Tobias Otieno: From Gor Mahia to the world

Tobias Otieno during his unveiling at US second tier side Union Omaha.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • A member of Union Omaha staff said if Otieno was called in to the national team, the entire organization would celebrate his achievement. For now, Otieno focuses on what he can control: improving his game, developing as a player, and doing whatever he can to help his team win.
  • Otieno’s move to Omaha is a giant step in his career. A step that is mutually beneficial to both himself and his club. It certainly appears Otieno’s best is yet to come.  

In January this year, Tobias Otieno signed with Union Omaha from Gor Mahia. Nine months later, Otieno finally boarded his flight to Omaha, Nebraska. A hold up at the American Embassy prevented him from participating in his team’s first 10 matches.

Union Omaha are currently playing in their inaugural season as a club in USL League One. I sat down with Otieno shortly after his first appearance for Union Omaha. Immediately, I was struck by his humility. His passion for football, his love of country and his desire to improve as a player were unmistakable.

Some may suggest Otieno’s transfer to Omaha was an opportunity for him to take a long holiday in the United States. It has been quite the opposite for the young player. Otieno’s only focus is football. When he was asked why he would leave one of Africa’s best teams to a lower division side in the United States, he made no secret of his ultimate goal: to play for the Kenyan national team- Harambee Stars.

Otieno travelled 13,000 kilometers from Nairobi to Omaha. In his heart, this is completely for Kenya. He knows the facilities in the United States will help him become a better athlete. Learning a new culture will push him to new heights as a player. The style of play is different in the United States.

Tobias Otieno (centre) in action for Union Omaha on October 1, 2020.

Photo credit: Pool

Otieno notes the speed is much faster in America and he knows a different experience helps his development. This is the first time Otieno has used English to communicate with his teammates on the field while some of his fellow players also use Spanish during matches. All of these experiences will help him progress as a footballer. More so, it helps him become a better addition to the senior national team if he gets that opportunity.

No American holiday

Football is Otieno’s main and only priority at the moment. This is no American holiday for Otieno. In fact, since arriving in Omaha, he has not done any sight-seeing in his new city. His only priority has been helping his new team win and he wants to help Union Omaha win as many trophies as they can.

“The amazing part is how much he’s impacting things on the field already,” noted Matt Homonoff, Chief Operating Officer of Union Omaha. Otieno’s impact has been instant. In his first appearance with the club, Otieno provided a remarkable assist in the opening goal which led his team to victory.

Tobias Otieno at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on September 20, 2020 ahead of his departure to the U.S.

Photo credit: Jeff Kinyanjui | Nation Media Group

“Union Omaha wants to be the best destination at this level of play. It is our goal to treat our players better than any other team in League One,” said Homonoff. Otieno agrees, “Union Omaha has given me everything a player needs including food, a nice apartment, and great teammates.”

As Otieno waited for his visa to travel to the United States, Gor Mahia were supportive and let Otieno train with the club. While still in Kenya, he used Zoom to talk with his new coach and teammates. 

Zoom helped him feel connected to Omaha even while still in Nairobi. He trained simultaneously with Union Omaha via Zoom. Time zones didn’t stop him. What his teammates were doing during morning training in Omaha, he did at the exact same time during the Kenyan evening.

Otieno arrived in the United States amidst the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matters protests. He gave up what he knew at home in Kenya for a challenge to develop him as a player. Regarding coronavirus, Otieno feels very safe with Union Omaha due to the safety precautions his club has in place.

Black Lives Matter

The issues of systemic racism exist in the United States, but Otieno also notes how well he’s been treated in Omaha by his teammates, coaches, staff of the club, and the fans.

He appreciates standing in unity with opponents before every match supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Union Omaha’s supporters section displays a giant banner with the words “Say Their Names” referencing the desire for Americans to focus on lives of the black men and women unjustly lost in the United States.

According to Otieno, the fans in Omaha have been very supportive. Several showed up at the airport to welcome him to the club. Seeing Union Omaha supporters fly the Kenyan flag on matchday means so much to him. That Kenyan flag flying in Omaha is symbolic of his ultimate dream: travelling all the way to Omaha with the hopes of someday playing for the Harambee Stars.

The United States club schedule is not aligned to the Fifa international calendar. When Otieno was asked about what he would do if he was called into the national team and had to miss games for his club, he was clear what he would. “My country is the most important,” said Otieno.

He knows he has the full support of his coach in Omaha. Jay Mims, the manager of Union Omaha, has 12 different nationalities represented on his squad including players from Cameroon, DR Congo, and Ghana.

A member of Union Omaha staff said if Otieno was called in to the national team, the entire organization would celebrate his achievement. For now, Otieno focuses on what he can control: improving his game, developing as a player, and doing whatever he can to help his team win.

Otieno’s move to Omaha is a giant step in his career. A step that is mutually beneficial to both himself and his club. It certainly appears Otieno’s best is yet to come. 

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