There was never much doubt that Michael Vang would be a soccer player.
When he was barely older than a toddler, his dad — who grew up in France playing club soccer — showed his four kids Shaolin Soccer, the ridiculous but beloved 2001 film from Hong Kong that mashed up kung fu and football.
“We watched that movie and then right after that, we went out to the field and started playing,” Vang, 19, said in an interview Thursday. “That’s kind of how all of us started.”
They got their official start with a club called St. Paul United — a club their dad started when Michael was 5. It wasn’t limited to Asian Americans, but was intended to give opportunities to the Hmong and other Asian American communities around the Twin Cities to play soccer affordably.
Vang went on to play in the Minnesota Thunder development academy and for Shattuck-St Mary’s High School, a private boarding school known for developing elite athletes. He initially committed to play for the University of the Pacific in California, but decided to go the club route instead, playing in the Portugese third division for a year and a half.
“I just didn’t see anything happening for me so this past November, I came home,” he said. His older brother Brian, who was playing for UW-Green Bay, got an invite to the Forward Madison combine, and swung an invitation for Michael, who impressed coach Daryl Shore enough to earn his first pro contract in January.
It was a big moment for him, and a big moment in soccer history: with that signature, he became the first Hmong professional soccer player in American history. His brother became the second shortly thereafter, signing with the Michigan Stars in the National Independent Soccer League.
“I mean, me, being the first, and then my brother being the second, it’s crazy for us to think about it, because we never thought that we’d be in the situation we are in now growing up in not the wealthiest area in St. Paul,” Vang said. “There is some (pressure) but I try to block it out. I don’t like to think too much about it, just let the game come and see what happens.”
Vang said he grew up surrounded by Hmong culture as well as very supporting parents.
“(My dad) has just been a big influence. I don’t think without him or my mom, any of my siblings and I would be where we are today, because of the sacrifice and the money they put into us. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
In addition to he and his brother playing professionally, his older sister Maddie played at the Division I college level for the University of South Dakota and older sister Chelsea played through high school.
Being the nation’s first Hmong professional soccer player comes with one kind of pressure, but he’ll likely face another kind of pressure in the form of the shoes he’s being asked to fill.
“Josiel (Nuñez) was a big part of our team last year, and a lot of the game went through Josiel, and Mike’s really the guy that I think a lot of players see as being his replacement,” said head coach Daryl Shore, referring to the Panamanian international who was instrumental in much of Forward Madison’s attack in 2019. “Early on, in preseason, it’s pretty evident that Mike has all the tools to be a really good number 10. And he had started a good partnership with (striker Wojciech Wojcik), and was on the same page with Don (Smart) and Paulo (Junior). So, I think all of the guys are pretty excited to have him back on the field.”
Vang’s signing generated significant excitement, but Forward fans have had to wait to see him on the pitch. On top of the delay created by the coronavirus pandemic, a clerical error held up his international player transfer paperwork, and he’s missed the team’s first three matches. That’s all cleared up now, and he’s ready to go.
“I’ve been waiting a long time. Things happen, you gotta wait longer, but (it) just makes you more eager to get out there and start playing,” Vang said.
“He’s been sharp in training. He’s obviously fit to go, and he’s been good,” Shore said, adding that Vang is “100 percent” going to be on the 18-man roster that’s active for Friday night’s home match against South Georgia Tormenta. “He’s going to have every opportunity to see some minutes tomorrow and hopefully bring an added spark to our group. He’s got a really bright future. We think the world of him. We’re not trying to put any pressure on him or anything, but we think he’s got the ability to stretch games and open games up with his passing, and we really think that he’s going to be a big plus to our group.”
Vang said he hopes he can help turn the tide for the Mingos, who are 0-2-1 in their first three matches of the truncated 16-game season.
“As far as the training, we’ve been even sharper, and on each other more at practice, so we’ve got to do what we do in training (while) playing the game. And I think we can turn it around starting tomorrow,” he said. “I like to say that I’m a really creative and technical player. I like to help the team by either scoring or assisting. The main thing is to win. At this level, you’ve got to win, so that’s just what I hope (to do).”
Game time at Hart Park in Wauwatosa is 7 pm Friday night. The match will be televised on ESPN+ and locally on TVW.