Bongokuhle Hlongwane is a Loon! Minnesota’s first big-news offseason signing is a 21-year-old South African forward. I’m not going to pretend I know anything about him; Andy Greder wrote that “his nickname is believed to be ‘Bongy’,” which is frankly a great way to introduce any new player.
What we do know is that Hlongwane has been at Maritzburg United in the South Africa Premier Division for four years, and was rumored to be headed to one of South Africa’s big three - Mamelodi Sundowns, Kaizer Chiefs, or Orlando Pirates. We also know that he’s been part of the South Africa national team, pleasingly called Bafana Bafana, and has scored two goals for his country - including one against Ghana in World Cup qualification.
What all of that means is anyone’s guess. Playing for the national team is good, but South Africa isn’t exactly an international powerhouse; they haven’t qualified for a World Cup that they didn’t host since 2002, and they failed to qualify for this year’s African Cup of Nations. The South African Premier Division appears to be Africa’s fifth-ranked league, and last year both the Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs reached the CAF Champions League quarterfinals, with the Chiefs going all the way to the final before losing to Al Ahly of Egypt.
So Hlongwane is good enough that he was a transfer target for some of the better club teams in Africa, as well as an exciting prospect for what is perhaps Africa’s tenth-best international team.
The videos with the club soundtracks - for there are always videos with dance music, no matter how obscure the player - show that Hlongwane appears to have a good touch, to be comfortable shooting with both feet (though perhaps most comfortable with his left), and to be at least a passable header of the ball. The clips show him playing as both an inverted winger on the right, cutting in to shoot with his left (this is how he scored his goal against Ghana in the World Cup qualifier), and as a traditional forward on the left-hand side. They also show him scoring two goals for Maritzburg in which the defense disappears so abjectly that you’ll rewind the clip to try to figure out what happened; we’ll call that “finishing ability.”
We also know that one of Minnesota’s greatest-ever players was South African. Patrick “Ace” Nstoelengoe played for Minnesota for virtually the entire run of the Minnesota Kicks, scoring 50 goals (according to Wikipedia) over six seasons, then returning to play for the Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa in the offseason. (This is also where I note that the Kaizer Chiefs, one of South Africa’s big three, were started by Kaizer Motaung, who played for Atlanta in the NASL - and named the team he founded after the Atlanta Chiefs, his NASL team. I just love that fact, that the NASL still lives on in such a strange way.)
I have to assume that Hlongwane’s motivation in signing with MLS is motivated as much by a desire to put himself in the shop window, so to speak, as anything. Looking down the list of South African national team players, there are a lot of guys in the South African league, a couple in other parts of Africa, and a handful in various European backwaters. I’m guessing it’s hard to get noticed as a young player from South Africa, even if he was to sign with a bigger club like Kaizer Chiefs or Mamelodi Sundowns. Say what you will about MLS, but it’s clear that its young players get noticed in Europe, and it’s clear that its clubs are motivated to develop young talent.
In that way, it feels similar to many of MNUFC’s other moves, where they’ve brought in players from places that aren’t exactly famous for soccer talent, and fans have done the same things that I’ve noted above. It’s the internet-enabled dance of the international transfer. Check Soccerway for his stats; marvel at how it’s possible that they’re so detailed. Read his Wikipedia article, if he has one. Search his name on Twitter and YouTube. Do exactly what I’ve done above, and try to build up some kind of coherent narrative, for it’s only the truly insane internet prospect hound that would already have been keeping tabs on a youngster from Pietermaritzburg.
So welcome, Bongy Hlongwane, to the land of Ace Ntsoelengoe. We’re looking forward to seeing you play in person, rather than through the random scraps we’ve collected from the internet.