ST. PETERSBURG — Seven years ago, Lucky Mkosana was one of 44 players to show up for a two-day soccer showcase in his native Zimbabwe, a talent search he read about in the local newspaper.
The first day whittled the field in half. On the second, the remaining 22 players split into two teams to go head-to-head.
The prize? For the talented few who could impress, a chance to travel from southern Africa and earn a scholarship to play collegiately in the United States.
Mkosana remembers being nervous. Studying in the United States was a goal of his, and the opportunity was within reach.
"That was probably the hardest I've ever played," he said.
It might have been the best he ever played, too.
Mkosana scored five goals in the showcase, a game his team won 8-3. Watching Mkosana's scoring outburst from the sideline was then-Dartmouth College coach Jeff Cook.
Cook called Mkosana to meet the next day.
"After the showcase they were like, 'We're going to call you guys in the morning so if you don't hear from us, that means we're not interested,' " Mkosana said. "So I was holding my phone the whole time, hoping someone would call me."
Since the showcase, Mkosana has continued to register goals at a breakneck pace.
The forward spent a year at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., to get acclimated to the American school system and prepare for the SAT. At Kimball, he scored 37 goals and led his team to a state title.
A year later as a freshman at Dartmouth, Mkosana tallied 11 scores and was named Ivy League rookie of the year. He left Dartmouth as the school's all-time leader for goals (34) and points (70). He was a four-time All-Ivy first-team selection and was the league's player of the year his senior season.
Mkosana was drafted by the Chicago Fire in the second round (No. 23 overall) of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft but couldn't catch on with the club.
He eventually signed with the USL PRO's Harrisburg City Islanders, where he scored 11 goals in his final nine matches and 20 in 41 appearances. Harrisburg finished its season Aug. 24, and the Rowdies acquired Mkosana, 25, on loan nine days later.
"He's a little bit different to what we have in so much as he likes to run behind a little bit more than I think our other forwards do," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said. "Georgi (Hristov), Etienne (Barbara), Carl (Cort), all those are very good players, but I don't think their first thought is to penetrate the back of defenses. … So Lucky could give us that dimension whereby we can maybe play a little bit more direct on the odd occasion to test their back line and to worry them with his pace around the back."
In his Tampa Bay debut against Carolina, Mkosana entered in the 79th minute and made an immediate, albeit somewhat fortuitous, impact. He beat RailHawks defender Bryan Gaul to a ball deep in Carolina's half, maneuvered around Gaul on the edge of the 18 and fired a cross into the box that was deflected twice — the final touch coming as Paul Hamilton attempted to clear the ball but instead kicked it backward over his goalkeeper and into the net.
"Yes, it was luck, but the preparation before the luck came was ideal," Hill said.