Sunny Jane coddles the ball with his left foot, sizing up a defender as he contemplates his run into the box. Broken down most simply, Jane has two options. He can dribble toward the goal line and send in a cross or he can cut back to the top of the box and find one of his teammates in a scoring position.
Sunny Jane has a team-high five assists this season. Photo courtesy of Maryland athletics.
It is never that simple, at least for the defenders. On this particular run early in Maryland’s 3-1 win over Charlotte on Tuesday, Jane, on the left flank, flashes to the goal line, leaving the defender two steps in his wake. But he wants more space, wants the opponent more off balance. He stops on a dime, reverses direction and heads the opposite way. It is still not good enough, even as the defender looks to be on ice skates. He reverses field once more, dribbles back to the goal line and sends in a perfect cross off his left foot that finds Casey Townsend’s head, the deflection just missing the goal.
Few in college soccer can break down a defender quite like Jane, the generously listed 5-foot-6 sophomore midfielder. The anticipation builds in the crowd with his every touch. When it looks like he has no angle, no prospects of beating a defender is when he’s most spectacular. In a flash he finds an open patch, leaving stumbling opponents behind.
“I still haven’t seen a more dynamic one-against-one player in the country,” Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said. “I think he’s special.”
Cirovski will need Jane’s creativity tonight when No. 3 Maryland (9-0-1) hosts No. 2 Creighton (8-0) at Ludwig Field. The Bluejays have not allowed a goal this season.
So much of Maryland’s attack starts with Jane, usually one of the smallest players on the pitch. But his size matters little when he’s nearly impossible to mark. He is the flashy point guard whose mixtape of crossovers and falling defenders would be a hit if he dribbled a basketball instead of a soccer ball.
Jane developed most of his skills as a kid on the streets of Lesotho, a small African nation completely surrounded by South Africa. One of his older brothers, who played for the national team, was his only teacher. There are no youth leagues in Lesotho and no youth coaches. Kids create their own moves without worrying about structure.
Jane’s brother “was like, ‘I want you to have as much experience as you can out here before you go out there,’” Jane said. “That’s what he did when he was little and he thought it would be good for me. It worked pretty well.”
The ones with the most talent eventually separate themselves and go on to professional leagues and into the national team program. Jane was one of those who stood out, and he trained with Lesotho’s U18 team when he was 13.
That’s when Thabane Sutu came into the picture. Sutu, who was the Lesotho national team goalkeeper in the mid-90s, moved to the United States in 1998. He had plenty of connections back home, and as one of the coaches of the Louisville-based United 1996 club team, Sutu had a place for Jane to develop in the States.
So with the blessing of his mother, who wanted him to receive a better education than he would have in Lesotho, Jane settled in Louisville when he was 13 years old.
“She knew it would be a good experience for me because I was dedicated to soccer,” he said. “I didn’t want anything else.”
“It was really hectic, being homesick and everything,” he added. “It was a really tough adjustment time-wise because we have a six-hour time difference. My dad had just passed away. But I knew it was the right thing to do for me and my mom wanted me to do it because my brother and sister were older and they were going away to college, so she didn’t want me to be home alone.”
It took Jane several months to adapt to the structured environment. Back home he could do whatever he wanted. Here he couldn’t dribble all the time, he had to worry about tactics and he had to involve other players.
Once he became comfortable with the finer points of the team game, he flourished. He was held back a year before entering Trinity High, and his play there and on his club team wowed college recruiters. As a senior in 2010, he was the nation’s tenth-best recruit, according to TopDrawerSoccer.com.
“Growing up in an environment where there’s no coach, you can invent stuff and do whatever you want, really,” Sutu said of Jane’s upbringing. “That’s what makes him more skillful.”
Jane was a spark off the bench in his freshman year at Maryland, appearing in 19 games, scoring three goals and notching an assist. He’s started all 10 games this season, and while he hasn’t scored he has a team-high five assists in helping the Terps to their best start since 1968.
Back home in Lesotho, it’s not customary to make plans. Friends show up unannounced, usually on a whim. When Jane lived with host parents in Louisville, he’d sometimes appear at Sutu’s door without warning, come in to hang out, eat and then leave. That’s the way it is.
On the soccer field, what makes him so dangerous in attacking is he doesn’t have too many tendencies. He has his favorite moves, sure, but he plans nothing as he prepares an attack. It just comes to him.
Jane has two primary objectives: Create space by forcing the defender to shift his weight to the opposite way Jane wants to attack and then send in a cross. How he gets from the first to the second is almost never the same, and he never knows quite how he’ll do it until he actually makes his move.
“I can say it’s in my body,” he said. “I don’t really think about it much.”
Added Cirovski: “He’s a guy that can unbalance defenses with his running at them. He’s very clean with the ball. He’s the unpredictable player. He’s on the left. You don’t know if he’s going to come inside or go outside. That really opens up a lot of passing lanes and it makes it exciting for guys like Townsend and [John] Stertzer and [Patrick] Mullins to make runs because there’s a good chance he’ll find them.”
As far as Sutu knows—and he would know—there are only two Lesotho natives playing at American colleges. One is Jane and the other is Lepe Seetane, who came over to the States with Jane, played with United 1996 and at Trinity and now stars at Northwestern.
Lesotho’s national team has called Jane to play with its U20s and he has a future with the senior team if he chooses. But he also has his sights set on gaining U.S. citizenship and becoming a part of this country’s national team.
Jane’s not sure yet what he wants to do. In the meantime, he’s one of the integral players on one of the nation’s best college teams.
And there are few, if any, quite like him.