, Umar came in with quite a resume: A four-varsity-letter athlete at Villanova University, a member of the 2012 All-Big-East Third team and an All-Big East AP Preseason selection in 2013. And that is just college. A former professional soccer player with then-USL championship Richmond Kickers and, more recently, St. Louis FC, Umar has achieved at 28 what many can only dream of.
His journey began in Tamale, Ghana, where he was born and raised in a big family, helping his dad with farming. It is in Tamale that Umar first fell in love with the game of soccer and through kicking around in his neighborhood with friends developed his ambition to go to the top.
While Umar was falling in love with soccer, many European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom were establishing academies in Ghana that they hoped would produce the next big African soccer superstars. Getting into the academies was extremely competitive, but Umar’s opportunity eventually came when he got accepted into Tom Vernon Academy (now called the Right to Dream academy).
Despite his success, Umar acknowledged that he could not have made it to Vernon alone. Specifically, he credited his success to his older brother, who played for Fire, a Dutch team with an academy in Ghana. His brother left Tamale to go to the academy in southern Ghana. “When he had to leave home and stay there when he got that opportunity, that motivated me. I started taking soccer seriously, doing all the little extra work just to get better myself,” Umar said.
With the first step toward his soccer ambition reached, Umar packed to leave for southern Ghana to attend Vernon. After four years of grueling hard work both on the pitch and in class, Umar earned the opportunity to travel to the United States to attend Kent School, a private boarding school in Connecticut. There, Umar continued both his education and his dream of becoming a professional soccer player. But despite the readiness Vernon gave him to play soccer in the U.S., the culture shock at Kent School, he recalled, was immense. Sitting at the western front of Connecticut, Kent School challenged young Umar.
“I’m not gonna lie, there were some challenges,” he said. “But with support, I was able to overcome them.” At Kent, the weather was far more frigid than what he had become accustomed to in Ghana. He recalled a time when he was playing a game late in November when he realized how cold Connecticut really was. “At halftime, I went into the locker room, and I went to the bathroom because I couldn’t feel my hands,” he said. “And so I went into the locker to turn on the hot water [for my hands], and it was painful.”
Despite the tough transition to life in the U.S., Umar’s career at Kent was a success. In the three years he attended, he led the school to its first playoff appearance in more than two decades and appeared in the New England Prep School Finals in 2009 and 2010. After graduating from Kent, Umar was offered a scholarship to play for Villanova, which he happily accepted.
In his four years at Villanova, Umar was a hit. He started the majority of his games during his time with the Wildcats and provided a couple of assists in the process. After college, Umar’s main goal was to get drafted by a Major League Soccer club, but lack of interest and a couple of failed trials pushed him to find another path.
Umar landed a job at IBM, but that was not enough for him. Soccer was his passion; he felt he did not belong in the office environment.
In 2017, his hard work finally paid off when he signed his first professional contract with the Richmond Kickers. “I signed with an option [to play another year]. After that season they were impressed with me and so they signed me to the 2018 season,” he said.
But with the Kickers deciding to join USL One, the third tier of American and Canadian soccer leagues, Umar decided to switch his allegiance to St. Louis FC for the 2019 season, as he wanted the competition of USL Championship. With his talent, the switch to St. Louis FC was smooth. But after joining, he said, “the pandemic, and a lot of injuries… really affected [my game].” Having already been an assistant coach at Cabrini University in Pennsylvania, Umar started thinking about his coaching career a bit more. So last April, when an opening at WashU presented itself, Umar was ready.
“Oscar is charismatic and he always has a smile on his face. And it’s not fake, he’s happy,” WashU men’s soccer head coach Joe Clarke said. “He’s done a good job building relationships, and he has a good approach with players. He has a lot of standing with them when he’s commenting because it’s so relevant, timely and it’s experienced.”
Clarke described the coaches’ relationship as a partnership. “I consider our work together very horizontal. It isn’t vertical, it’s not me dictating him,” he said. “He’s capable and has a good experience. He runs good sessions with parts of the sessions that he’s doing. I know that I don’t have to worry about that and we’ve got to be on the same page going in the same direction.”
The sessions Umar leads are apparently the joke of the team. The team “loves joking with him and his warm-ups… as [they are] like fitness sessions [that] always get us tired, but he laughs it off,” Daniels said. “We all respect him. And that goes a huge way.”
Seniors Armando Sanchez-Conde and Nao Yanese shared similar perspectives on Umar.
“He’s like an old wise dude in the body of a 28 year-old,” Sanchez-Conde said. “One moment you see him as a friend, but the next moment he’s an old sage with so much wisdom and a lot of energy.”
“Oscar is one of the most approachable guys I know. And in practice or during the games, I always feel like I can just talk to him if I feel like I want to get his perspective on something or if I have any questions about certain things,” Yanese said. “Even outside of soccer, I feel like I can easily approach him to talk about personal things.”
The players’ ultimate goal is to continue to build that sort of friendship with Umar that extends beyond the field, Sanchez-Conde said. “Maybe if we graduate… us seniors… can all go out to eat together or something,” he said.
The WashU community is clearly lucky to have Umar. His experiences playing professionally have been an asset to the team, and as the Bears prepare for their first playoff run since 2016, they will need him on the sidelines if they are to perform at the level they have been performing at all season. He’s [been] a huge part of our success, we all believe that and we’ve had a great season,” Daniels said. “We’re going to keep trying to finish the season strong and Oscar is a big part of that.”
Clarification: We have updated this story as 10:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 8 to include the correct year the Bears were last co-champions of the University Athletic Associatiation. Our previous update, from Sunday, Nov. 7, said the Bears were last co-champions in 2011; the team shared the title with three other teams in 2012 after sharing it with Case Western Reserve University in 2011.
More on the men’s soccer team’s best season in years: