On Friday afternoon, Siad Haji achieved his dream of becoming a professional soccer player when the San Jose Earthquakes took the 19-year-old Generation Adidas attacker with the second pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.
Haji took a winding road to reach this point. He's a refugee who grew up playing soccer on the streets in northern New England, nobody's idea of a soccer hotbed. He was never tipped for stardom, spending his freshman year of college in Division III before landing on a D-I team. He's a relative 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 one can take to becoming a soccer pro in the United States.
Haji arrived in the U.S. with his family in 2004. He doesn't remember much from living in Kenya -- he was only 4 years old when they left -- but has a few recollections of kicking a ball in the streets near his home. In the U.S., his parents, who originally moved to Kenya to escape violence in their native Somalia, settled the family in a refugee community near downtown Manchester, New Hampshire.
Haji played soccer when and where he could, in parks in the summer and gyms during the long winters. In sixth grade, he landed a spot with the New Hampshire Classics. As he progressed, there were opportunities with the New England Revolution U16 academy team as well as appearances in youth national team camps, but the American soccer landscape can be unfriendly and difficult for someone in Haji's position. A long round-trip to training in Massachusetts multiple times a week wasn't a realistic option given his responsibilities as the oldest boy at home. Neither the economics nor the logistics made sense.
While Haji had the talent to play in college, he didn't have the D-I eligibility. Division III provided a solution. He was set to play at Norwich, a private military college in Northfield, Vermont, but his parents decided against it at the last minute. They'd escaped the military in Somalia; why would they send their child to a military school? Adam Pfeifer, the head coach at Norwich, helped Haji switch to New England College, where the player led the Pilgrims to their first North Atlantic Conference men's soccer championship. Pfeifer also alerted Dave Giffard, the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, to Haji's ability, saying he'd fit perfectly into the Rams' system.
Giffard, who worked with future African-born pros including Steve Zakuani and Darlington Nagbe during his stint as an assistant coach with Caleb Porter and the Akron Zips, set about helping Haji get his eligibility. It finally came through and the teenager was ready to report to preseason camp for his sophomore year at VCU.
Haji was set to travel from his home in Manchester, New Hampshire, to Richmond, Virginia, where he'd join the VCU Rams for his sophomore season. A woman from Haji's local community purchased the ticket for him, a thoughtful gesture in support of the young talent. Except the name on the ticket didn't match Siad's given name, Abdulkadir Haji: it was off by a single letter. The gatekeepers at the station wouldn't let him board the bus. He returned home to figure out what to do next.
The bus fiasco, which took a couple days to sort out, wasn't the end of the world on its own, but it did mean that Haji showed up late, stressed by the long, delayed journey. He had to jump right in and a day or two later, VCU took on Georgetown in a preseason match.
Haji barely knew the names of his new teammates. Giffard decided to put his newest player into the game to see how he'd fare as a winger, where Giffard figured his pace and technical ability would work best. He struggled immediately.
"The transition was hard," Haji said from his hotel room at the MLS combine. "I hadn't played for a while. It was rainy and ugly. Defensively, it was hard for me."
Giffard remembered the scene as well. "We throw him in, told him, 'Just go play [as a number] 7,'" the coach said. "He has absolutely no idea where he's going defensively, what he's doing. I look up and he's on the other side of the field. I look at my staff and I'm like, 'what the f--- is wrong with this kid?'"
Things changed when Giffard moved Haji further up the field. He was unstoppable as a No. 10, scoring a goal and creating a number of excellent chances with individual efforts and incisive final passes. The raw talent was obvious. The issue wasn't ability; it was preparation.
"We get him in video the next day and I ask him, 'Siad, what are you thinking?' His eyes are huge," Giffard said. "He said, 'I have no idea. No one has ever told me how to defend before.' He's the kid who has fallen through the cracks in the U.S. A lot of his game developed on the street, in basketball gyms playing with guys in the neighborhood."
Haji had always played in an attacking role, taking on defenders with little, if any, defensive responsibility of his own. That changed at VCU. Giffard and his staff, still convinced that Haji's best position was on the right wing despite his preseason showing, worked with him on his tactical awareness and defending. He took to it immediately, improving dramatically in a few months.
"By the end of the first fall [semester], we left him in situations because he was a better defender than the other guys [on the team]," the coach said. "That was a big step really quickly."
Haji tallied two goals and eight assists in 17 starts as the Rams finished second in the A-10 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 despite losing seven seniors from the previous season. This past fall, Haji posted five goals and 10 assists in 18 starts, helping VCU to an A-10 regular-season championship.
This isn't to say that he's a finished product. Far from it. Giffard compares Haji to a less refined Nagbe, at least at this point in his career.
"Siad is a little more ambitious in taking people on and taking risks than D was," he said. "D's a little stronger and a little bit more difficult to dispose. Siad gives [the ball] away a little more but is a little bit more interested in eliminating guys and taking guys on. He's probably not as MLS ready as D was as a rookie. He still needs some time to grow."
Siad knows this, too. During pre-draft interviews, he wasn't afraid to tell prospective coaches and general managers about his faults in addition to his skills. He said they responded positively to the honesty. He's a kid who hopes to learn and get better, and who knows he can.
Haji's still young, a family-oriented teenager who cites his favorite goal as one in a Sunday league not because it was a brilliant weaving run where he bombed in from the flank and took a few players on (it was), but because it was one of the first games that his father came to watch and he loved celebrating with his dad. Yet in MLS in 2019, a league that's growing, spending money and getting smarter about the level of talented players it imports, a potential star like Haji could be a brilliant find in the increasingly irrelevant SuperDraft. It won't happen next year, but he must be patient to be rewarded.
"In the next two or three years, he could grow like a young kid. He has such capacity to improve in that way, especially when he feels like he has some things to do," Giffard said.
"I just hope for the kid that the right group gets him, that understands how to develop a player because if they do, there's senior national team potential on the back end."