Since the age of two in his Senegalese village, Mani Diop has had a soccer ball at his feet.
At the age of 14, Diop moved stateside, and initially attended high school at Pennington School in New Jersey before joining the Philadelphia Union Academy and enrolling in classes at YSC Academy.
Coming off a 7 goal and 6 assist season for Pennington as a forward last winter, the 6-foot-5 Diop was converted to a center back and appeared in preseason friendlies with Philadelphia Union 2 last winter and in a series of friendlies that kicked off after the end of the USL Championship season last fall.
Today he officially graduates from YSC Academy in a ceremony that will be held at YSC Sports near King of Prussia.
His post-high school plans are to attend Penn State, which has become a well-traveled path for former Union Academy and YSC Academy players. Sean Bettenhausen, a Philadelphia Union 2 teammate who is graduating from Malvern Prep, is also part of the incoming recruiting class for Jeff Cook, who is a former Union Academy and Union 2 coach.
Diop acknowledged that if it weren’t for his roots, he may not be where he is today.
“Just like everybody else, when you grow up you see everyone else playing the game and you fall in love with it,” Diop said. “My village had a club team, but we didn’t travel, so we played against each other.”
“As I grew up, I started to realize I started being good, people started to talk about me.”
Between having a connection with Cook, and knowing current Penn Staters who went to Pennington, it was a match made in heaven for Diop to head to State College for the next school year. Additionally, the Union will be able to keep him close, as they may have first-team plans for Diop in the future.
“I talked to the [Philadelphia Union] GM, I talked to the people I know in the club, and they said ‘yes, its a great opportunity for you, it keeps you close to us, we will have an eye on you,’” Diop said.
“All the right things were put together for me to go there, I didn’t have to think twice.”
Diop will face stiff competition at center back once he gets to Central Pennsylvania. In last season's NCAA Sweet Sixteen run, a veteran pair of Nicholas Rieple and Brandon Hackenberg controlled the backline. Rieple will be a rising redshirt senior, while Hackenberg, who was drafted by Orlando City SC in the first round of the draft last January, will have to make the decision of whether he will return for his last season of eligibility.
“I’m pretty sure that some of the center backs are going to return, and the best will play,” Diop said. “I’m all for the competitiveness, and I think that whoever deserves to play will play.”
Diop aspires to play professionally, and he knows that Penn State is another important step in that journey, as was the Union Academy and his youth time in Senegal.
So, what does he hope to take out of his years in State College?
“Improve. Improve myself as a person and as a player [at Penn State]. [I want to be] getting a good education and enjoy myself,” Diop said.