“I’m capable of playing here, and at the highest level.”
For several years and in several places – Dallas, New York, Miami – Kai Thomas could not have made that statement without eliciting some eye rolls. The 20-year-old FC Cincinnati 2 center back has already traveled a winding road in his pursuit of an MLS career, and his self-confidence has been sternly tested along the way.
Now in his second season as the captain of FCC 2, Thomas is closer than ever to making that MLS dream a reality.
A SOCCER FAMILY
Kai was raised in a soccer family. His father, Roger, played professionally with the Miami Fusion and Jamaican National team while his mother, Laurie, played collegiately at Florida International University (FIU).
“I guess I was kind of born into it,” said Thomas. “My parents were both very into the soccer scene when I was a kid, and they were both coaches in South Florida. They even started their own club, Soccer Academy & Training Florida (SAT Florida), and I started playing there when I was five.”
Thomas’ younger brother, 17-year-old Kobi, who now plays for the Inter Miami CF Academy, followed in his older brother’s footsteps, joining SAT Florida, where they would play alongside one another for most of their childhood years.
“Playing at my parent’s club, and with Kobi, were some of the best years of my life,” said Thomas. “I played a few years here and there with other teams, but there is no doubt those were the happiest years of my soccer career.”
And while soccer runs in Kai and Kobi’s blood, the two brothers almost chose a different path, and a unique one at that, for a couple of South Florida kids.
“My brother and I actually used to play hockey,” said Thomas, “which was an interesting choice of sport growing up in South Florida. We’d rollerblade a lot when we were younger, which is how we got started with that. That was more of Kobi’s thing though, I wasn’t that great.”
The Thomas brothers would eventually focus in on the beautiful game and helped each other lay the foundation for the players they are today.
“My brother and I are very close,” said Thomas. “We grew up playing with and against each other, and the competition between us always pushed us to be better. We’re a bit different in our styles of play, he’s a very creative attacker, and I’ve always been one to keep things simple, but we made each other better.”
After spending more than a decade in the Sunshine State, Thomas made the decision to pursue his dream of becoming a professional soccer player. Thomas left his South Florida roots in the summer of 2017, moving to Dallas, Texas at the age of 14 to join the FC Dallas Academy.
“It was really hard for me when I moved out to Dallas. I missed a lot about home; my family, my friends, everything, and I struggled with that. I lived with a couple of the academy guys but had no real supervision at the age of 14; not a lot of structure. It was a very difficult year.”
And on the field, Thomas was challenged. He struggled to find his form over the course of his first season in a new place and with a new team.
“I thought I ended my season on a strong note, but they told me I wasn’t good enough. I think it was an important moment, for me to hear that, because I had belief in myself that I was good enough and I needed to prove that.”
After one year, Thomas left Dallas for another opportunity, this time with a bit more familiarity. Kai and Kobi were reunited in the Big Apple when the duo joined the New York City FC Academy in 2018.
“It was more comfortable in New York,” said Thomas. “The first half of the season was good, I got off to a great start. Second half, not so much, I just didn’t play as well as I did at the start. New York said I could stay, but that I wasn’t highly valued. I knew I was better than that.”
Thomas wasn’t sold on being a depth piece in New York and sought a new opportunity to showcase his abilities. This time, he would return home to South Florida, earning a spot in the Inter Miami CF Academy team ahead of the club’s first season in Major League Soccer.
“Things started coming together for me in Miami,” he said, “I got off to a great start and was training with the Developmental Academy team. I felt like I was on the top of my game and even started seeing minutes with their United Soccer League team at the time (Fort Lauderdale CF).”
But just as Thomas was hitting his stride, a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the season, derailing the momentum he had built.
“The injury set me back and I sort of fell out of favor in Miami. So, that’s three teams now that have sort of brushed me off as an afterthought, and I wasn’t ready to accept that. Again, I knew the level I could play at, and when I came to Cincinnati, I knew I would be successful.”
THE YOUNG GARYS
In Cincinnati, the Young Garys were in the middle of their first full season as an MLS academy. The U19s, led by then-head coach Tyrone Marshall, were returning from a weekend trip to Louisville.
“We needed a center back,” said Marshall. “We had the profile of the type of center back we were looking for: a guy who could dictate the tempo of the game, break lines with his passing and being comfortable on the ball.”
So, Marshall rang an old college friend and teammate, Roger Thomas.
“Roger and I speak often, and there were many times we’d talk about Kai and the things he could do to improve and develop at the position,” said Marshall. “We had a small group in Cincinnati at the time and I thought Kai would be a perfect fit.”
Thomas would eventually make the move to Cincinnati, joining the Young Garys in 2019 and making an instant impact for Marshall’s U19 team.
“He adapted right away, he fit in with the group and the environment right away. Now we had a guy that fit what we were looking for out of the position. And we had some height! But most importantly, we had a leader, someone who could take control of the team and get the guys going.”
Thomas’ experience in other MLS academy systems prepared him to be the leader Marshall envisioned, as he would go on to captain the U19s in his first season in the academy.
“I consider myself to be a natural leader,” said Thomas. “I’ve never been one to take a backseat when it comes to that. I’ve always felt good with people, especially my teammates and peers. I worked hard when I got to the academy, I was in the gym two to three times a day, I wanted to set an example for the rest of the guys.”
When MLS NEXT Pro (MLSNP) launched in 2022, FC Cincinnati 2 were one of 22 clubs to play in its inaugural season. MLSNP completed the pro player pathway, providing a stepping stone from the academy system into the first team.
Marshall was appointed the first Head Coach of FC Cincinnati 2 and signed Thomas as the team’s first player.
“There was never any doubt that Kai would be part of this team,” said Marshall. “He’s a gifted, physical center back and his growth during his time in the academy made him an obvious signing.”
Thomas would go on to appear in all 24 matches for the Orange and Blue, including 23 starts, and set team high marks in minutes and interceptions in his first season in MLS NEXT Pro.
“That season was a chance for me to take the next step,” said Thomas. “I knew that this coaching staff [first team] gave their young players a chance to break through, and so I put in the work to make my mark. I wanted to show that not only do I want to play here, but I’m capable of playing here, and at the highest level.”
And the first team coaching staff took notice of Thomas’s performances at the MLS NEXT Pro level. On September 21, 2022, Kai would make his first team debut against Club Deportivo Guadalajara (Chivas) as a late second-half substitute in a Leagues Cup Showcase match.
“Chivas was absolutely incredible,” said Thomas. “I couldn’t get over the idea of everyone that had been a part of my journey, to this point, getting a chance to watch me live out my dream. It was one of the must surreal feelings I’ve ever had.”
Thomas would continue to train with the first team following the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro season, a platform to showcase his developing talents. Thomas was also invited to the club’s 2023 preseason in Clearwater, Florida.
“Preseason was a good indicator of where I was,” said Thomas. “I started to see the work that I was putting in begin to pay off, and getting to a first team preseason, that was a big short-term goal of mine. I felt like I made a really good impression there as well.”
Yet Thomas knows there is still work to be done and that every day is a chance to prove just how valuable he can be to the Orange and Blue.
“All I want to do is continue to learn and get better every day,” said Thomas. “I’m going to put my head down and go to work. I’m going to be the best version of myself that I can be every single day. I’ll get the opportunities when I’m ready, and I’ll be ready.”