Men's soccer

Stroke of luck: Asante goes from unknown recruit to explosive scorer at Syracuse

Ilana Dunn | Contributing Photographer

In his first season at Syracuse, junior college transfer Tony Asante has been a catalyst for the team's explosive offense through six games. The Orange is off to its best start since 1996.

The two weren’t supposed to meet that night.

Tony Asante had already committed to a local community college when he laced up his cleats for a summer league game at the Metropolitan Oval in Queens, N.Y. Marcus DiBernardo, the head coach of nearby Monroe College, went to the same game in Queens to watch one of his star players line up across from Asante.

But as the game went on, DiBernardo couldn’t take his eyes off Asante — and what Asante was doing to his team’s best player.

“Tony absolutely abused him,” he said. “As soon as he scored one or two goals, I thought this was a kid we needed to get. This is a kid that’ll go on to be something special.”

DiBernardo knew then what Syracuse knows now, and ended up convincing Asante to abandon his previous commitment and play for him at Monroe. After two National Junior College All-American seasons playing for DiBernardo, Asante transferred to SU and quickly became the focal point of this year’s turnaround season.

Asante has brought a heightened level of offensive energy to a team that sorely lacked it last year. Two years after his former head coach found him in that summer league game and brought him to Monroe, the Ghana native leads an explosive Syracuse offense — which leads the country in goals with 19 — in goals and points.

“When he crosses the white line, he’s an animal,” said senior forward Louis Clark. “He could play five minutes of every game and still get a goal or two.”

Two men saw the scoring potential in Asante that few others did. The first, DiBernardo, coached Asante’s cousin years earlier. That created an immediate bond between the two, and that meant a lot to Asante. Without that support, he said, his first day at Monroe would’ve been a lonely one.

And from that support, DiBernardo and Asante grew even closer.

Two years ago, Syracuse head coach Ian McIntyre flew to Tyler, Texas, to watch Asante at the NJCAA semifinals. On that trip, McIntyre became the second coach to see Asante’s talent.

Monroe chose a formation that fielded only one forward, so McIntyre got a long look at the prospect showcasing his skills in a unique game plan.

That’s when McIntyre’s plan first came into focus. If he could convince Asante to come to Syracuse, he’d have the electric, speedy player he could turn the program around with.

“He said he saw a lot in me,” Asante said about his postgame interaction with McIntyre. “So I came down to visit, and I saw myself on this team. I knew I could be a big part of SU Soccer.”

Asante’s mother, Georgina Ryan, agreed to McIntyre’s offer right away.

Ryan had seen Asante struggle to make friends and transition to life in the United States when the family moved from Ghana in 2010. She had hoped that living in New York City would bring out the best in her soft-spoken son. But despite his good grades, he only got scholarship offers from small community colleges before DiBernardo found him that night in Queens.

Asante was most comfortable when he was playing soccer, and when Syracuse offered to extend his playing career — as well as his education — she said she “couldn’t believe her luck.”

“I still have to think about it and how far he’s come,” Ryan said. “He was just playing pickup games in the city two years ago. I’m so proud of what he’s doing on the field and even prouder that he can get his degree from Syracuse. It’s not easy to move around like he’s done, but he’s done it.”

What separates Asante — and what makes him one of the most talented scorers SU’s fielded in years — is his ability to make difficult situations look routine. At Monroe, the team played under a “get-Asante-the-ball” motto, not an offensive system like Syracuse deploys that gets its players equal touches.

Weightlifting was another foreign concept to Asante during his two years at the junior college level. But in his two assists this season at Syracuse, he absorbed contact from bigger defenders before centering the ball to his waiting teammates.

“Heading to the weight room here was a little different for me,” Asante said with a smile. “I had to get used to being a little sore.”

There hasn’t been a learning curve for his goal scoring, though.

In the first half of SU’s last home game, Asante nearly chipped the Colgate goalkeeper for a score to end the first half. He leaned back as he watched his ball land over the cross bar, trying to reel the ball closer to the goal with his body language. When it didn’t happen, Asante put his hands on his head and smiled.

He wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

Six minutes into the second half, Asante capped a three-goal run by chipping the goalkeeper. His smile was even bigger this time around.

McIntyre can’t help but smile, too. His prized prospect is only improving with each passing game.

“He’s been the best player at every level he’s played at,” McIntyre said. “He’s made that jump happen and he has the talent to do that. It’s exciting to think about what he can do when he improves even further.”

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