James Togbah Rockets to Success

by Michael Lewis

On Wednesday, James Togbah received some unexpected, but happy news. He was named to the Major Arena Soccer League team of the week.

"Really? No way," he said after being told. "Wow, that's awesome."

That honor came after a rather awesome performance against high-flying Utica City FC. The Kansas City Comets defender recorded a hat-trick and assisted on another goal in the 9-6 home win on Sunday.

Three goals for an attacking player is pretty decent accomplishment in arena soccer, but for a defender to accomplish that feat, well, that is a rare occurrence.

The 23-year-old Togbah downplayed his achievement because he felt he underperformed in an 8-5 home defeat to the St. Louis Ambush.

"It was huge," he said. "We needed that win, especially after the defeat in St. Louis. Against St. Louis I didn't play well, up to my standard, at least. When we played Utica, I told myself I have to step up because my performance in the past wasn't up to par. It wasn't about me scoring three goals. It was about as a person. I have to step up and do my duty as a defender so we can get a win."

Entering the Comets' home encounter against the Mississigua MetroStars on Sunday, the 5-10, 170-lb. Togbah has scored eight goals, second best on the club, setting up three others. Four of those are power-play goals, which lead the league.

"He's really good on going forward," Comets head coach Kim Roentved said. "He has lots of speed. He's still a young player, still green in some areas. When I picked him up last year as a free agent coming out of Wichita, I knew he had a boatload of potential. I expect bigger and better things from him in the future.

"He still makes mistakes from the defensive standpoint, but he's so eager to do well for us that sometimes it's hard to blame someone when they work hard. Sometimes I keep telling him 'Let’s work a little smarter instead of too hard.' He's the nicest young person you can meet. He listens and the rest of the team loves him. I'm glad he's on my team and not on anybody else's team."

Of course, Togbah has some pretty good mentors on the Comets. Let's start with Roentved, a lethal goal-scorer as a defender back in the day in the original Major Indoor Soccer League and then with the National Professional Soccer League. Roentved forged his reputation as an attacking defender with the Wichita Wings before continuing his career with the Comets, the Wings again and finally with the Kansas City Attack.

For the record, Roentved, a 17-time indoor all-star and a member of the Indoor Soccer Hall of Fame, tallied 380 goals in 731 indoor matches, a remarkable rate for a defender.

When asked if he knew of Roentved's rep, Togbah quickly replied with his coach's playing nickname, "Oh, yeah, 'The Rocket.' "

When asked if Togbah had any playing characteristics that reminded him as a player, Roentved responded, "I never had even close to his speed. That would be the biggest difference. I survived with having a little common sense in there and we are working on that with James. And I look back on my point I said earlier. He's probably trying a little too hard at times in there, but as long he gets to learn a little bit more about the ins and outs and takes his time when he goes forward. He's tough to go by and he's strong. You've got to have a lot of speed to beat him. He has all the tools, but this is only his second year. There's a lot more good things to come."

It's about refining Togbah's indoor game.

"We're working on not trying too much," Roentved said. "He's eager. Probably with his energy, he could play the whole 60 minutes in there. We're trying to say, 'How about 30 seconds or a minute at a time? And then focus on a little bit more on your responsibilities instead of trying to do somebody else's job.' He's still learning. He's adapting very quickly. I am more than happy with the progress he’s getting help from some of our other veteran players. And, he's a quick listener and a quick learner, which is a big part of the game."

Togbah certainly is self-aware. He realized that he is still transitioning from the outdoor to indoor game.

"Sometimes I get caught ball watching," he said. "That will help me sometimes because I will intercept the ball when I'm watching the ball. It will hurt me when I'm too focused on the ball and I let my man go and then if I can't reach the ball, it’s a problem. I definitely have to improve on that, staying with the ball and with the man the same time."

His other mentor on the Comets is veteran forward Leo Gibson, who has tallied some 202 goals in 169 appearances for the team over the past decade.

"I'm still learning the game," Togbah said. "My secret is that I try to listen as much and get as much information as possible from the guys who have been there and done it. So, I will question, and I will listen. I am good at taking criticism. I think that's been my secret. I always ask after games some of the guys, 'Hey, what do you think?'

"The guys who have played 10 years like Leo Gibson, I look up to every day. Especially for my success, Leo has been a key to it. He took me to his house one day and watched the game. He told me what positions to be and what time and how to read a game. I owe everything to him."

Togbah missed the tail end of last season due to a trial with the LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer. He didn't get an opportunity to sign, but it was worth the experience.

"They invited him because they saw some potential in him, too," Roentved said. "But I guess the position they wanted to sign him for, the competition was just too high. They ended signing somebody else. I'm just glad that nobody discovered him."

For a 23-year-old, Togbah has seen the world, thanks to soccer.

He and his mother left Liberia in 2008, five years after the country's second civil war, and settled in the United States. He attended Beech Senior High School in Tennessee and Eastern Florida State for two years before venturing to Europe for a professional career. He was on trial with some Swedish and Norwegian clubs before signing with Pembroke Athleta of the Maltese Premier League. He then went on to play with FK Jūrnieks in the Latvian third tier before his visa expired.

"I became more open minded, more diverse in things," he said. "I view things differently. I can't speak it fluent, but I learned some of the languages in order to get by. Definitely, traveling and playing football expands your mindset."

Togbah hooked up with FC Wichita in the National Premier Soccer League, as he became one of the league's top outside backs as he was honored as the conference defensive player of the year.

Someone told Roentved about Togbah and he decided to watch him play. He saw a diamond in the rough playing in his old stomping grounds. He liked what he saw and felt fortunate he was able to sign the defender.

"Sometimes, the luck of the draw I guess," he said. "I didn't really discover him. Sometimes it's not what you know, but who you know. Somebody called me up and said, 'You've got to take a look at this James Togbah. He has some talent.' "

Roentved invited the defender to a tryout during the 2017-18 season.

"It took me no more than five minutes to figure out that he has some talent. I didn't hesitate signing him," he said. "If it wasn't for his opportunity to go to MLS last year with the Galaxy, I would have signed him last year to a multi-year contract. That didn't pan out, so we were lucky enough to get him back to the Comets. hopefully, we will keep him here for a long, long time. I mean, he could potentially be a franchise player when it's all said and done."

A pretty strong statement for a man who earned the nickname "The Rocket" and who was a franchise player himself.