October 17, 2007

Yonga's Versatility Paces Men's Soccer

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Maybe it’s insufficient athleticism. Maybe it’s sheer stubborn pride, but by the time they reach the Division I level of soccer, few players are prepared to play anywhere on the field, and even fewer can play each position well. Cornell has found such a player in junior Joe Yonga.
In his first year at Cornell, Yonga proved himself quickly and earned a spot on the starting line. He has since played all over the field. Even though he was a staple in the defense last year, Yonga has moved into the midfield this season.
Head coach Bryan Scales emphasized Yonga’s influential role on the team in the past few years.
“Joe has been a versatile, consistent top player for us since his arrival,” Scales said. “His athleticism allows him to play a number of important positions for us, which isn’t always the easiest thing for a player to get used to. He reads the game well, is good on the ball and can win aerial duels.”
Coach and players alike seem to be in complete agreement that Yonga’s versatility is invaluable to the Red.
“Joe is very athletic and important to our team,” said senior tri-captain Jarid Siegel. “He is a great soccer player but what separates him from many other players is his versatility. He probably enjoys playing center midfield the most, but when we have needed him to step up in the back line, he has been solid.”
Yonga was born with soccer in his blood and grew up playing in Minnesota. His family played a powerful role in his ambitious young soccer career. Yonga’s father was born in Cameroon, where soccer is typically the favorite sport. His father moved to the United States for college and brought his love of soccer with him. As a five-year old, Yonga’s parents placed him on a Under-10 travel team and Yonga had no choice but to pick up the game quickly.
“I got completely dominated,” he said. “I don’t know if I touched the ball all season … When I finally turned 10, I had been playing so much longer than everyone else that I naturally was one of the best players on the team.”
Travel soccer became increasingly competitive as Yonga got older and his father — who was also the coach — became committed to developing the team into the best team in Minnesota, a goal reached by the time the team played in the U-16 division.
“As the coach’s son, he was harder on me than anyone else on the team,” Yonga said. “I constantly pushed to train on my own outside of practice and make myself better in ways the others players weren’t. I didn’t understand him at the time, but he had my best interest in mind and I thank him for it because today I have the opportunity to play at this level where many of the kids I played with five years ago, who were some of the best players in the state at the time, are no longer playing.”
Yonga’s commitment to self-improvement has not changed, and last summer he trained with a Major League Soccer team, the Chicago Fire. The Fire’s coach, Dave Sarachan, knew Coach Scales from when they both coached here at Cornell in the 1990s. Yonga had the opportunity to defend alongside C.J. Brown, a veteran MLS player and all-star, and play with younger players he remembered having watched on TV while they were in college.
“I made mistakes now and then and was yelled at by other players for it, but there were times when I felt equal competition to some of the better players in the MLS,” Yonga said. “Upon leaving, I realized that there is no substitution for being in great shape and being technically sharp. They were great fundamentally, whereas I was good at best. I realized that there were very simple parts of my game that needed improvement.”
Yonga readily attributed much of his current success to his family.
“My family has been very influential and supportive,” Yonga said. “My dad constantly pushed me to work harder and be better, while my mom convinced me to stick with it when I thought things got too difficult. Good people they are.”
Coach Scales praised Yonga’s family support and similarly attested to his continued efforts to improve.
“He comes from a wonderful family and has been an important factor in our continued improvement as a program each year,” Scales said. “He works very hard to become better each day, which for one of our top players, is a powerful message to the rest of our players. Without him, we are a completely different team.”