The path to American second division soccer for players and coaches alike is usually a long and winding one. That goes tenfold for Thabane Sutu, the accomplished yet unassuming goalkeeper coach for Louisville City FC.
BY KEVIN KERNEN | PHOTOS COURTESY EM DASH PHOTOGRAPHY
A native of Lesotho, a country of two million and about the size of Maryland, Thabane Sutu comes from modest South Africa beginnings.
One of two sons to a nurse and civil servant, he had his fair share of chores to do around the house before he could play soccer in the streets after school days, something that all boys would join in on. While he had a comparatively comfortable childhood, Sutu didn’t start playing organized soccer until he was spotted by South African coaching legend and then-Lesotho National coach April “Styles” Phumo at age 15, when the coach founded an amateur team, Arsenal FC, in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru.
After school they would train in the national stadium; it was a side project for Phumo. It was here Sutu cultivated a dream to go on and play professionally, not something many Lesotho players had the opportunity to do. His Arsenal team had to begin play at the third and bottom rung of the completely amateur soccer pyramid in Lesotho before quickly gaining promotion to the premier A Division in 1988.
While cutting a swath through the ranks of Mosotho soccer, Arsenal gained a reputation as a hard, grafting team and were disliked amongst the rest of the established soccer guard. Sutu was an important part of the team, although not usually the best or most physically gifted player on the pitch, he was a student of the game and always eager to learn, a trait he has yet to lose.
Sutu was part of the Arsenal team that ran roughshod over Lesotho soccer and won the Lesotho top flight in 1989, 1991 and 1993, and they claimed the domestic cup twice in his career there. With this success, came continental competition in the African Cup of Champions (equivalent to UEFA’s Champions League) and in the African Cup Winners’ Cup (comparable to the secondary UEFA Europa League). The 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup campaign would prove to be a turning point for Sutu.
Coming from such a small and unproven soccer playing nation, Arsenal had to win a qualifying home and away series in order to join the continents’ elite clubs in the competition proper. Their first matchup was against Mozambique title holders Clube de Gaza, in which Arsenal stole a 2-2 draw away from home and earned a 1-1 tie on home soil to advance on goal differential, a massive upset in the competition for an amateur team.
The result saw the Lesotho minnows drawn against Egyptian giants Al-Ahly in the succeeding round of 16, a gargantuan task. Arsenal were staring down an impossible game, but went out and still performed admirably, miraculously only conceding a single goal at home, largely thanks to what Sutu called one of his best performances as a player. At that moment, Al-Ahly was looking for a goalkeeper to backup club stalwart and national goalkeeper Ahmed Shobeir, and after a yeoman’s effort in the first leg, Al-Ahly took a closer look at Sutu. during their reception for Arsenal in the run-up to the decisive second leg, they gauged his interest, something that took Sutu off guard.
“I didn’t know how to react (to) something that had never happened before. I was thinking ‘Wow, all the things that I had been dreaming about have literally just happened right here, right now.’ ”
He didn’t give them a commitment in Egypt that day, however, because he needed to speak with his coach and family back home.
Sutu signed with the 39-time league champs on June 23, 1993, realizing his childhood dream.
It was a big change for the young man from South Africa going from playing in front of a few thousand in his native land to training in front of 20,000 people and playing in front of attendances that regularly pushed six digits, not to mention adjusting to an entirely different culture and language. The biggest club in all of Africa and the Middle Eastern soccer world, Al-Ahly has no fewer than 100 trophies in their cabinet from domestic and continental competitions, and maintained a high level of excellence in part thanks to their manager, Englishman Allan Harris. Bringing his experience as a player with more than 300 games of experience in English football and also serving as an assistant under Terry Venables at league-winning Barcelona, Harris would influence Sutu’s coaching acumen more than any other figure. Although he never quite broke through to the first team, Sutu did gain dozens of starts for the Egyptian giants.
During this exciting time, Sutu captained the Lesotho national team as well, racking up nearly 30 caps between 1994 and 1997. Where the most senior player generally assumes the captaincy, Sutu gained the armband in a more unexpected way. In an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier 1994 against a Cameroon team fresh off a World Cup showing in the United States, and after a long flight from Cairo to Johannesburg, Sutu made his way back to Lesotho to find the national players in a dispute with the national association over unpaid stipends. Despite Cameroon already being in Lesotho, the game was at grave risk of being called off, something that wasn’t unheard of in the cobbled-together nature of soccer in the region at the time. Not one to waste his long journey home, Sutu brokered a deal between the association and the players to split the gate receipts, and as a result of his work between the players and the association, he was handed the captain’s armband, all of this before the match even transpired. The game was a shock 2-0 win for the hosts, a result that Sutu says was the proudest of his four-year tenure between the posts for his national team.
After a respectable excursion abroad, Thabane decided to hang up his gloves in 1998 and return to his roots at Arsenal to coach the nation’s top youth prospects, something he knew he wanted to do the duration of his career. The move meant he was closer to his eventual wife, Motselisi, whom he met the previous year. The daughter of a Presbyterian ministry director, Motselisi found herself back and forth between Lesotho and Louisville, Kentucky, where her father studied. After several month of coaching in 1998, and after long consideration, Sutu left his position in the Basotho national setup coaching youth prospects to move to the U.S. with his soon-to-be wife and to study exercise science at the University of Louisville, a move he would reflect on as a great decision.
Despite leaving all of his accomplishments and notoriety a continent behind, Sutu would return to the coaching ranks soon enough. He joined the Trinity High School coaching staff in 2000 after he was spotted playing pickup soccer one day in Seneca park and played briefly for a local team, the Cosmos. He moved on to local youth team United 1996 FC the following year, after he was brought on by Founder/Director Mohamed Fazlagic, where Sutu still holds the position of technical director.
Fast forward almost 15 years: Sutu was invited to talk to the representatives of the newest USL-Pro team, Louisville City FC, looking to start play in 2015. GM Bjorn Bucholtz and Head Coach James O’Connor were looking for a goalkeeping coach. The initial talks were more informal, with O’Connor and Sutu feeling out each other’s coaching philosophy. Sutu was asked back for a more formal interview along with a couple of other goalkeeping coaches, and Sutu won the job. He slotted into the coaching setup well, joining Daniel Byrd as the third member of the staff, satisfied with the established hierarchy.
In addition to being the goalkeeping coach for Louisville City FC and technical director at United 1996 FC, he also holds the position of co-head coach at Louisville Collegiate High School.
What a winding path indeed.