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SSFC Spotlight: Nkosi Tafari earns first USMNT call-up

The centre-back is coming off of a strong year in MLS.

United States Training Session Photo by Roy K Miller/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team opened 2024 with the traditional January camp, a series of training sessions that culminates with a friendly against Slovenia. Manager Gregg Berhalter named a 25-player roster, a largely inexperienced group solely composed of Major League Soccer call-ups. One new inclusion is Nkosi Tafari, who has grown into a starting role with FC Dallas and enjoyed a breakout season last year. The 26-year-old centre-back has the opportunity to make an impact and impress the coaching staff as the 2026 World Cup slowly approaches.

Born in the borough of Manhattan, Tafari played for Deer Park High School, receiving All-County, All-Conference, and All-League honors while also suiting up for the track team. At the club level, he competed with Deer Park Soccer Club and Dix Hills Heat. Earning a measure of viral fame, his nifty trap and overhead kick was awarded US Youth Soccer National Goal of the Year.

“I never played academy,” Tafari shared with A Football Podcast. “I was always like, ‘Eh, I don’t love my story that much’… I’ve never had super good connections. My parents weren’t incredibly adept in the soccer world and [didn’t know] what [are] the right teams or they could never really actually even take me to training. So most of the time it was my coaches. So I played a lot for local teams. I couldn’t make the hour-and-a-half drive to play with the Red Bulls or any other academy.”

Tafari matriculated to the University of Connecticut, earning his first playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Over four seasons, he amassed 46 appearances and 17 starts for the Huskies. Looking for “a change to showcase his ability,” the defender spent his fifth year of collegiate eligibility with Seattle University, starting in 16 matches in the run to the second round of the NCAA tournament, being named Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and earning WAC All-Tournament Team, All-WAC First Team, and United Soccer Coaches All-Region First Team honors. The coaching staff praised him for providing “composure, leadership, and skill” to the program.

Turning professional, FC Dallas selected him with the 14th overall pick in the first round of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft due to his “physical tools” that paired with solid “technique for a big man with bravery and aggressiveness.” Quickly “making great strides in his passing game” and “growing in confidence” but struggling with the speed of play, his first season was spent with North Texas SC in USL League One, making six appearances and contributing one goal and one assist during the COVID-shortened schedule. The following year, he became a starter with the first team and appeared in 22 matches, scoring his first MLS goal in a 2-2 draw with Houston Dynamo FC. Off the field, the defender drew attention from the media for saving a choking woman at a local food court by giving her the Heimlich maneuver, understandably describing the experience as “pretty crazy.”

During the following offseason, the club signed him to a new three-year contract with options for the 2025 and 2026 seasons. In 2022, Tafari started the season on the bench but eventually became a rotational starter, serving as a “late-game lockdown specialist” and growing as a passer. He featured in 29 fixtures across all competitions but failed to appear in the playoffs.

Making good on predictions of a breakout year, Tafari was entrenched as the starter for the entire season. He played in 37 total matches, contributed three goals and three assists, and played every minute during the MLS Cup Playoffs. The league named him to Team of the Matchday for Matchday 15 after salvaging a draw with the San Jose Earthquakes in stoppage time and Matchday 28 for bagging the game-winner against Austin FC. In addition to growing as a player, the veteran stepped into a leadership role by leaving his comfort zone and becoming more vocal, emerging as arguably one of the league’s “best all-around center backs” due to his “phenomenal tactical, technical, and physical gifts.”

“He has the physicality that is needed for the league, but he also has really good technique for a center back, he can see passes, he has a different range of passes,” Estévez said after the victory against Austin FC. “When I started working with him [last] year, I talked with him and I said there is a couple of things that you have to change. The first thing is, you have to believe in yourself and you have to want to be one of the best center backs in the league. You have the tools, and you have the profile, but it is up to you and your mind.”

At the international level, Tafari has a Liberian, Jamaican, and Ethiopian background, originally using the surname Burgess but switching in order to honor his heritage. He received his first USMNT call-up earlier this month. This January camp includes a closed-door friendly against River Plate and the traditional closer against Slovenia.

Standing 6’4”, Tafari is a rangy centre-back who takes a lot of touches in the defensive third and makes an impact when handling opposing dribblers while also serving as a productive target on set pieces. He cites his strengths as athleticism and passing and likes to “play small sided in small areas.” Described as “confident in his physicality,” passing range and operating under pressure have been areas of improvement.

“[Tafari is] a late bloomer but nonetheless he’s able to really make a big impact on a very good defensive team at FC Dallas this year,” Berhalter said in a recent press conference. “He has good athleticism, very proficient on the ball and can make great line breaking passes. So we’re interested to see how he can make that next step. There’s there’s some things that we saw that he needs to continue to work on. But this is a great opportunity for him to get in this group and show what he can do with with the elite young players in Major League Soccer.”

At 26 years old, Tafari is making his international debut at a later age than many players, although that is to be expected after five years in college and the build-up phase of a professional career. FC Dallas stuck with him and has reaped the benefits of his consistent play. If he performs at a high enough level during training and the Slovenia friendly, perhaps there will be further opportunities during the Nations League or the upcoming Gold Cup. While the USMNT is currently full of talent at all positions, January camp is a chance to break into the fold and take on a potentially impactful role.