On January 31st of 2023, Syracuse Orange men’s soccer star forward Nathan Opoku would make the uncommon move directly from NCAA soccer to signing with then Premier League side Leicester City in England. Much has changed in Opoku’s situation from a year ago, but there is still promise that the Ghanaian forward can reach the upper echelons of European soccer.
During his one-year stint in central New York, Opoku established himself as a goal-hungry forward with great creativity and flair for the dramatic. The striker was a key member of the ‘Cuse men's soccer team that would go on to win the ACC and NCAA Championships.
Opoku put up stellar numbers with 11 goals and eight assists through 25 matches in orange and blue. This rich vein of form should not have come as much surprise given that the attacker from Accra, Ghana scored 19 in 19 before transferring to Syracuse from NAIA school Lindsey Wilson College.
While still an Orange, Opoku saved his best performances for last. In the NCAA tournament quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final, Opoku’s final three games, he scored two and assisted three. The star man’s goal in the final perfectly showcased the talents that would earn him a contract in the Premier League.
20 minutes into the game, Opoku received the ball at the edge of the box. The forward used his tricky feet to cut the ball back and send one defender to the ground, he then used his strength to muscle off another defender and let fly from the edge of the box. The ball curled perfectly into the top left corner, Syracuse went up 1-0 in the national championship, and Opoku’s spot in the lore of SU soccer was cemented.
After signing with Leicester City in 2023, the Ghanaian was immediately sent out on loan until the end of the season. Loans are commonly used by teams in European soccer to temporarily send players out to other teams, typically in lower divisions, that will allow players to get more game time and improve their skills.
Opoku was sent to Oud-Heverlee Leuven of the Belgian Jupiler Pro League or Belgian First Division. OH-Leuven as they are known share owners with Leicester City. For reference, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) considers the Premier League to be the best league in Europe and the world. The Belgian Pro League is considered the eighth best in Europe, and around tenth in the world.
In his first half-season of professional soccer, the ‘Cuse representative played 332 minutes across seven games. Opoku found a particularly successful period in April where he scored his only three goals and provided one assist in the last three games he played that month. Leuven went on to win five of Opoku’s games, showing that he was contributing to winning soccer.
Whilst things were going well for Opoku in Belgium, chaos had enveloped his parent club, Leicester City, who were relegated at the end of the 2022-23 Premier League season for their poor performances.
In the summer offseason, Opoku was sent back out on loan again to OH-Leuven by Leicester for the entire 2023-24 season. Although the prospect had shown promise in his debut campaign, it is clear that Leicester City did not have quite enough trust in him to make him a key feature of their team as they strive to bounce back to the Premier League.
Opoku started the 23-24 season in great form as he started the first two matches of the season, scoring once and assisting once. This strong start was followed by a tough stretch for the forward. The forward would go his next two games without a goal contribution, and in the second, Opoku picked up a serious groin injury. This injury kept Opoku out for nearly three months as he missed much of August and all of September and October.
In Opoku’s time recovering, OH-Leuven struggled mightily. The team's poor showings saw it drop into a position of being threatened by relegation. This unfortunate position has not aided the Ghanaian in readjusting to his team since he got back to full fitness in November. In the seven games that Opoku has featured in since his return, Leuven has lost six, tied one, and Opoku has provided no goals or assists. The former Orange did not play in Leuven’s most recent match on December 26th which they won.
It seems that this recent injury and the following slump might have greatly hurt Opoku’s rise in the Leuven team. The forward has shown his instincts as a poacher and creator at a high level. Opoku’s defensive work rate and attacking movement will be two aspects of his game that he needs to improve to take the next step.
In a young career that so far has been drenched in wins, goals, awards, and trophies, it remains to be seen just how Opoku will be able to deal with the level of adversity seen in the highest tiers of professional soccer.
As a Syracuse soccer fan, one would hope that Opoku can rise to the occasion and earn himself a spot amongst Europe's elite. This pathway is possible as highlighted by former Orange, Tajon Buchanan’s rise. The Canadian forward recently left Club Brugge in Belgium for Inter Milan, one of the most historic teams in world soccer. Opoku’s next chance to get back on his path to success will come against Antwerp on January 17th in the Belgian Cup following the winter break.