Change is all around us this time of year.
In Major League Soccer, that change manifests itself in the form of typical offseason mechanics — roster transactions, player signings, coaching hires, and so on.
In our personal lives, this spot on the calendar allows us to reflect, gain perspective, and, in the cases of Fire midfielders Micheal Azira and Jeremiah Gutjahr, attempt to affect change in the lives of others.
This December, the pair’s shared interest in inspiring community through sport saw them cross paths in Uganda.
Following a successful round of 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying with the Uganda Men’s National Team, Azira organized the 2019 Pearl of Africa Youth Championship in his hometown of Kampala. The 32-year-old is a founding member and ambassador of the organization, now in its second year of existence. Their goal to “engage, inspire and motivate youths from all backgrounds” across Uganda culminated in the second iteration of the tournament, which wrapped with a final on Dec. 17.
“I talked to a number of teams and shared my story with them to motivate them and encourage them that they’re capable of being successful no matter where they come from,” he said. “One of the reasons I started the tournament is through those tournaments, a coach saw me and offered me a scholarship. So I was telling them that it’s possible for you, too. You can get it.”
Whether it was corralling kids for matches, bringing water to teams, or playing tournament organizer, Azira helped bring the second iteration of the competition to life for an estimated 1,500 players just one year after the inaugural event in 2018.
Azira’s story – shared in detail with the Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Mikula in November – is one of resourcefulness and hope. Azira worked to escape poverty as a youth Uganda, earned a scholarship to play collegiately in the U.S., and will enter his seventh season in MLS in 2020 having navigated his way up the American soccer pyramid.
Paying forward the support he’s received along the way, the 32-year-old sees a bit of himself in each participant.
“For me to share my story, it gives them that hope and motivates them,” he said. “‘If Micheal did it, I can do it as well.’ That’s the main objective of this tournament – to give them hope. They can be successful no matter where they come from.”
“He’s got an incredible story and journey,” Gutjahr said. “It’s really inspiring. It was cool to be able to connect on that level and see where his home is.”
Micheal Azira (Photo Submitted) and Jeremiah Gutjahr (Photo by Miriam McSpadden) during their respective offseasons in Africa.
Ahead of his sophomore season in MLS, Gutjahr found an opportunity to spend a few hours with Azira in Uganda after working with The Kefa Project in Rwanda in December.
"Mike got in the night that I got in, so we met up at his hotel and we got to hang out for a couple hours," he said. "It was super cool. I really loved being able to see where Mike comes from."
Gutjahr had been helping support one of the organization's youth soccer academies, which views sports as an avenue for creating community for at-risk youth in Rwanda. During his stay, Gutjahr spent time working with academy coaches by offering training tips and techniques, while also mixing it up with area players on the pitch.
“Seeing the joy that the game of soccer can bring, despite external circumstances that might be going on in peoples’ lives," he said. "Over there, there’s a lot of need. I’m not going to fix that, nor is any one organization. But, we can still find joy in playing the game of soccer.”
From there, the 22-year-old saw an opportunity to make a quick journey north to Uganda and meet his “little brother" - coincidentally named Jeremiah - whom Gutjahr has sponsored for the last four years through an organization called WorldVision.
Thank you @worldvision for the opportunity and accessibility to come alongside all the incredible work that you do. A wonderful group and experience! And @bobgoff, I think my favorite hat just became my brother’s favorite hat. He looks much better with it on, so he’s going to keep it. 🧢 #spreadthelove #worldvision #lovedoes #highvibrations #goodenergy #uganda #highinsurrender #brotherhood #sponsorship #backwardshatcrew
With the pair's respective offseason humanitarian efforts now behind them and the 2020 MLS preseason ahead, Gutjahr sees the Club's return to downtown Chicago as an opportunity to continue to unite and inspire, both on and off the field.
“I’m just fascinated with how sports can bring people together and bring a community together, a city together - the connection that can come from that," Gutjahr said. "I want to get plugged in even more into the city of Chicago and find ways to connect and bring people together in any way that I can.”