By Jessica Bernheim
UMBC Assistant Director of Athletic Communications
The old saying goes: actions speak louder than words.
In the case of the UMBC men's soccer team's soft-spoken senior captain, Levi Houapeu, that saying is generally true.
The mild-mannered midfielder led the NCAA in scoring in 2009 with 43 points – a whopping 2.15 per game. And while he claims he is "a totally different person on the field," he admits he doesn't like to say much off it, but rather lead by example.
But on the night of Oct. 31, 2009, it was perhaps Houapeu's words that actually did all of the talking.
The Retrievers had just lost their regular-season finale, falling on the road at Binghamton, 4-0. UMBC had already locked up a spot in the six-team America East Championship, but was limping into the tournament after back-to-back shutouts, a far cry from the team that ended September as the nation's lone 9-0-0 squad.
That night, the team held a meeting in the locker room at the Bearcats' Sports Complex before boarding the bus back to Baltimore. Houapeu stood up and let the emotions pour out.
The next week, the Retrievers returned to Vestal, N.Y., to face Binghamton in the conference quarterfinals, and this time they came home with a 2-1 victory. Four days later, UMBC defeated top-seeded New Hampshire on the road in the semifinals and advanced to its first-ever America East title game.
Though the Retrievers lost to Stony Brook in the championship, UMBC head coach Pete Caringi, Jr., credits Houapeu's emotional outburst in the locker room for getting the team back on its feet and 90 minutes away from a conference title.
"I think it meant a lot to a lot of players because they really got to see a different side of Levi versus the mild-mannered, quiet person," Caringi said. "They saw a lot of emotion that was left in that room."
But Houapeu's performance in the tournament could have spoken for itself. After assisting on the first goal against the Bearcats, he scored the game-winner midway through the second half, and he also had the assist on the first goal against the Wildcats, finishing with a team-high five points in three games.
Houapeu's efforts earned him a spot on the all-tournament team, just another in a long list of accolades, which included America East Midfielder of the Year, ECAC Offensive Player of the Year and NSCAA Second-Team All-Region.
While he acknowledges that all the individual awards were nice, ultimately it's the team accomplishment that is more important to him.
"[The recognition] gives me confidence on the field because I know what I can do as a player, but I don't really pay attention to any of it," he said. "Right now it's a new season, so it's a fresh start. Last year was last year. As a team, we don't look at last year; that's the past. At the end of the day, we had a good year but we didn't win a championship. My focus this year is to try to win a championship. All the awards and all the stats come when you play well and you win."
Houapeu knew coming into this season that it would be difficult to top his 2009 output of 15 goals and 13 assists – he would be a marked man on the field now – but while he may not be on quite the same torrid pace as a year ago, no one would call his seven goals and league-best 17 points through the first nine games of 2010 a disappointment.
"The highest compliment you can have is when other players and other programs are aware of you and they're marking you in the game," Caringi said. "That's the highest form of flattery as a soccer player when teams are trying to take you out of the game. I think it's a tremendous accomplishment for Levi that he continues to elevate his game."
And now it's not just other teams taking notice, but scouts from the highest professional league in the country, Major League Soccer. Houapeu spent his summer playing for Reading United of the prestigious Premier Development League along with some of the best collegiate players from across the United States. His team advanced to the PDL semifinals in Portland, Ore., home of the MLS expansion Portland Timbers, who were so impressed by what they saw from Houapeu – he scored United's lone goal in a 2-1 loss – they expressed interest in having him join their ranks.
Houapeu said he always dreamed of playing professional soccer as a boy growing up in the Ivory Coast, a small nation in West Africa. There were no soccer fields, so he and his brothers and friends set up some goals and played in the street.
"I think that's how I actually learned the game," he said. "No one taught me how to play soccer; I had to learn myself. Every day, we'd go to school and come back and play soccer. We'd play soccer until Daddy and Mommy came out and yelled to us to come back to the house. Otherwise we'd just stay outside playing."
Houapeu's family moved to the U.S. when he was 12 years old – his father works for the Ivory Coast Embassy – settling in Germantown, Md. Now he had to make new friends and learn a whole new language.
But soccer helped him make friends and aided his adjustment to a new country. Playing organized soccer for the first time in his life, he began his career at Watkins Mill High School on the JV team before making varsity as a sophomore. Ironically, he played on defense that season before moving to midfield as a junior and finally forward as a senior.
"Through my high school career, I learned the whole game and the whole system from playing defense to midfield to forward," he said. "I think I was kind of lucky to have that chance."
But when asked which position he likes best, the typically humble Houapeu broke into a wide smile.
"Oh, forward for sure," he said. "I like to score goals."
And score goals he did, tallying 38 times in his final two seasons at Watkins Mill. He found the back of the net three times while adjusting to the college game as a freshman at UMBC, earning a spot on the America East All-Rookie squad, but played through injury his sophomore year and scored just once.
Houapeu spent the following summer at the D.C. United Academy and scored four times in the United Soccer League's Super-20 Men's Tournament, and he credits that experience with instilling the confidence necessary for his breakout junior season with the Retrievers.
"I think playing for them was a really good experience and really helped me in my college career," he said. "I think it carried on to my junior year when I was able to score all those goals. Everything just started to click for me."
The Retrievers were coming off a disappointing 2008 campaign in which they won just once against America East opponents, and they were picked to finish last in the conference preseason poll, which Houapeu and the other returning players took as a sign of disrespect and set out to prove the so-called experts wrong.
"After what we went through our sophomore year, we didn't want that to happen again," he said. "That was a big motivation. We all came back in shape, and the big thing was we believed in ourselves. We knew what we were capable of, and I think that whole mentality carried onto the field."
Houapeu teamed with Andrew Bulls to form arguably the most dangerous scoring tandem in the country, as they combined to account for nearly 70 percent of the nation's fifth-ranked offense's goals, and the Retrievers shocked everyone but themselves by posting the program's best start in school history.
Now, with just a few weeks left in his college career, Houapeu is trying to soak in every moment he has left and savor every goal.
"I like to celebrate my goals with my teammates and especially with the fans," he said. "That's something I'm going to miss next year."
But if he has his way and he is able to realize his dream, he will be able to celebrate his goals with teammates and fans for years to come. And his coach doesn't see why that can't happen.
"I think the sky's the limit for the kid," Caringi said. "I think he's one of the best players in the country, and I think he can be a successful pro. He's a great kid with great character. Levi's a poster boy for what student-athletes are all about, and that's a guy who's a great soccer player who does all the little things to help his school and his community. Next year at this time, I think we'll be talking about paying to watch him play at the next level."