Sports

The American Soccer Phenom Becoming a Folk Hero in England

Daryl Dike is breaking the game’s physics and carrying his scrappy little club to glory.

Daryl Dike braces himself after making an overhead kick.
Daryl Dike scores the opening goal for Barnsley with an overhead kick against Huddersfield Town on April 21. Alex Livesey/Getty Images

If you watch enough of any sport, your brain internalizes its parameters. A player at full sprint moves about this fast. One leaping for the basket goes about this high. A ball leaving the bat looks like something in this range. You build your own set of physical laws for what it’s supposed to look like: how quick, how far, how hard. When someone shatters those preconceptions, it can be one of the best parts of sports.

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That’s not what a soccer shot is supposed to look like. When it leaves the foot of Barnsley’s American forward Daryl Dike, it seems to leap out ahead of the laws of physics and then get yanked back into reality by them as it flies, as though terminal velocity was caught napping and has to work extra hard to make up for it. The ball is halfway to the top corner by the time the thump of the kick makes it to the microphones. The only option worse for a goalkeeper than having it fly in over your head would be to actually get a hand to it.

There are other professional soccer players who can hit it this hard, usually off the volley, with the perfect run-up and with the barometric pressure just right, with the planets all in alignment. Somewhere between a third and half of Dike’s shots look like this, even the ones that skim low across the ground, like there are frames being cut out somewhere.

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Every part of Dike’s (pronounced Dee-kay) game looks like this. He’s 6-feet-2-inches tall, 220-ish pounds, and he runs and he shoots and he clatters into opponents with power. When he battles with a defender in the open field, the result looks like that chase in GoldenEye between the Soviet car and the tank. He is a nightmare for defenders even when he’s not scoring; just about everyone looks like a put-upon little brother when he’s posted them up and they’re trying to get around him to the ball.

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A year-and-a-half ago, Dike was playing college soccer. This time last year he had yet to play a minute for Orlando City SC in Major League Soccer’s pandemic-disrupted season. He moved to Barnsley, a team in the English second division (a notch below the Premier League), on a free loan to get more game reps through the MLS off-season, which is perhaps the deal of the decade for a player who has scored nine goals since February in 1,300 minutes and was named the club’s Player of the Month for both March and April. You could make the argument that no male American player has been more valuable to his team since Dike joined Barnsley in February.

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Now he has the chance to make that literal. Barnsley’s hot streak throughout the spring has landed it in the league’s Championship playoffs, a four-team competition between the teams that finish third through sixth in the second division to determine which of them will get promoted to the Premier League next year, alongside this season’s top two finishers. The final of this four-team minitournament is often called the most lucrative game in the world. Victory in last year’s final had the potential to earn winners Fulham nearly $350 million over five years.

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Barnsley will be an underdog throughout the tournament, just as it was throughout this season and its history. The team has spent exactly one season in the first division in its history, and 76 in the second, an English record. Last season, it finished 21st, barely missing being relegated to the league below it. When Dike joined, it was in 12th place. It has lost just three times since then on its climb to fifth place, despite having a squad loosely valued by Transfermarkt at approximately a half of its playoff semifinal opponents Monday, Swansea City.

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Barnsley has climbed in part by embracing an underdog’s combative play style. The team has the league’s second-lowest passing accuracy but the fourth-most shots per game, thanks to its willingness to play the ball long and scrounge chances against unsettled defenses. It averages the most tackles and the most passes blocked, so it’s trying to win the ball back early at every opportunity. The game plan, in other words, is to turn every game into a battle. Dike is a battler, happy to challenge and practically wrestle defenders as he makes himself a target for Barnsley’s outlets.

Dike’s success in using his very obvious strengths for both Orlando and Barnsley can distract from the parts of his game that still need work. American Soccer Analysis points out that last year for Orlando, the rate at which he received the ball in dangerous positions––the central skill of strikers like Robert Lewandowski or Sergio Agüero––was a net negative for the team’s offense. When Dike does get on the ball in crowded spaces, he has a tendency to dribble through indecisiveness instead of picking an option. He sometimes seems more focused on the physical battle with his defender than the actual ball in his possession.

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Dike has greatly outperformed his expected goal total both at Barnsley and in Orlando, which could mean he’s due for a regression—or could mean he’s really good at scoring difficult goals. As MLS analyst Matt Doyle points out, kicking the ball hard enough to break the models is a good way to outperform them. But the next evolution of his game is sniffing out and finishing more chances for easy goals, turning midrange shots into layups.

The good news is that he is still 20 years old, and he has played fewer than 40 games in his professional career. There is time for him to learn these skills, and plenty of places interested in letting him continue to learn them. Orlando reportedly turned down a bid worth $10 million the week Dike scored his banger against Birmingham. Now Orlando’s rumored price tag might be closer to $20 million. There’s Premier League interest in Dike from some of the big-name Super League wannabes and overperformers like West Ham, Leeds, and Everton. Barnsley would obviously love to keep him, but its record-high transfer spend is approximately $2.5 million. So the only way it’ll be able to afford him is with the money it would bring in upon promotion.

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For now, Dike will have to settle for being a Championship folk hero. The second division was once English soccer’s id, a safe harbor away from much of the Premier League’s money and from its many skillful foreign players—a place where a nation’s fantasies about its grit and industry meet its longtime romanticization of street brawls. This has arguably changed of late, as more of the teams seeking promotion to the top league realize that skill is not a sign of deficient moral fiber and that you have to pay to get it. But the second division retains remnants of the old mentality that would let you hit someone with a folding chair and only have the referee check if a goal-scoring opportunity was denied before blowing for a foul. Dike has certainly found this out. At least he’ll be ready for CONCACAF.

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But when? It’s no surprise that some in the U.S. men’s national team fan base are clamoring for a player who can turn a midtable team into a promotion contender almost on his own; who can conjure goals out of nothing, even in a lesser league like the Championship; who scores both meteors like the one above and this quick flip semibicycle kick.

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Former USMNT forward-turned-analyst Charlie Davies says Dike’s form and potential should put him at the top of the national team’s forward depth chart. Former USMNT forward-turned-analyst Herculez Gomez says Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent should get the nod for being a bright spot on a struggling team that plays on a higher level in Germany. For the moment, Sargent would appear to have the edge––Dike has two USMNT appearances, both as a substitute––but a busy schedule this summer looks like a golden opportunity to show what he can do in coach Gregg Berhalter’s system, or what Berhalter might be willing to tweak to take advantage of Dike’s skill set.

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It is perhaps fortunate that the choice has thus far stayed under the general sports radar, because I’m pretty sure I know whom the talking heads would pick. In some ways, Dike is the latest and purest distillation of an argument American soccer fans have been hearing versions of since 1990.

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The dumbest-possible version goes: “Why don’t we just send LeBron to the World Cup and let him score a million headers?” The more racist variety supports recruiting “real athletes” with “athleticism” as a euphemism for “Black men who look like they could play football or basketball.” Dike himself has poked fun at all this.

Sure, Dike’s physical attributes—including his strength, size, and speed—are an invaluable component of his success. But that’s also true for Christian Pulisic or Sergiño Dest or Tyler Adams, the last of whom is so slight of build he looks like he weighs half a Dike. What John Brooks, Weston McKennie, and Paul Arriola have in common is that they are all tremendous athletes. It’s a feature, not a bug, that soccer allows for a greater diversity of body types to thrive. Lionel Messi, the best player of his generation, is all of 5-foot-7, after all; you don’t need to be bigger than that when you can accelerate to top speed in a single step. So when people gripe, in problematic fashion, about the lack of “athleticism” among American soccer players, the criticism doesn’t quite hold. The fact that people who follow other American sports are holding a hammer does not make the USMNT’s problems a nail. English soccer can be pretty slow on the uptake sometimes, but if success was as easy as slotting in a bunch of rugby guys, it would have figured that out by now. (Much of English soccer’s history constitutes the nation coming to terms with the fact that it’s not that easy.)

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The small miracle of Dike’s rise isn’t that a kid from Oklahoma with prototypical football size chose soccer. It’s that a kid from Oklahoma with his promise had an environment in which that potential could be nurtured. Clint Dempsey famously had to drive three hours from Nacogdoches, Texas, to Dallas to find something like that. Dike’s journey was simpler. He had the right high school, the right club coach, the right family. His parents emigrated from Nigeria and brought their love of soccer with them. His older brother Bright—a talented but injury-hampered MLS player—and his sister Courtney were both good enough to play internationally for Nigeria.

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The key to the continuing improvement of soccer in the U.S. is not the targeted recruitment of a certain type of athlete but the expansion of these environments of opportunity. U.S. Soccer has identified the need to improve its outreach to Black, Hispanic, and other minority communities—not to mention small towns and rural areas—but that outreach has to include more than just playing surfaces and equipment. It has to be expertise that can guide players of all shapes and sizes into realizing their talent and into realizing that they have talent. Soccer doesn’t need a team of 11 Daryl Dikes as much as a 5-foot-7-inch point guard might need a sport that doesn’t start to close its doors on all but the most exceptional athletes of his size. Soccer players are taught, not born. Even ones that can do what Dike does.

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