Haji fell through the cracks, but moved to second place in the MLS draft


On Friday afternoon, Siad Haji achieved his dream of becoming a professional football player when the San Jose earthquakes took the 19-year-old Adidas generation forward, second choice of the MLS SuperDraft 2019.

Haji took a winding road to reach this point. He's a refugee who grew up playing football on the streets of northern New England. Nobody has the idea of ​​a football home. He never claimed to be a star, spending his first year of college in Division III before reaching a D-I team. He is relatively unknown, quiet and humble, about to be on the big stage, whether he's ready or not, and he's an example of the many paths you can take to become a football professional in the United States. United.

Haji arrived in the United States with his family in 2004. He does not remember much of his life in Kenya – he was only four when they left – but he has some memories of kicking a ball in the streets near his home. In the United States, his parents, who initially moved to Kenya to flee violence in their native Somalia, have moved the family into a refugee community near downtown Manchester.

Haji played football whenever and wherever he could, in summer parks and in gyms during the long winters. In sixth grade, he won a place with the New Hampshire Classics. As he progressed, the New England Revolution's U16 Academy team as well as appearances in the National Youth Team camps offered opportunities, but the landscape of the American football can be unpleasant and difficult for someone occupying the Haji position. A long round trip to coach in Massachusetts several times a week was not a realistic option given his responsibilities as the senior boys at home. Neither the economy nor the logistics made sense.

The winding road that leads to the SuperDraft could make Siad Haji a star in Major League Soccer. VCU Athletics

While Haji had the talent to play at the university, he was not eligible for the D-I. Division III provides a solution. He was scheduled to play at Norwich, a private military college in Northfield, Vermont, but his parents decided not to do it at the last minute. They had escaped the army in Somalia; why would they send their child to a military school? Adam Pfeifer, Norwich's head coach, helped Haji move to New England College, where the player led the Pilgrims to their first men's football championship at the North Atlantic Conference. Pfeifer also alerted Dave Giffard, the VCU's head coach, about Haji's abilities, stating that he would fit in perfectly with the Rams system.

Giffard, who worked with future professionals of African descent, including Steve Zakuani and Darlington Nagbe, while he was assistant coach of Caleb Porter and Akron Zips, decided to help Haji get his eligibility. Finally, the teenager was ready to go to the preparatory camp for his second year.

Haji had to travel from his home in Manchester, New Hampshire, to Richmond, Virginia, where he would join Rams VCRs for his second season. A woman from the local community of Haji bought her the ticket, a thoughtful gesture in favor of the young talent. Except that the name on the ticket does not match the name of Siad, Abdulkadir Haji: it was extinguished by a single letter. The doormen at the station would not let him get on the bus. He went home to find out what to do next.

The bus fiasco, which took a few days to settle, was not the end of the world in itself, but it meant that Haji had arrived late, stressed by the long delayed journey. He had to intervene directly and a day or two later, VCU faced Georgetown in a preseason game.

Haji barely knew the names of his new teammates. Giffard decided to put his new player in the game to see how he would behave like a winger, where Giffard thought his looks and technical abilities would work better. He struggled immediately. "The transition has been difficult," Haji said from his hotel room at MLS. "I had not played it for a while, it was rainy and ugly, defensively it was hard for me."

Giffard also remembered the scene. "We threw it in, told him:" Will play [as a number] 7 years old, "says the coach. He has absolutely no idea where he will defend himself from what he does. I look up and he is on the other side of the field. I look at my staff and I wonder: "What's wrong with this kid?"

Things changed when Giffard brought Haji up on the field. He was unstoppable as No. 10, scoring a goal and creating a number of excellent chances with individual efforts and assists. The raw talent was obvious. The problem was not the ability; it was the preparation.

"We receive it on video the next day and I ask him:" Siad, what are you thinking of? "His eyes are huge," Giffard said. He said, "I have no idea. Nobody ever told me how to defend. "It's the kid who has fallen away in the US A lot of his game has grown on the street, in the basketball gyms, playing with guys from the neighborhood."

Haji had always played an offensive role, defying the defenders with minimal or no defense responsibility. This has changed at VCU. Giffard and his collaborators, still convinced that Haji's best position was right despite his pre-season performances, worked with him on his tactical awareness and defense. He immediately reacted and improved dramatically in a few months.

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  • "At the end of the first fall [semester]we left him in situations because he was a better defender than the others [on the team]"The coach said," It was a big step very quickly. "

    Haji has two goals and eight assists in 17 starts. The Rams finished second in the A-10 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, despite the loss of seven seniors from the previous season. Last fall, Haji scored five goals and 10 assists in 18 starts, helping VCU win the A-10 championship of the regular season.

    That's not to say that it's a finished product. Far from there. Giffard likens Haji to a less refined Nagbe, at least at this stage of his career.

    "Siad is a little more ambitious than D to take people and take risks," he said. "D is a little stronger and a little harder to eliminate." Siad gives [the ball] leave a little more but is a little more interested in eliminating guys and taking guys. He is probably not as ready in MLS as D was as a rookie. He still needs time to grow. "

    Siad knows it too. During the preliminary interviews, he was not afraid to talk about his faults to his future coaches and general managers, in addition to his skills. He said that they responded positively to the honesty. It's a kid who hopes to learn and get better and who knows he can do it.

    Haji is still young, a family-oriented teenager who quotes his favorite goal in a Sunday league, not because it was a brilliant weaving race where he bombarded the flank and took a few players (that's why he was 39; was), but because it was one of the first games that his father came to watch and he loved to celebrate with his father. Yet, in the MLS in 2019, a growing league that spends money and is smarter about the number of talented players it imports, a potential star like Haji could be a brilliant breakthrough in the game. SuperDraft, more and more irrelevant. It will not happen next year, but he must be patient to be rewarded.

    "In the next two or three years, he could grow as a young child, he has such an ability to improve in this way, especially when he feels that he has something to do", said Giffard.

    "I just hope that the right group will understand it, and that it will understand how to develop a player because if he does, there is a potential for the senior national team to # 39; s back. "