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This March marks Kenny Saief’s third trip to the United States. The first came at the very beginning of his life. The second drastically changed him. He hopes the third will mark the start of more regular journeys stateside as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Saief’s birth in the USA came in a form of divine intervention. 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.”
Three years later, Kenneth Hasan Saief was born in Panama City, Fla.
- READ MORE: Five Things to Know About Kenny Saief
Saief moved back to Israel after just three years in the Panhandle. He played professionally there before a standout season in 2010 catapulted him to Belgium’s KAA Gent.
Internationally, Saief previously represented Israel at several levels of the nation’s youth set-up and appeared in friendlies for the senior team. However, Saief has his sights set on representing the USA. He applied for and received a change of association approval from FIFA, and he finally booked a return trip to the States last summer when he received his first U.S. MNT call-up as part of the preliminary roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Against Ghana on July 1, Saief made his debut with the red, white and blue. He turned in a positive performance as a substitute against the Black Stars, but after he earned his first cap, he could feel that he had aggravated a sports hernia. The groin injury kept him off the Gold Cup roster and he returned overseas to seek treatment. Ultimately, it required surgery.
“After the game against Ghana, I felt a lot of pain in my abdomen,” Saief said. “We chose to do the surgery because I couldn’t keep going with this pain.”
The rehab process came slow and steady. USA coaches and teammates reached out to buoy his spirits through the grind of recovery. As a newly minted U.S. international, he spent his additional free time practicing his English in an effort to master the language. As Saief started to resume training, he couldn’t wait to return to the pitch.
“When I started training the first time, I wanted to keep going more and more,” Saief said. “My coaches said, ‘Take it easy Kenny, take it easy! We’re taking it step by step.’ When I was healthy I would complain ‘Oh, we have to run so much.’ Now when you experience these things, you appreciate every moment you are on the pitch. I’m grateful that I’m healthy now and it’s the most important thing.”
After time away from the field, Saief came to appreciate aspect of physical training. He lost more than 30 pounds on the mend, but quickly gained his muscle mass back. Saief’s teammates in Belgium couldn’t believe the speed of his recovery. One hundred and forty-six days after he left the field in East Hartford, Conn., Saief made a triumphant return to the Ghelamco Arena.
— Margot Neyskens (@MargotNeyskens) November 24, 2017
Saief made three more appearances with the Buffaloes before he secured a January transfer to Anderlecht, one of Belgium’s most prominent clubs. Manager Hein Vanhaezebrouck, who brought Saief to Belgium in 2014 with Gent, also recruited him to join the Purple & White.
“In December, he called me and said ‘I know you’ve been through a difficult period, but I believe in you. I believe we can work together again at a high level and I want you on my team,’” Saief said. “When the coach wants you, it gives you a lot of confidence. For sure, you’re going to get your chances to prove yourself. Right now, I’m happy there. I’m playing, I’m doing well.”
A strong run of form with Anderlecht laid his path back to the National Team. Since the new year, he has played the full 90 in every one of the club’s nine matches and here in North Carolina the MNT looks a lot different than the last time Saief joined the squad. At 24, Saief is actually older than the average player on the fresh-faced roster gathered in Cary, N.C., though like many on the 23-player roster for the Paraguay match, he’ll hope to stake a bigger claim when it comes to the future of the program.
“There’s a lot of young players. I see baby faces here,” Saief said. “But when I see them playing on the pitch, you don’t really see that. They have a lot of quality. They are really good players. I really see a big future for those guys. I hope for them that they’re going to keep the hard work and hope that we can have a really good team in the future. We can do great things together.”
Last summer, Saief entered camp with a lingering injury that transformed into a longer, grueling trial. His return to the team carries a much different tone than his MNT debut. Fully healthy, he’s excited to show what he can do. As Saief continues to ascend for his club and earn call-ups for his country, he hopes that this camp will begin a pattern of more frequent trips to the U.S.
“It’s really nice to know that I can come and try to show my best with no pain,” Saief said. “It’s nice to know that you’re healthy and you can do whatever you want on the pitch, every movement, you want to do every cross, every shot. It’s nice to feel free.”
A youthful U.S. Men’s National Team roster will gather in Cary, N.C. for the USA’s March friendly against Paraguay. As the MNT continues to give opportunities to rising talents, five have been called for their first senior team camp and will look to earn their first caps against La Albirroja at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park on March 27 (7:30 p.m. ET; FS1, UniMas).
Here’s a look at the five camp newbies:
SHAQ MOORE | DEFENDER | LEVANTE (ESP)
Shaq Moore is blazing a unique trail as just the fourth American to play in the Spanish first division. He’s broken through this season at Valencia’s Levante after spending most of the 2016 campaign on Las Granotas’ B-squad. While other MNT players have come to La Liga as established pros, Moore has worked his way up through the country’s lower ranks.
After captaining the U-17 Men’s National Team at the 2013 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, and was part of the U.S. squad that advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The son of Trinidad & Tobago international Wendell Moore, Shaq came up through IMG Academy and spent time with FC Dallas.
WATCH: Shaq Moore Takes on Messi and Barcelona
In 2015, Moore decided to test himself with a move overseas and began his climb through the Spanish soccer pyramid with third division Huracán Valencia CF. After a stint at Real Oviedo, Moore made his first-team debut with Levante on October 26 in a Copa del Rey match against Girona. His first season in Spain’s top flight has seen him take on some of the world’s best, including a strong showing in a start against Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona at Camp Nou on January 7.
ANDRIJA NOVAKOVICH | FORWARD | TELSTAR (NED)
While Wisconsin hasn’t produced a ton of players for the senior team, it’s currently home to one of the top scorers in the Dutch Eerste Divsie: Andrija Novakovich. Playing up top for SC Telstar (on loan from English Championship squad Reading), Novakovich has netted 18 goals in 29 matches this season, good for second in the league. A hot streak of late has seen six strikes in his last five appearances for the White Lions.
Involved with the U.S. Youth National Team setup since 2013, Novakovich has always been a goalscorer. He played his youth soccer with the Chicago Magic, developmental home to the likes of Brad Guzan, Eric Lichaj and Ricardo Clark. In 2014, Novakovich passed up a scholarship at Marquette University to sign at Reading. His grandfather played professionally in England, and Reading provided the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.
After a few years in the club’s youth system, Novakovich broke out last season as the top scorer for the Royals’ U-23s, bagging 16 goals. The youth success saw him sign a contract extension through summer 2019 and at the advice of former Dutch international and Reading head coach Jaap Stam, secure a loan to the Netherlands.
ERIK PALMER-BROWN | DEFENDER | KORTRIJK (BEL)
Erik Palmer-Brown has earned his first senior MNT call-up after climbing the rungs of the Youth National Team system. The Lee’s Summit, Mo. Product has made major moves for club and country over the last year, captaining the U-20 MNT to a quarterfinal run at last year’s World Cup in Korea Republic, before signing with English Premier League powerhouse Manchester City in January.
A product of Sporting Kansas City’s U.S. Soccer Development Academy sides, Palmer-Brown became the club’s then-youngest-ever professional player at age 16. He was the second- youngest player on the USA’s 2015 U-20 World Cup squad, earning valuable experience for another run with the U-20s two years later.
As captain of last year’s U-20 team, Palmer-Brown led the USA to its first-ever CONCACAF U-20 Championship and picked up the Golden Ball on the way as the competition’s best player. In Korea at the 2017 U-20 World Cup, Palmer-Brown once again captained the squad and played every minute in the team’s quarterfinal campaign.
The performance and potential earned Palmer-Brown a big move overseas, signing with City at the start of this year. The EPL club immediately loaned Palmer-Brown to Belgian side KV Kortrijk, whom he debuted for earlier this month.
Antonee Robinson - (No. 6 - top row, second from the left)
ANTONEE ROBINSON | DEFENDER | BOLTON WANDERERS (ENG)
After a devastating knee injury kept him off-the-field for the entire 2015-16 season, Antonee Robinson has roared back to become an integral contributor at English Championship side Bolton and earn his first MNT call-up.
Born in Milton Keynes, England, Robinson entered Everton’s academy at age 11. He signed his first professional contract with the club in July 2015 at the age of 17 and put together a stellar youth season that earned him Everton U-18 Player of the Season honors. The campaign catapulted him to two international tours with the first team, but in his first appearance, he suffered a serious knee injury that required surgery.
After a season on the mend, Robinson regained his form and helped lead the Everton U-23s to the Premier League 2 title the following season. His performance secured a two-year contract extension and earned him the opportunity for first-team football on loan at Bolton. There, the defender nicknamed “Jedi” has impressed both his teammates and coaches as the club fights to avoid relegation.
While his trip to Cary will be his first involvement with the MNT, Robinson previously played for the U-18 MNT in a friendly against Germany in December 2014.
TIM WEAH | MIDFIELDER | PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN (FRA)
The last few months have seen a rapid rise for Weah, with the recently-turned 18-year-old also the youngest player called to camp. In October, he starred for the USA at the U-17 World Cup, highlighted by a hat trick against Paraguay, the first-ever for the red, white and blue in a World Cup knockout round at any level.
Since his star-making turn in India, he’s risen through Paris Saint-Germain’s youth ranks and has made two first-team appearances for the French giants this month. Now, he’s earned his first National Team call-up.
Weah Debuts for PSG on March 3 at Troyes
Tim hasn’t been the only Weah making waves of late. His father, George, was inaugurated as president of Liberia earlier this year. It’s the same George Weah that some consider the greatest African soccer player of all-time, the 1995 Ballon d’Or winner and star with AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain over the course of his 19-year career.
While his father starred in international football, Weah was born in New York City. He spent his domestic youth career with Development Academy sides BW Gottschee and the New York Red Bulls. In 2014, Weah moved overseas to join the academy at PSG, the club where his father rose to prominence from 1992 to 1995. He signed professionally with Les Parisiens last June.
After scoring two goals for the U-17 MNT at the 2017 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, Weah formed part of a formidable attacking trio in India alongside Andrew Carleton and Josh Sargent. His hat trick against Paraguay in the Round of 16 made headlines, and his screamer of a second score was one of the goals of the tournament.Read more
U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Dave Sarachan will once again put the next generation of the MNT on display this month, calling 22 players to North Carolina in advance of the upcoming friendly against Paraguay on March 27 in Cary.
With an average of 23 years, 84 days, 17 players are age 24 or under, meaning prospects and potential will be joined with some veteran flavor. USA-Paraguay will be broadcast live from Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and UniMas. Fans can also follow U.S. Soccer’s official Facebook, Twitter (@ussoccer) and Instagram (@ussoccer) accounts.Read more
USA vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Jan. 28, 2018
StubHub Center in Carson, Calif.
Live Broadcast: 9:30 p.m. ET on FS1, UniMas and UDN
Tonight’s U.S. MNT Starting XI vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina: 1-Bill Hamid; 15-Matt Polster, 21-Walker Zimmerman, 3-Ike Opara, 2-Justin Morrow; 6-Wil Trapp (capt.); 9-Gyasi Zardes, 8-Cristian Roldan, 4-Tyler Adams, 13-Jordan Morris; 17-CJ Sapong
Substitutes: 12-Zack Steffen, 5-Tim Parker, 7-Juan Agudelo, 11-Kelyn Rowe, 14-Rubio Rubin, 16-Russell Canouse,
18-Marky Delgado, 20-Paul Arriola, 24-Nick Lima
- U.S. MNT Starting XI Cap Numbers (including this match): Gyasi Zardes (38), Jordan Morris (25), Bill Hamid (5), Justin Morrow (4), CJ Sapong (4), Wil Trapp (3), Tyler Adams (2), Cristian Roldan (2), Walker Zimmerman (2), Matt Polster (1), Ike Opara (1)
- Five of the starting XI are products of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy: Adams (New York Red Bulls), Hamid (D.C. United), Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Trapp, Columbus Crew SC), Zardes (LA Galaxy)
- The Starting XI’s average cap number (including this match): 7.9 caps
- The Starting XI’s average age: 25 years, 310 days
- Six starters are 25 and younger: Trapp (25); Polster, Zimmerman (24); Morris (23); Roldan (22); Adams (18)
- Defenders Ike Opara and Matt Polster make their MNT debuts tonight vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Along with earning his first start at the senior international level, Wil Trapp captains the MNT for the first time tonight.
- Three players appeared in the MNT’s last match, a 1-1 draw at European champions Portugal on Nov. 14, 2017: Adams, Hamid and Sapong
- Six players earned their MNT debuts in previous January Camp friendlies: Hamid and Sapong (Jan. 21, 2012 vs. Venezuela), Morrow (Jan. 29, 2013 vs. Canada), Trapp and Zardes (Jan. 28, 2015 at Chile), Zimmerman (Feb. 5, 2017 vs. Jamaica).
- Nine different clubs and eight from MLS are represented in the starting XI: Trapp and Zardes (Columbus Crew SC); Morris and Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC); Adams (New York Red Bulls); Hamid (Midtjylland/Denmark); Opara (Sporting Kansas City), Morrow (Toronto FC), Polster (Chicago Fire); Sapong (Philadelphia Union), Zimmerman (LAFC)
- Five more players starting on the bench have the chance to make their MNT debuts tonight: goalkeeper Zach Steffen; defenders Nick Lima and Tim Parker; midfielders Russell Canouse and Marky Delgado
- Teams are allowed six substitutions in tonight’s match.
- With both teams dressing 20 players, the healthy scratches from the game-day roster are goalkeepers Alex Bono and Cody Cropper; defenders Danny Acosta, Justen Glad and Brandon Vincent; midfielders Marlon Hairston, Ian Harkes and Brooks Lennon; forward Christian Ramirez.
- The USA has met Bosnia and Herzegovina once before, utilizing a Jozy Altidore hat trick to earn a wild, 4-3 victory on Aug. 14, 2013 in Sarajevo.