The country's second tier league; the National Super League (NSL) had it's curtains drawn for a close on Saturday 10th December with all the 20 teams busy on the day. Not much was at stake as the most prestigious slot had long been tucked away by a dominant Nzoia Sugar FC side.
Safely perched at the top on 92 points, even a visit on the last day of the season from second placed Kariobangi Sharks was the least of their worries. The boys just wanted the trophy officially handed. Sharks then picked three massive points from the tie and sealed 2nd spot, an automatic qualification slot into the second tier. The two though, may have been impressive as units in the NSL's 2016 season, but this doesn't obliterate the fact that the other 18 teams possessed brilliant players in them. Here then, is a list I feel has the league's best eleven players.
1. Mangala Benson- Nzoia United
In writing the story of Nzoia United’s memorable 31-match unbeaten league run in the 2016 NSL season- a first in all six of the country’s football divisions, Benson Mangala should be the genesis that story. Not only did the goal-minder concede just 18 in 36 matches, he kept opposition marksmen at bay in 22 of those matches, yes, 22 clean sheets- and the strikers did come in different shapes and sizes. As we start by securing our goal post for the NSL team of the season, the best bet between the sticks will be Mangala Benson.
2. Nicholas Meja - Nakumatt FC
Whilst compiling this list, never did I expect to find a player who had seen all the minutes of their league campaign, 38 matches is a lot of work. I however found one player, and another one close. Nicholas Meja missed just one match in 2016 for Nakumatt FC. In the ever changing back-line of veterans Donald Mosoti, Chris Wekesa, Jacob Opere (on loan from Posta Rangers), Mark Odhiambo and Kennedy Onyango, Meja at 25 - is the youngest yet the constant figure regardless of whether it’s Giovanni Troiani or Fred Ambani on the touchline. Maybe a single goal the entire season from the former Moyas prodigy isn’t the best of statistics for a player but we are not looking for a centre-forward here, we need a defender who does his job; and with six assists to his name, that man is Nakumatt’s Nicholas Meja.
3. Kipyegon Isaac - Zoo FC
It’s not frequently that you see a player successfully balance between school and football. Most times it’s either of the two and not all of them at once. Kipyegon Isaac is an accomplished Human Resource undergraduate student but still, that is not the reason takes our left-back position in the NSL team of the season. From his favorite left flank, Zoo FC boasts of 25 goals, six scored by himself, and of course the other pinpoint deliveries tucked away by the club’s clinical forwards. Three of Kipyegon’s goals are from direct free-kicks, a devastating left boot that has also just gotten away with five cautions the entire season. The Keroka Technical Training Institute student also did not just walk into Coach Ken Ochieng’s starting eleven because as hinted earlier, balancing between school and football is tough. He did it however, playing 33 of the 38 league matches and still finishing school too.
4. Kwizera Hamidu - KCB FC
Hamidu Kwizera might pass as a journey man to most, but he is one who does the job before leaving for his next station. Part of the contingent released from Sony Sugar FC in the Kenyan Premier League mid-season (different from the NSL mid-season) he sought refuge in the second tier and KCB having lost five of their first ten league matches was the perfect home for redemption. A victory over FC Talanta on his debut would start the beginning of a 9 match winning streak including a 1-0 retribution over NSL giants Zoo FC on Aug 21st. Kwizera, Franco Balabala and Faina Jacobs were coach Leonard Saleh’s trusted men at the back as the bankers eased to 15 wins in the second leg of the National Super League. From the lower echelons of the NSL table standings, KCB rose to finish an impressive fifth and part of the reason for this was their ability to not concede- or at least- not concede much. Having played 24 of the 38 of KCB’s NSL matches Hamidu Kwizera takes up a central defensive role in our team of the season.
5 - Brian Otieno - Nzoia United
Popularly goes by the name OCS within Bungoma town and its environs. It’s no surprise he does though, because as Otieno has shown all season-long, his ability to pocket top strikers can only be compared to that of an Officer Commanding a Police Station hence the name OCS. He is one of the few Nzoia players that the club can proudly proclaim as their product having been given a professional contract as soon as he finished his high school three years ago in Chebuyusi High School. Of the 38 league matches played, Otieno missed just one, a home win against Bidco United and has only been cautioned four times. He takes up a central defense role in our NSL team of the season.
6 - Juma Ochieng Lawrence - Nzoia United
Our charge for goals in the NSL team of the season begins here, right in the defensive midfield position. Nzoia United’s Ochieng Lawrence Juma provides cover for the central defense. A clean tackler with no single suspension in the season given the nature of his job, Lawi - as the locals call him - is the cog on which or defense and attack rotate. Diminutive yet possesses the stamina of five, the former Nakuru AllStars man can also join attack and his seven goals and eleven assists for the Bungoma based side is testament to this. He has only missed four (AllStars, KCB FC, Zoo FC and Bidco United) matches all season long and was not present when Nzoia’s unbeaten run came to an end.
7- Asieche Elli - Kariobangi Sharks
Elli Asieche’s is a beautiful story perhaps authored by the football gods themselves. Relegated from the Kenyan Premier League with Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB FC) in 2015, joined a club that at the time had never tasted premiership and one year down the line here we are, Elli’s back in the top flight with Kariobangi Sharks. The former Sofapaka man’s bold move to Sharks at the start of the 2016 season could- on very many fronts- be viewed as footballing suicide. Such talent shouldn’t be wasted in the in the second tier many would say, but Elli it seems had a mission. He takes our team of the season’s right wing having been involved in 18 Kariobangi Sharks league goals (4 goals, 14 assists). Sitting out just 4 four matches the entire season due to injury, he brings incredible work rate to this team, and the fact that he can occasionally drop deep in the midfield means we have a workhorse here.
8 - Kitawi Ibrahim- Kariobangi Sharks
It’s a name we are glad we will be seeing again in the top league, promotion rightfully earned. An influential cog in William Muluya’s unbeaten campaign, Kitawi reserved the most crucial goals for himself. Twin 2-1 home wins against FC Talanta on Wed 7th September and Vihiga United on Sat 23rd April were specially crafted by him. A brace against the former and a late stunner against the latter as Kariobangi Sharks sought to keep up with the log leaders at the time. Also, Sharks’ wins against Ligi Ndogo SC, Bidco United, Nairobi Stima, Agro Chemical FC, Modern Coast FC and Shabana FC were inspired by him, an admission by his teammates. Of Ibu’s attempts on goal, 12 have hit the back of the net- very high for an attacking midfielder and it is for this reason that he plays right in front of the defensive midfielder in our NSL team of the season.
9 - Masita Bitolwa Masuta- Nzoia United
Masita Bitolwa Masuta doesn’t walk home with the league’s Golden Boot this season but he sure enough takes up our central striking position in the team of the season. 16 goals from a player gradually filling the void left by current Ulinzi Stars marksman Mark Bikokwa. He was up for it (golden boot) right up to the last moment, but failed to fire home two or three when it mattered most. However, as the league’s second best marksman, Masita has been of massive influence to Nzoia United and their eventual promotion the country’s Premier League. Key to note that whenever Nzoia United earned a penalty kick in any match, Masita was the farthest from where the penalty would be taken. All his 16 have been notched from open play.
10 - Madoya Mike- Zoo FC
How often do you see a midfielder take home the golden boot at the end of a season? Probably not many times, or never. Michael Madoya in his sixth year at Kericho based Zoo FC, is a creative midfielder whose boots carry the enviable repute of being branded as ‘golden’ in this year’s National Super League. 18 goals in 38 starts for Zoo, he has dwarfed dozens of top strikers in the country’s second tier to the top Golden Boot gong. There is therefore no surprise that he should show up in the NSL’s 2016 team of the season right behind our lone striker. The Litein High school alumnus is the perfect embodiment of all of Zoo’s principles as a club, given a chance while still in school and six years later he still dons the black and green despite the club’s several fruitless efforts to grace the Premier League. When the story Zoo earning their place at the table of big boys for the year 2017 is written, ‘Kadogo Kabaya’ will have his own chapter in the story.
11- Michael Isabwa – Vihiga United
The Football Kenya Federation (FKF) in improving the outlook of the national team, has made bold moves to have a handful of good second tier players called to the camp. They may not have been given a starting bow in the friendly matches that they were called for but the camp experience itself is something. Michael Misigo Isabwa is one such testament. As Harambee Stars geared up for their international friendlies against Liberia and Mozabique, Misigo was part of the handful of players from the second division called up by Coach Stanley Okumbi. In between the two friendlies, Misigo’s club Vihiga United had a tough outing away to Kisumu-based Palos FC. It is only through his coach Edward Manoah’s request that he was released from the national team camp to go and ‘help his club’. He did help, a brace as Vihiga slammed Palos to a surprising 4-0 defeat at home. Then he rejoined the national team camp. Here’s a wide offensive player with the right boot. Of the 13 goals he has bagged for Vihiga United, six have been blast from outside the 18 yard box. Pacey when need be and 10 of his crosses from his favorite left wing have been turned in the net. He is our left winger in the NSL’s team of the season.
As the NSL is a tier of 20 teams each having over 25 players per unit, it would be unfair to just mention seven substitutes. This is why the below list includes a few players who had massive impact in their respective teams even if they may- as a team- have not finished top.
Morven Otinya (Palos FC) - Missed the league’s first six matches buts still came to hit home 12 goals for Palos FC. He is also one of the few NSL players to be called to the national team this year.
Vincent Ngesa (Nzoia United FC) - Alongside Otieno Brian in the starting eleven formed Nzoia United’s central defense, was elevated to captain and gave a good account of himself in the second leg of the season.
George Owiti (Modern Coast Rangers) - Sheer brilliance from a player so young. Owiti managed 5 goals from the midfield for Modern Coast Rangers, a performance that saw the team just escape relegation from the NSL.
Elvis Rupia (Nakuru AllStars) - Two goals in two minutes to break the longest unbeaten league run the country has ever seen (against Nzoia United). Also, the
Nakuru AllStars prodigy finished 4th in the NSL Golden Boot chase on 12 goals.
Francis Nambute (Mosca FC) - Little known from a hot and cold Mosca FC. Francis managed 12 goals, the same position Mosca finished in the 20-team NSL log.
Amos Kigadi (Vihiga United) - Had a fantastic first leg in his first season in the second tier and even had a national team call-up. With 10 goals Amos was Vihiga United’s first player to don the national team colors.
Peter Nzuki (Nakumatt FC) - 5 goals for Nakumatt from the central midfield position. An integral part of Nakumatt FC head coach Giovanni Troiani's philosophy, he was once braded as the 'Kenyan Messi' by his Italian coach.
Brian Yator (Ligi Ndogo/KCB FC) - Struggled with and decamped from- now relegated Ligi Ndogo SC- and made a proper account of himself at KCB. He is here for his contribution in both teams however. Actually one of the mid-season acquisitions that KCB FC will not regret roping in.
Were Geoffrey (Palos FC) - Featured in 26 straight matches for first timers Palos FC and Geoffrey still hadn’t worn-out. An astute figure between the sticks, Were earned admiration from opposition players and teammates alike.
David Oswe (Wazito FC) - In Wazito’s first season in the second tier, Oswe has been an important piece in Coach Frank Ouna’s favorite 3-5-2 formation. Has been a revelation for the varsity side with incredible work-rate that works to offset Ouna’s 3-man defense.
Ben Ochieng (Vihiga United) - Vihiga United conceded 24 goals the entire season, the third best in the league and part of the credit goes to Ben. It is perhaps his composure in defense that saw Harambee Stars coach Stanley Okumbi give him a national team call-up.
Dunga Ismail (Nakumatt FC) - So how does Dunga show up here? A player who doesn’t even feature for Nakumatt anymore. Well, he does, and he deserves it. 8 goals in the first leg of the campaign, one can only imagine what the golden boot chase would have looked like with him present.
Geore Amayo (Bidco United) - Another source of brilliance from the mid-table. Bidco may not have lived the expectations their Thika-based fans had but the team's captain stood out occasionally for Bidco- sometimes being drawn out of his central defense position to surge forward and net match winners.