In this episode of potential US National Teamers-who-are-not-yet-eligible ("The Inbetweeners"?), two exciting prospects of African origin but with American stories have contact with their birth-nation's soccer federation, throwing their international futures in to doubt and giving the red, white and blue clad faithful reason to worry that they're set to lose out on yet more promising young soccer talent

The Democratic Republic of the Congo isn't messing around when it comes to US-based prospects Steve Zakuani of the Sounders and Danny Mwanga of the Philadelphia Union.  In recent days both Zakuani and Mwanga have spoken about their their international careers, with word that the DR Congo is pushing to bring them in to the central African country's 132nd ranked national team. 

Mwanga isn't yet eligible for the United States, and it's not exactly clear when he will be.  Zakuani's situation is a little hazier; having come to the US to play college soccer by way of London, the 22 year-old's status for MLS purposes is "International", meaning that he doesn't yet have a Green Card.  That being the case, citizenship, and therefore eligibility, could be years away.

As recently evidenced by the decision of Yura Movsisyan to play for Armenia rather than wait for US eligibility (though Movsisyan likely extended the citizenship process by moving abroad to play in Denmark), players won't, and can't, sit around forever while opportunity passes them by.  DPR's national team is miles behind the United States in terms of ranking and potential World Cup qualification, but it offers the opportunity to play now rather than wait for what can be a laborious US citizenship path.  Mwanga may have the luxury, being 19, to wait a little longer; Zakuani's timeline is more crunched at 22.

Zakuani's recent comments to Extra Time Radio that he's "open to the US, but leaning towards Congo" (audio here, at 54:05) were surprising to at least one prominent soccer writer because they represented a slight backtrack on previous statements.  Ives Galarcep related via Twitter that Zakuani told him last year "I'm not American" in regards to his national team choice, something that is both true and forceful.  That Zakuani even mentioned the US yesterday is noteworthy, though it's not clear if it represents a new attitude or a pragmatic/polite approach on a league-run show based in the US.  Maybe Zakuani meant it, maybe he didn't.  It might not matter if he's not close to citizenship, a situation that would make the issue mute.

DR Congo has contacted Zakuani, so a decision might come soon.  If he does decide to play for the nation of his birth, it won't in any way represent his turning his back on the US.

Nevertheless, Zakuani's statement that he was leaning towards Congo was termed a "gut punch" by some, the implication being that the US would lose out on another potential contributor.  That characterization not only seems harsh, it's mildly extreme considering that Zakuani's American status was never guaranteed or necessarily expected.  For a national team always on the look out for quality players it might sting, but as a matter of "the one that got away" it's at the low, or nil, end of the scale.

Mwanga's status and potential to be a US international is much more of a question, and the possibility that he could agree to play for the DPR much more troubling.  Mwanga has always been more declarative in desire to play for the United States, as he was when telling that he has had contact with officials from the Congolese national team.

“I’ve been in touch with a couple of guys [from the Congolese national team] and I told them that I wanted to finish my season here first and to think about what I’m going to do,” Mwanga told “I told them that I was thinking about joining the US national team as well. So they know that and respect my decision that I’m taking my time before I decide which side I’m going to play for.”

Mwanga's citizenship is in-process with no distinct timeline. Rumors have swirled that he could be eligible for the US as early as next year, but no confirmation exists. At 19, Mwanga would has time to wait on a decision, perhaps choosing to put off declaring for either Congo or the United States until his citizenship timeline is more predictable. But with Congo applying pressure, he may feel the need to make a decision sooner rather than later; the MLS season ends for the Union on Saturday, and overtures from DR Congo will surely pick up in the coming weeks.

Mwanga is both talented and plays a position at which the United States is lacking quality options. Getting him in the team should be a priority, if for no other reason than to lock him up with an eye towards his further development. If Mwanga wants to play for the US, and he's given every indication that he does, US Soccer and Bob Bradley must convince him that it's in his best interests to pass on the Congo for now, wait until his citizenship comes through, and reassess his options at that point.

Mwanga choosing to play for the the Democratic Republic of the Congo after regularly saying that he would like to play for the United States would, without any room for question, be a "gut punch."
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