COLUMBIA — In Tarnue Tyler's world, soccer is kind of a big deal.
Ask him about his career, and soccer is the answer. If playing doesn't work out, then coaching is Plan B. His free time after practice or between games at Rock Bridge High School is often spent playing pickup soccer at Stankowski Field at MU. He follows international soccer closely — Barcelona is his favorite team.
Perhaps most telling — for the millennial crowd — is the description on his Twitter profile, which is only three words: "soccer soccer soccer."
In Columbia's soccer scene, Tyler is a big deal, too.
He's one of four returning juniors in Missouri Class 3 who received All-State honors as a sophomore. Rutgers and Louisville have shown interest in Tyler, his club team director said.
As a freshman, Tyler was Rock Bridge's leading scorer. If the Bruins are to return to the state semifinals, as they did in 2012, it will likely be in large part due to Tyler's attacking prowess. Rock Bridge kicks off its season at 4 p.m. Thursday at Lee's Summit North.
"He is a threat every time he touches the ball," Rock Bridge coach Scott Whittenborn said. "He is such a dynamic, fast, really fun player to watch. We look to him to be a premier goal scorer, one of the best goal scorers in the state, and so we work hard to make sure a lot of our offense runs through him because he is such a magical player."
For Tyler, the magic started long before playing for Rock Bridge and long before living in Columbia. Tyler was born and raised in Liberia, a country on the west coast of Africa. He moved to Missouri in 2004. In Liberia, there was soccer, school and little else to pass the time.
"We played every chance we got after school. All we did was play soccer," Tyler said. "It wasn't a set thing with rules. We just got a bunch of the kids together and played as much as we could."
Kevin Roderique is the technical director for Sporting Columbia Soccer Club, the club Tyler plays for outside of high school. He lauded Tyler's physical abilities — finishing, ability to play in tight spaces, passing ("He's a very good passer, much better than people give him credit for," Roderique said.) and even his ability to play more physical than his 5-foot-8 frame might suggest. Then there's Tyler's speed.
Roderique said even when Tyler is dribbling the ball, he is faster than most defenders. Whittenborn said Tyler has the ability to get around defenders "at will." Tyler ranks speed as one of his own strengths.
It is possible, however, that Tyler's biggest advantage isn't how fast he's going on the field.
"Some players have the ability to be great but are very comfortable with where they are at, so they stop progressing, stop the willingness to move on to the next level," Roderique said.
"I think because of his journey, he (Tyler) has that opportunity, has that ability to get to those other levels because of what he's been through to this point," Roderique said.
Tyler's drive is powerful enough that it doesn't affect just him, but the whole team.
"He's not a rah-rah guy," Roderique said. "But they (his teammates) look to him to provide that spark or energy level. If it's not an individual effort, it's the energy level of, 'Let's match his work rate, so that we can perform at his level.' He truly makes those around him better. The guys rely on him when it comes down to it to try and pull through in the clutch, and he's done it time and time again."
"I'm just looking forward to our first game," Tyler said. Then, as it is often, soccer will be the center of Tyler's world again.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.