Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019
Siad Haji is standing at a podium in a Chicago ballroom, about to take the next step in a journey that is remarkable by almost any standard. It is Jan. 11, the day of Major League Soccer’s annual SuperDraft, and Haji, at 19 and only two months removed from a brilliant season at Virginia Commonwealth University, has just been selected second overall by the San Jose Earthquakes.
He takes a photo with Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, and Garber hands him a jersey. Haji steps to the microphone and looks out at the room of reporters, athletes and league executives.
He unfolds a sheet of paper and takes a breath. He says this is “a dream come true.”
Then he begins to tell the story of his journey to professional soccer.
“Around 1991, a civil war broke in Somalia,” he said.
Siad Haji tells the story of his family coming to America
Haji’s long road to MLS has been told before. He was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, where his parents lived for years after fleeing Somalia. The family came to the United States when Haji was 4 and settled in Manchester, New Hampshire. Haji taught himself English by watching PBS Kids. He played local soccer and in the sixth grade earned a spot on a club team, the New Hampshire Classics. Later, Haji played for the New England Revolution player development academy, and for U.S. Soccer’s under-15, under-17 and under-19 teams. He was a known talent, a gifted athlete who could pass and shoot and make plays all over the field. The coach at Manchester Central High School, Chris LaBerge, said Haji, even at 9 or 10 years old, “was the best player we’d ever seen.”
“In U.S. Soccer circles, everyone knew who he was,” said Dave Giffard, the men’s soccer coach at VCU.
But Haji, for several reasons, kept disappearing from view. Manchester is not a cradle of soccer stardom, and Haji, the oldest boy in a family that had lived for years in displacement, took on more responsibilities at home as he entered his teenage years. The barriers to a future in soccer were numerous.
“For so many players in our country, it’s parent-driven. Your parents pay, they drive you around. It’s an upper-middle class, upper-class sport,” Giffard said. “And clubs try to help kids who don't have the resources to pay all the fees, but in the end, the kids still need to get there. Siad, it was very difficult to get to things outside his community teams. He had to rely on rides from other people. Meanwhile, he’s a young kid doing more for his family than a typical 14- or 15-year-old in the U.S.”
A prep school a few hours away recruited Haji, but he soon returned home. He never played for Manchester Central, instead developing his game intermittently through after-school programs offered by the Granite United Way and the Salvation Army. When Haji graduated high school in 2016, he wasn’t eligible to attend a Division I college.
“In a different environment, he would have been out of the U.S. with a club,” Giffard said. “But even with that early identification, he fell through the cracks.”
For so many players in our country, it’s parent-driven. Your parents pay, they drive you around. It’s an upper-middle class, upper-class sport. And clubs try to help kids who don't have the resources to pay all the fees, but in the end, the kids still need to get there.
Adam Pfeifer knew that Haji was likely to begin his college soccer career at Division III and then transfer to a Division I school. Pfeifer, a friend of Giffard’s and a former standout at Boston College, is the men’s soccer coach at Norwich University, a Division III military college in Vermont. He had grown up facing his own academic challenges, and felt he could relate to Haji, at least a little.
“I’ve been really lucky in my life,” Pfeifer said. “I have some learning disabilities and school was never easy for me. But I grew up in a family where my dad was a child psychologist, we had the means to provide me extra support and I happened to go to a high school with a great special education program. And I was fortunate to be able to use soccer as a vehicle to go to Boston College.
“[Siad] was a kid that … it was clear to me that he was a good person. It was clear to me that he was incredibly smart. And the soccer talent, everybody knew that part.”
Pfeifer believed he could help Haji get to a Division I school — and the financial and academic support Division I schools provide — as soon as possible. In the summer of 2016, he recruited Haji to come to Norwich. But Haji, due to family circumstances, did not enroll. July gave way to August. Haji remained in Manchester. Pfeifer began searching for other schools.
“I wanted what was best for him, which was to get through a year at a four-year college and be able to transfer somewhere that would provide him with the financial and academic support he needed,” Pfeifer said. “I’ve seen lots of kids, myself included, where academics weren’t a strong point and because of the support provided to Division I student-athletes, you can thrive.
“I told [Siad] my goal was to help him achieve his goals. If I just turned my back on him after it didn’t work out at my school, I would have been a liar.”
Pfeifer called Dave DeCew, a friend from high school and the coach at New England College, a small liberal arts school 30 minutes northwest of Manchester. It was a Saturday, two days before the start of the fall semester.
“I asked [Dave], ‘Can you get him in and get him to school tomorrow?’ He knew Siad. Everyone knew him. And I sent over the transcripts and information I had and he was able to connect with Siad and got him into school.”
Haji arrived at New England College late in the 2016 preseason. He didn’t play the first four games. But the talent was there. He scored nine goals in 14 games, leading the Pilgrims to their first conference championship. He also improved his academics, and in the spring of 2017 was preparing to transfer to a Division I school when Pfeifer — who had stayed in touch — picked up the phone and called Dave Giffard at VCU.
“Adam said Siad was available,” Giffard said. “This was April, May. And I said, ‘Let’s chat and see if it can work.’”
There are 206 NCAA Division I men’s soccer teams in the United States. Haji was good enough to play for any of them. But he ended up at VCU in part because Pfeifer, a coach at a school Haji never attended, cared enough to help when there was no personal benefit.
Pfeifer prefers to downplay that rhetoric. He said he was happy to help Haji — “that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said. Giffard, though, sees the situation differently. Sitting in his office on an overcast afternoon last winter, he starts to unpack the first half of Haji’s story, beginning in Kenya and ending with his enrollment at VCU. With so many starts and stops, it’s extraordinary to think that it ended with Haji attending a Division I university at 18, Giffard said.
“Everybody knows who Siad Haji is, and everybody would like to have Siad Haji on their team. Not everybody was going to go through all the things that needed to be done to make it a reality,” Giffard said. “That’s where a guy like Adam [Pfeifer] — the kid didn’t even go to his school. In his first phone call to me, his perspective was, ‘Dave, if this kid grew up in my house, he would play in Europe right now.’”
You can paint this part of Haji’s life with a broad brush, Giffard said, hopping along a geographic timeline from Kenya to New England to Richmond. But you would miss the important details beneath the surface: the early signs he could be a star, the cracks he fell through that cost him years of development, the responsibilities he shouldered helping his family build a life in the United States, the near miss at Norwich.
“He’s a remarkable kid,” Giffard said.
His voice cracks. He pauses for a moment to collect himself.
“Sorry. As I think about it, it’s really amazing.”
Giffard and Haji talked constantly that summer as Giffard worked to help Haji enroll at VCU. Meanwhile, a woman in Manchester purchased a bus pass to send Haji to Richmond for preseason training camp. But when Haji arrived at the bus station, he was turned away. His given name isn’t Siad, it’s Abdulkadir. And when the woman purchased the ticket she misspelled Haji’s first name by a letter.
“They wouldn’t let him on the bus,” Giffard said. “That is a sad thing to think about. My name is Dave Giffard. If my ticket said ‘Drave Giffard,’ I’m pretty sure they’d let me on the bus. But a young, black, Muslim boy with that name …”
Giffard’s voice trailed off.
“To go back home and figure out the money for a new bus ticket, it took five days.”
For a second consecutive year, Haji was late to camp. The day he arrived, VCU was playing Georgetown in a preseason match. Giffard sent Haji into the game. He looked lost.
“He went in and he had no idea what he was doing or where he was going,” Giffard said. “When you do stuff with U.S. Soccer, you pop in for a week or 10 days, you play a little bit and it’s not a lot of structure. It’s more for the coaches trying to get a feel for where people are developmentally. Aside from God-given, a lot of [Siad’s] development probably happened on the playground, playing pickup with his friends.”
Haji scored a goal that day, and created some good scoring chances, Giffard said. He had a lot of ability but needed structure.
“The first couple weeks for him were a really big adjustment,” Giffard said. “[But] by the end of the season, his learning curve was so quick, he was a guy we didn't want to take off the field. The first jump he made here, we crammed in eight to nine years of tactical development into two months. That was exciting to see him improve as much as he did.
“Those first months were a big learning curve — academically, socially. I think he grew considerably, just being able to stand on his own two feet.”
I mean everybody knows who Siad Haji is, and everybody would like to have Siad Haji on their team. Not everybody was going to go through all the things that needed to be done to make it a reality. That’s where a guy like Adam [Pfeifer] — the kid didn’t even go to his school. In his first phone call to me, his perspective was, ‘Dave, if this kid grew up in my house, he would play in Europe right now.’
Haji scored two goals and added eight assists as VCU won the 2017 Atlantic 10 championship. He followed with a breakout 2018 season in which he scored five goals, distributed 10 assists and was named the conference’s top midfielder. He had three assists in VCU’s upset of No. 20 Old Dominion on Sept. 19. In the A-10 opener against La Salle, he dribbled across midfield, raced away from two defenders and fired a rocket into the back of the goal from 30 yards out. A week later, he scored two goals against Massachusetts, smoothly weaving untouched through the UMass defense before finishing with low driving shots into the net.
By the end of his second season at VCU, Haji had emerged as one of the top playmakers in the country, Giffard said, setting up scoring opportunities for his teammates, slicing through opposing defenses like a speedboat through water. Haji was named a first-team All-American by TopDrawerSoccer. In the classroom, he declared a major in sociology and made the College of Humanities and Sciences’ dean’s list.
Two months after the season ended, Haji signed a professional contract with Generation Adidas, a partnership between Major League Soccer and Adidas that provides promising underclassmen a path to MLS. In January, he became the highest-drafted player from VCU in any sport.
“To me, it’s a blessing,” Haji said after being drafted. “Two or three years ago, I did not know I’d be in this position.”
Giffard and Haji stay in touch, usually by text message. Pfeifer reaches out to Haji every now and then — “I’m trying to get him to send me a jersey,” Pfeifer joked.
Both coaches are bullish on Haji’s future. Some of the top U.S. players started their careers through Generation Adidas, including U.S. national team members DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. Haji could one day join their ranks, Giffard said.
“He is a guy, who in the right environment with the right people, has a senior national team ceiling,” Giffard said. “He still needs to develop. But long term, he’s going to do really well. And crazily, he’s a better person than he is a player.”
Haji has played sparingly in his first professional season, appearing in only four games. But there have been memorable moments. He made his professional debut May 11 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, 90 minutes from Manchester.
“It was like home,” Haji told The Commonwealth Times. “Friends were there, coaches were there, family was there, so being able to make my debut was just amazing and life changing. Just a lot of emotions I really can’t explain, but it was a happy moment.”
His two-minute speech at the MLS SuperDraft was widely shared, and Haji’s story has spread in the subsequent months. MLS wrote a short feature about Haji. The Earthquakes uploaded video of the speech to YouTube. A few clicks online and there he is, standing at the podium — dark jacket, red tie, white shirt — speaking about Kenya, about coming to the United States, about soccer, and about his family.
“Leaving their home country left my family heartbroken — leaving everything they had behind and taking nothing but memories they had made,” he said. “But our lives changed [in the United States] because this gave my family an opportunity to live free, it gave my family an opportunity to grow. And it gave me an opportunity to be someone.”
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