Read this article for free.
To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.
Someone makes a mistake in the backfield of South Georgia Tormenta FC’s defense. A couple of forward Madison FC players swarm the defenders, winning possession of the ball inside their opponent’s goalie box. Brazilian forward Paulo Jr. controls the ball. He looks up and fires a low cross toward two unmarked Madison players in front of goal.
Michael Vang, age 20, beats his teammate to the ball, takes one touch, and calmly places the ball in the bottom left corner. This goal was a long time coming for the forward from St. Paul’s Hmong East Side.
“First goal of the season, it was a dream come true,” Vang said later. “My parents and I have been waiting for this day to come for a long time. The adrenaline rush, it was slow motion. I saw it slowly passing the line. Then you hear the fans screaming…it was an amazing feeling. I can’t describe it. I was speechless.”
This summer, Michael and his older brother, Brian Vang, 22, who signed with the Michigan Stars this summer, became some of the first Hmong to ever play soccer professionally in the United States. And they made their journey–from the backyard to local club soccer; from youth development academies to Division I–as a family, together.
Their father and former coach, Tay Vang, was also excited. “It feels great. I did not expect this,” he said. “In the beginning we were just playing for fun. Father and kids to be together. In the end, what they achieved is something special. A lot of people don’t see the struggle we went through and the boys went through.”
A soccer journey that started in France–in the 1980s.
In the early 1980s, Tay Vang moved to France as a refugee from Laos. It was there that he first fell in love with soccer–a love that in time he’d pass along to his four children: Maddie, Chelsea, Brian, and Michael.
“Everybody there plays football. Your left neighbor plays football, your right neighbor plays football. That’s how I got into soccer,” Tay said.
From friendly scrimmages, Tay found himself as a teenager playing for his province’s elite junior-level soccer team. This meant travelling and playing throughout the suburbs of Paris, a circuit that included some of France’s top academy teams.
“You had to be the champion in your province, before you play all the provinces,” Tay said. “We played against Orleans and Château Rouge, who were in the first and second division.”
In 1991, Tay left France for new opportunities in Minnesota. When he arrived, he attempted to play soccer, but his love for the game quickly vanished.
“I played a few Hmong tournaments and I did not enjoy the atmosphere of those tournaments, because there were a lot of fights going on. So, I stopped playing,” Tay said.
That is, until 2004, when Tay’s four children–Maddie, the oldest at nine; Michael, the youngest at five–discovered the popular 2001 soccer action movie, Shaolin Soccer.
“They would start doing the moves they learned,” Tay said of the movie. “So I told them, ‘You want to play? I can teach you how to play, I played the sport before,’”
Tay added, “They were like, ‘We want to play, we want to play.’”
A youth soccer club with no juice boxes or chocolate breaks
From that moment on, Tay trained his four kids in the backyard. The following fall, he enrolled all four of them in rec-league soccer. While his kids learned the basics, Tay scouted competitive leagues and club teams across the Twin Cities.
“I went to check Blackhawks practice to see if I could send my kids there to play,” Tay said, describing the main St. Paul youth club. “It was not great. It seemed like they just babysit those kids.”
Tay continued, “I didn’t like the way they were playing. We experienced the same thing at parks and rec. They were giving juice to the kids and chocolate.”
Worried his children wouldn’t get a proper soccer foundation, like the one he experienced in France, Tay founded his own soccer club on the East Side, called St. Paul United.
SPU was a mixed-gender soccer club with 10 kids, most of them family members. SPU couldn’t field 11 players, and lacked funding to match Minnesota’s larger clubs. But in matches, the club proved a force to be reckoned with.
‘I thought that when you’re talented, no one is going to stop you.’
As a kid, Brian was a short midfielder who could play in an attacking, defending, or central role. He was a game master, capable of dictating the flow of the game with pinpoint passing and a high IQ.
Michael was a must-see attacking talent who could beat defenders with quick dribbles, feints, and agility. Their older sisters, Maddie and Chelsea, were no slouches either: exceptional with the ball at their feet and electrifying to watch.
Around age 10, Chelsea tore her ACL and retired early from soccer. But Maddie, Brian, and Michael took their talents from St. Paul United to Minnesota Thunder Academy for a few years, to play against tougher competition and gain more exposure. Their father, Tay, also accepted an invitation to join the coaching staff at MTA.
Tay struggled with the politics at MTA, watching players that he perceived as less talented get more playing times than his kids. Fed up, he pulled his kids from MTA and resigned as a coach.
“In the United States, they don’t know who is Hmong. They are considered Asian, and I was a little naïve, too, in the beginning,” Tay said–that is, he realized they were a minority within a minority. “I thought that when you’re talented, no one is going to stop you, because you’re just going to give them no choice but to play.”
When you have skill and potential, your game should speak for you. But in the realm of U.S. youth sports–with its year-round traveling schedule, summer training camps, and private coaching–money often speaks louder than talent. This was an invaluable lesson for Tay, who had to prepare his kids for a world that wouldn’t always recognize their abilities and performance.
“After the MTA situation, I started telling them, you have to be ready,” Tay said. “It’s not like a movie; it’s the real world. There’s going to be a challenge out there. I’m not going to say that it’s racism, but you have to be ready.”
In European soccer, Michael felt overlooked for being American, Asian, and Hmong
While playing for St. Paul’s Harding High School, Michael also spent a few seasons with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USDA) at Shattuck–St. Mary’s–an elite youth soccer development academy that just shut down in April. After graduating from Harding High School in 2017, he went on to receive Division I soccer scholarship offers from universities in California.
Despite the opportunity to play in the NCAA, possibly in front of MLS scouts, Michael turned them down to play professionally for Portugal soccer club, 1º Dezembro, a fourth-division team in the Campeonato de Portugal.
The experience abroad was both fruitful and challenging for the 20-year-old forward and midfielder. He described feeling slighted or overlooked for being American, Asian, and Hmong—an uncommon identity outside of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California.
Overseas, American players often garner little respect. The stigma against American players goes like this: They aren’t technical, they lack vision, they possess a low soccer IQ, they rely too much on their physicality.
Before Michael departed, Tay warned him of these challenges. “Being an Asian and American, you’re not a tool for them. Because you’re not Brazilian, you’re not Portuguese, you’re not French.”
Michael recalls a former coach at the club expressing skepticism over the team’s American signings. “He basically told me, ‘When I knew I had two Americans coming, I thought you were terrible before I saw you play. But I was just speechless once I did. I have to apologize because you don’t play like Americans; you play like Europeans, South Americans. You know how to play.’”
Though Michael earned occasional playing time with the senior team, retaining a spot on 1º Dezembro proved to be an impossible task.
In Europe, teams can set aside only eight roster spots for non-European players. And 1º Dezembro was filled with talented players from South America and Africa. Michael was the odd man out. He decided to come home.
Making a big impression on the field when you’re 5-foot-3.
Brian’s path to playing professionally presented more hurdles than his younger brother’s. Although Brian was equally skilled and possessed sharp soccer intelligence as a central midfielder, at 5-foot-3 in high school, he didn’t always stand out on the field.
“The journey was really hard. The biggest thing when I was younger was my size,” Brian said. “I couldn’t play how I wanted to play, because everyone was growing faster than me. That forced me to lose confidence in my game.”
As a varsity player at Harding High School, Brian collected several invitations to try out for elite soccer clubs in Minnesota and abroad. Brian and Michael were invited to try out for academy teams for West Ham United (in England’s premier league) and France’s AC Ajaccio (in Ligue 1). But their size and the cost posed major barriers.
Tay Vang, now the technical sporting director at the esteemed Eclipse soccer academy, an elite girls soccer academy dedicated to developing the best women soccer players, vividly recalled Brian’s struggles.
“Even though he is good technically, he couldn’t compete physically,” Tay said. “Everywhere we went to–college camps, academy tryouts–he was rejected.”
Rejection was a common theme in Brian’s soccer career. His junior year, he tried out for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USDA). Unlike Michael who was accepted on his first try, Brian initially got rejected by the elite soccer academy.
The following year, he made the team, but later decided to leave.
“I wasn’t playing a lot and I thought I was one of the best players on the team,” Brian said. “I had a college coach that flew in to watch me play, and I didn’t play.”
Brian seemed to be missing out on a chance to play soccer at the highest levels. Still, he persevered and received a D-1 offer to play at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. There, he started all four years, graduating in the fall of 2019.
The brothers try out together in Madison. Only one makes it.
From St. Paul United to Minnesota Thunder Academy, Harding School and USDA to University of Wisconsin–Green Bay University, the time finally arrived for Brian to test the professional market.
With help from his college coaches, Brian (now 5-foot-8) received invitations to several tryouts throughout the Midwest, including one with Forward Madison FC, a third-division feeder team for the Chicago Fire. During that time, his brother, Michael, had returned from Portugal and was also hungry for his next opportunity.
“Brian had a combine with Madison and my dad and I asked if I could get into that as well,” said Michael.
Both Vang brothers showed up and performed well at the tryouts. But only Michael got an invitation to join the team. Once again, it was back to the drawing board for Brian, who returned to St. Paul to train with his father and eldest sister, Maddie.
“Brian really had it tough,” said Maddie, who played D-1 soccer at the University of South Dakota, before knee injuries sidelined her for good. “Even though he was going through a lot, he had that drive to keep going.”
Out of shape and suffering from soccer withdrawal, Maddie woke up each morning to help her younger brother realize her lost dream of making it pro.
“He woke me up at seven in the morning every day to go train him. I was not having it,” she said. “The reason I was out of bed every morning was for him to go somewhere with his talent and to have something.”
The hard work paid off this summer, when Brian signed his first professional contract with the third-division National Independent Soccer Association team, Michigan Stars.
Two players make the pros from St. Paul
Kevin Aguilar, a former teammate of Michael and Brian on coach Tay’s St. Paul United team, never doubted Michael and Brian’s chances of going pro.
“This was really expected, to be honest,” Aguilar said. “Much of the credit I would give to coach Tay. But they need to give themselves a lot of credit, because at any point they could have said, ‘I’m done with it.’”
Aguilar characterized Mike and Brian as workaholics, players who treated soccer as more than a game.
“These are the only two people I knew who would play every day on any pitch. They just always wanted to play and get better,” he said. “It’s nice to see two players from the East Side of St. Paul, going professional in soccer, because that doesn’t happen all the time.”
Their dad and coach, Tay Vang, experienced his doubts. “As a parent, you watch your kids struggle and it’s so hard on you too. You live that struggle with them,” he said. “I give them a lot of credit. They just get up and keep going. That’s what makes them who they are right now.”
‘Changing the way that people see us Hmong people’
“You must have goals to go as far as possible. You can’t just be content with where you’re at,” Tay said. “I told both of them that your next goal is the MLS. It’s a challenge, but when you reach this level, you will push yourself to the highest level.
Even with the hardships they both had to overcome—being too small, too young, being Hmong—Michael and Brian are up for the challenge. They’re thinking, too, about the next generation of Hmong soccer players.
“I think we’re changing the way that people see us Hmong people,” said Brian. “We had people before us that tried to go pro, but they didn’t understand the process. Being one of the first, we are trying to be good role models for those that will come after me. They can do it, too, if they put in 100 percent into the process.”
One of these challenges could also include playing for hometown MLS team, Minnesota United (MNUFC).
“I’m trying to control what I can control, which is how I play with Madison,” Michael said. “Every player wants to move up—hoping to move up to championship or the MLS, or even Europe, national team and stuff. It’ll come with how well you perform.”
Michael added, “Right now, I’m just focusing on my next game.”