Back in the USA, Kenny Saief at Full Strength

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.
By: Chris Kennedy

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.

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.

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.”