One of the more intriguing names on the U.S. Men’s National Team’s 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup roster is midfielder Kenny Saief. Having had a one-time change of association request granted by FIFA earlier this month, the winger is now in the midst of his first U.S. camp.
Here are five things you should know about one of the newest members of the U.S. MNT:
American by Birth
The story of how Kenny Saief (SIGH-ef) was born in the U.S. is a fascinating one, relating to his family’s practice of the Druze religion. After his parents’ marriage, their attempts to have a child proved unsuccessful resulting in their desire to seek advice inside their faith.
Carrying out a coffee drinking ritual, a religious advisor looked at the way the grounds rested in the cup after they finished and interpreted that they needed to travel abroad to change their fortunes.
“They could see the shape that the coffee grounds formed in the cup and symbolized the need for them to travel out of the country in order to have kids,” Saief said in describing the practice.
“They decided to come to the United States and my father started working here. After three years I was born in Panama City, Florida.”
Having spent his first three years of life in Florida, he moved back to Israel after the death of one of his grandfathers. The return was originally only supposed to be short-term, but when his other grandfather passed, his parents elected to stay in Israel in order to be with the family.
Though his parents weren’t citizens, Kenny’s birth on U.S. soil granted him American citizenship, paving the way for him to represent the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“People look at how that happened and will think it may be little strange. I look at it today and think it all worked out pretty well,” he said with a smile.
Beginning his youth career with famed Israel club Maccabi Haifa in 2005, the attacking midfielder bounced between the Academies of Hapoel Haifa, Maccabi Netanya, and Beitar Nes Tubruk. During this time, he also turned out for Israel’s youth national teams. While playing internationally, Saief impressed scouts on a trip to Germany and was invited to join the 1860 Munich Academy where he was briefly teammates with MNT striker Bobby Wood in 2010.
“He was a good friend for me,” Saief remembered. “We still keep in touch and talk once and a while – not about football, but just as friends and about life.”
After a stay in Germany, Saief returned to Israel to play for Bnei Sakhnin and eventually made his professional debut with the club as a 17-year-old in January 2011. Though he got an early professional run-out, Saief found scarce playing time and later moved between the first teams of Hapoel Haifa and Ironi Kiryat Shmona, before settling with Ironi Nir Ramat Hasharon.
“Early on, I had a difficult period finding playing time as a young player,” Saief said. “Ironi Nir Ramat Hasharon was a lower team in the Israeli First Division where I could play a lot and show myself.”
Saief scored nine goals in 28 matches at the club, and at the same time was performing well with the Israeli youth teams. That effort eventually attracted interest from abroad, where he found a home with Belgian Jupiler League side Gent in August 2014.
His career really began to take off in Belgium, where he’s been a fixture in the Gent midfield the past three seasons, mostly on the left wing, helping the side to top four finishes all three years.
As a result, Saief turned out for De Buffalos in the 2015-16 UEFA Champions League, and more recently played a big role in the club’s UEFA Europa League campaign this past season. Playing 13 matches in the competition, Saief tallied a goal in a 2-0 early-round win against Konyaspor and played both legs of the club’s 3-2 aggregate upset of Tottenham Hotspur in the Round of 32.
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“Gent is a club that was smaller and was moving in the right direction when I joined,” Saief said. “We’ve found consistency and a lot of success in Belgium and in Europe.”
Coming off a season in which he tallied seven goals in 31 league matches, following the Gold Cup Saief will return to a Gent side that will be in the midst of the third qualifying round for the 2017-18 UEFA Europa League. His most recent goal actually came against U.S. MNT goalkeeper Ethan Horvath in Gent’s 2-1 defeat to Club Brugge on May 21, 2017.
WATCH: Saief Scores Final Goal of 2016-17 Campaign vs. Club Brugge
Israel National Team
Having come through the Israel National Team program, Saief earned two caps for the senior team last year, coming on as a substitute in friendly losses to Croatia in March and Serbia in May.
Though he played in official competition with the Israeli youth teams, the friendly appearances with the full team did not tie him to the Israeli Football Association, keeping the door open for his one-time switch to the United States.
Now with the U.S. MNT
In the spring, conversations initiated between Saief and the U.S. Men’s National Team staff got the ball rolling on the player filing a one-time change of association request with FIFA.
On June 2, 2017, Saief was included on the USA’s 40-man preliminary roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and 15 days later his change of association request was approved, paving the way for him to be a part of the MNT’s roster for this summer’s confederation championship.
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Having anticipated the trip to join MNT camp, Saief opened up about his feelings when he arrived June 25 in Nashville.
“It was very special. I was very excited to meet the guys and the people here that helped me with the paperwork to switch. It was a really special moment for me. When I got my clothes from here and put it on, I was looking at the U.S. crest. I called my mom first to tell her I got here and told her about my new U.S. National Team gear. She asked me to send a picture, so I took a selfie and sent it to her.”
“My family is very proud,” he said. “They’re all behind my decision and wanted me to be here, so it’s a special moment for them also.”
Asked if he felt he belonged with the team after having had the chance to integrate with side during the first week of camp, Saief said:
“Yes, absolutely. If I didn’t feel like I belonged here, I wouldn’t have decided to come and play with the National Team. I was born here and I feel this is my country. I’m proud to be considered for the U.S. National Team, and want to play and help the team continue to improve.”
“Everyone in the team – coaches and players -- are great guys,” he continued. “They’re helped me integrate in the group and are pushing me to be my best, always asking if I need something. They are always there and it makes everything about being here much easier.”