Huacheng's Darkeem Dennis

Mercurii, Dhanus 18, 249


Darkeem Dennis, one of the breakout stars of the upstart MAFL, is alone at his pod in the west quarter of Huacheng. Through a port window over his single bed, the lava plains seem endless, just craters and silhouetted ancient volcanoes.

“It’s tough not to think too much,” Dennis said.

His assigned roommate, midfielder Gao Zheng, was at his girlfriend’s pod, in the central quadrant. “He spends a lot of time there,” Dennis said. “She's got a lot more space.”

It was midnight; hours after Huacheng Dongji dropped its Week 9 match to Al'amal SC, stretching their losing streak to six games. Dennis didn’t score in the loss. And when the 27-year-old striker doesn’t score, Dongji rarely wins. 

Almost half Dongji's losses have come in penalty kicks. Dennis has missed every penalty he's taken, save for one.

"I'm still trying to work out the boost on my kicks," he said. "I scored last week. I think I've got the hang of it."

Dennis didn’t want to talk much about pressure, about chafing against outsized expectations on an underachieving team. But the reality is, Dongji’s fate this season has become inextricably linked with this previously unknown import player from Wendale.

Dennis has surprised most MAFL scouts, leading the league in scoring early in the season. Still, despite a mid-season slump, he’s still in the top three — and the only Donji player in the top 20. 

“Honestly? We weren’t expecting much from him,” Dongji manager Rain Chen said. “We didn’t even start him the first game.”

Dennis spent his childhood in the U.S. Soccer Development program, playing for the FC Portland Academy team. When he was 13, his parents won a 15-year research grant to develop EV suits and body armour for mining engineers on Wendland, the satellite settlement outside Amrita.

“I was gutted,” Dennis said. “My whole life was soccer. And when I got to Wendland, there was nothing. Even if there was a league then, I couldn’t walk right for the first year.”

“I sort of lost myself. I didn’t even watch the game feeds coming from Earth. Seeing some of the guys I came up with – it was too much.”

Until last year, Dennis was working with his parents. He tested prototype equipment they developed in the lab.

“I wore them out into the field, so I could identify kinks that happen in real-world situations,” he said.  “It could be gruelling. But it was good. I had my family. I knew a lot of the guys at the lab.”

But his life was upended last year when an old coach from Portland FC Academy reached out. The coach, Jonas Erlbaum, was now chief of scouting for Dongji.

“We were trying to fill out the bottom of our roster,” Erlbaum said. “My team thought I was crazy. This kid from some backwater settlement who hadn’t played a sport in 13 years? Crazy. But I just had a feeling.”

It paid off.

“I know how EV suits work,” Dennis said. “I think that’s what gave me an edge. Everyone else was just getting used to playing in them, but I’d been working on those things for years.”

His emergence as one of the most promising players in the MAFL has earned him some notoriety in Huacheng. “People will pass me in the corridors,” he said, “and I can tell they recognize me. They look back and whisper.”

But sitting alone on the foot of his bed, with a sandstorm visible through the window, it doesn’t seem like Dennis is certain he made the right decision.

“We just got to start winning more games.”