TEMPE, Ariz. — For Andrew Wheeler-Omiunu, this year’s goals are simple.
“Just to play,” he said. “To play and get better.”
Starting the season with FC Tucson, he worked his way up to Phoenix Rising in May. He then showed his value, picking up League One Team of the Week honors and his first Rising goal last Friday, both within the space of a week.
Soccer isn’t the only thing that defines Wheeler-Omiunu. Two years ago, he secured his economics degree from Harvard. A few months later, he unveiled his singing skills at the request of an MLS club.
Soccer is his focus now, however, and Wheeler-Omiunu knows not to take playing time for granted. In the past two seasons, he spent almost all of his time warming the bench with MLS club Atlanta United.
“He was kind of in no man’s land, you know, going between the first team and the second team,” Rising coach Rick Schantz said. “Not playing on either squad, really … and Andrew said that he wanted to come to Tucson because he wanted to play.”
Wheeler-Omiunu was let go by Atlanta over the winter, clearing a path for him to rejoin Darren Sawatzky at FC Tucson – a coach he’d previously played under with Seattle Sounders U-23.
“I had kind of asked Darren and I said, ‘Hey, I need you to get guys that you know, and that you like and you trust,’” Schantz said. “And with a short, short time to build the roster, he went after guys that he knew and Wheels was one of them.”
Despite dropping down from the first tier of U.S. soccer, the coaching staff noticed no corresponding drop in attitude from a player who admitted he’s just grateful to play the sport.
“When you get players that have come from MLS, you either get guys that they think they don’t belong here, they should be at a higher level, or you get guys that have a chip on their shoulder with something to prove,” Schantz said. “And you hope to get more of the guys with a chip on their shoulder.
“I just think Wheels is a bright guy that loves to play football and he’s got a lot of things that he could do with his life and he loves playing the game. So that’s the perfect guy for our club.”
Wheeler-Omiunu, who was praised by teammate Adam Jahn as a hard worker, puts his work ethic down to his time studying for his degree in economics at Harvard.
“I was fortunate that I was in an environment such as Harvard, where a lot of people around you are very highly motivated, motivated individuals,” Wheeler-Omiunu said. “And so to be there, and be a part of that environment, be a part of that culture, it elevates my own motivation and desire to compete both on the field and off the field.”
At Harvard, he was also a member of the a cappella group KeyChange, and has “been known to sing a bit in the locker room.”
That singing talent led to him leading an Atlanta United Christmas song back in 2017. “The media team came up to me and asked me if I wanted to do it,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, why not.’”
Yet it was his passion for the sport which brought him to Arizona, fighting for a spot in the Phoenix Rising lineup.
“Anybody who wants to give an opportunity to play soccer, I greatly appreciate,” he said.
With teammates out with both injuries and international duty, those opportunities will probably keep on coming for Wheeler-Omiunu during the next few weeks.