Trio of Portland Pilots make MLS Draft History

Kevin Bonilla, Jacob Babalai and Buba Fofanah all selected in the 2023 Major League Soccer SuperDraft

By Emma Swett | February 20, 2024 10:00am
Kevin Bonilla crosses the ball in a game against CSUN.
Media Credit: Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Since joining UP's men's soccer team, Kevin Bonilla, Jacob Babalai and Buba Fofanah have been recognized for their contributions to the team's success in NCAA tournaments, as well as earning individual All-American and West Coast Conference honors. 

And, on December 19, the trio achieved yet another significant milestone in their athletic careers: Bonilla, Babalai and Fofanah were drafted into Major League Soccer (MLS). Their induction into the MLS is historical, marking the first time three Pilots had ever been selected in the same draft and bringing the total number of Pilots drafted into the MLS since 2000 to 11. 

And, whether these Pilots have decided to stay at UP or leave to pursue a professional career, their selection further solidifies the UP men's soccer program as a powerhouse in collegiate soccer. 

Bonilla, who played right back for the UP men’s soccer team, was the first Pilot selected in the MLS draft and the 18th athlete to be chosen overall. His achievements as a former first-team All-American and West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year attracted the attention of  Real Salt Lake, where he has chosen to begin his professional career. 

Kevin Bonilla dribles the ball past a Denver defender.

by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Now in Portugal, Bonilla is engaged in preseason training with his new team. He plans to finish his remaining credits online through UP next year and graduate in the spring of 2025. 

Although he has left Portland to fulfill his dreams, Bonilla has one last message for Pilot nation.

“Thank you, just thank you to all the people I’ve met along the way,” Bonilla said. “They’ve done a lot for me the past three years and I’ll be forever thankful for them, I’ll see you soon.” 

Babalai, who plays forward for the UP men’s soccer team, was the second Pilot selected in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft and was the 41st athlete to be chosen overall. Despite capturing the attention of Charlotte FC, Babalai has chosen to return to UP to finish his degree.

Jacob Babalai scores a goal against CSUN during the Fall '23 season.
by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Babalai’s experience as a first-generation student was a major factor that influenced his decision to remain in Portland.

“It’s really important to me, and my family, to finish my degree,” Babalai said. “I’d be the first in my family to receive a college degree, so obviously we all really want that.” 

Babalai is eager to pick up where he left off and play for the Pilots during his final year of NCAA eligibility.

“It’s always been a dream to play here,” Babalai said. “Now that I get to do it for another year, it’s great.” 

Fofanah rounded out the Pilots’ success in the 2023 MLS SuperDraft as the third Pilot selected and 81st athlete chosen overall. As a forward for the UP men’s soccer team, Fofanah attracted the attention of Seattle Sounders. However, like Babalai, Fofanah decided to return to UP to finish his degree and compete with the Pilots during his last year of NCAA eligibility. 

Buba Fofana dribbles past the keeper before scoring a goal against Southern Oregon University

by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Fofanah, also a first-generation college student, decided to return to UP to show his two younger siblings in Sierra Leone, Africa the importance of pursuing an education. Having lost both of their parents, Fofanah serves as a parental figure for his siblings, and hopes to inspire his siblings to pursue their dreams. 

“If they see me finish school with all these opportunities, I feel like they will do the same at some point in life,” Fofanah said. 

Babalai and Fofanah also decided to remain at UP for one last chance to play for renowned coach Nick Carlin-Voigt. Neither believe they would be where they are without him.

“It’s like a love story with the coaches,” Fofanah said. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but you know they have the best interests for you and are going to push you to be the best version of yourself.” 

Babalai echoed a similar sentiment. 

“I’m grateful that our paths crossed,” Babalai said. “He opened a lot of doors for me, he believed in me and trusted me even when I didn’t believe in myself.” 

Babalai and Fofanah are planning to leave UP with not only a degree, but also with a championship ring on their fingers. Both athletes are determined to fulfill their ambitions in the upcoming season and leave a lasting mark on Pilot nation.

“We want to pay Pilot nation back and bring back the trophy,” Fofanah said. “That’s the goal right now.” 

Emma Swett is a sports reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at

Antonio Acosta contributed to this article. He can be reached at