Siad Haji is on alert.
Throughout his rookie season in Major League Soccer with the San Jose Earthquakes, the midfielder from Manchester wants to learn as much as he can from his coaches and teammates while earning his way onto the pitch.
Haji, 19, was born at a refugee camp in Kenya after his parents fled war-torn Somalia. His family moved to New Hampshire in 2004 and Haji graduated from Manchester Central in 2016.
After recording 16 goals and 20 assists over his collegiate career with Division III New England College and Division I Virginia Commonwealth University, Haji was selected second overall in this year’s MLS draft by San Jose. According to New England College, Haji is the highest draft pick in MLS history to have played at the Division III level.
When he first began training with the Earthquakes, Haji immediately noticed differences between the college and pro level. The speed of the game and intense competition among teammates for playing time especially stood out.
“The difference was just the speed of play, everybody being smart on the ball and how everybody is competing for a spot,” Haji said. “How well you do that week can guarantee you’re able to play the week or not.”
Haji has played 41 minutes as a substitute over four of the Earthquakes’ 28 games. San Jose is sixth in the Western Conference standings. The top seven teams from the Western and Eastern Conference at the end of the regular season will qualify for the MLS playoffs, which begin Oct. 19.
Like each of his teammates, Haji wants to play as much as possible. To better his chances of doing so, Haji has emphasized always competing, listening and asking his coaches and teammates plenty of questions.
“Listening, making sure I follow instructions and make sure I’m doing every drill properly and being alert 100 percent, asking questions of players that have been here for years about what to do and how to get better,” Haji said. “That’s easy for me because I have no problem asking someone for help and helping the next person.”
At the beginning of the season, Haji asked veteran teammate Shea Salinas how best he could prepare himself for training each day. Haji said Salinas gave him recommendations like the best ways to get a good night’s sleep and stretch and warm up before going to practice and make sure to get to the facility early.
“It’s little but really matters because it gets you ahead of everybody else and your body is ready to go when the coach arrives,” Haji said.
San Jose first-year coach Matias Almeyda is looking for Haji to be a creative midfielder who can provide the final pass and also contribute defensively. Those are pretty much the same responsibilities Haji had while playing at VCU for coach Dave Giffard.
“Many players are great offensively but you have to be able to have the mindset to defend, as well, because it’s going to help as a team to have everybody defend,” Haji said. “I think that’s helped me a lot and at VCU, coach Giffard emphasized that a lot and it’s helped me being here.”
Haji saw his most game time in his MLS debut on May 11, playing the final 24 minutes in San Jose’s 3-1 loss at the New England Revolution. About 60 of Haji’s friends, family and former teachers were among the 20,610 fans at Gillette Stadium for the game.
“It made my debut a dream come true,” Haji said. “You want to have your first impression and first minutes and for me, I was really, really happy to play in front of my friends and family and also get an opportunity as well.”
Before leaving New England, Haji visited home and received words of encouragement from his friends and family, who assured him more opportunities will come. Haji was used as a substitute in three of the Earthquakes’ next four games following his debut. He has not played since San Jose’s 2-2 tie with FC Dallas on June 8.
“Being able to train harder, do more in the gym, ask a lot of questions, that’s really been my motive,” Haji said. “This year, it’s ask a lot of questions and really just compete, compete, compete. Never stop — that’s my mindset when I get an opportunity. Whether it’s three minutes, 12 minutes, 90 seconds, I’m ready no matter what.”