Friday was the day Siad Haji’s dream came true. The 19-year-old from Manchester was the second overall pick in the Major League Soccer draft.
Haji, a winger, was selected by the San Jose Earthquakes.
“To get your name called, it’s like a blessing,” Haji said Saturday from Manchester, exhausted after flying home late Friday night from Chicago, where the draft was held. “The reason why I say that is, looking back at the journey that I came from, coming from Kenya, many people have this dream for a better life or a better job. So as an athlete this is a dream come true for me.”
Haji’s journey started at a refugee camp in Kenya, where he was born after his parents fled war-torn Somalia. In 2004, they moved to New Hampshire in search of the American dream.
Soccer, Haji said, was a bridge that helped him acclimate to a new home.
“It has always been a big part of my life. The game just inspired me to figure things out on the field, coming here not knowing the language, not knowing the people, not knowing the different cultures,” he said. “The game has been really impactful for me. It made me focused and stay on the right path.
“My dad really really appreciates the game and that has been a big factor as well.”
Haji graduated from Central in 2016, though he did not play soccer there. He played for the New England Revolution academy, and the United States under-15, under-17 and under-19 squads.
Even though Haji didn’t play in high school, Central boys’ soccer coach Chris LaBerge knows him well. Haji trained with the Central team as a youth.
“If you ask any of the coaches in the city who knew him, even when he was 9 and 10, we knew he was the best player we’d ever seen,” LaBerge said. “We’re so proud of him and happy for him because he’s made it all happen.
“He’s humble and super nice. Just do anything for you. He’s one of the smoothest players I’ve ever seen. His vision and his passing from a young age were off the charts.”
LaBerge predicted that Haji will slide right into the Earthquakes lineup and may be starting before too long. He said Haji creates attacks with his speed, vision and passing ability.
“That’s what they’re looking for: a guy who makes your strikers better, your other midfielders player,” he said.
LaBerge had a further prediction: “He’s going to be a big part of the U.S. national team down the road.”
Haji played his freshman year of soccer at New England College in Henniker under the tutelage of coach Dave DeCew.
“We all couldn’t be any happier for Siad. His dedication to improve and develop his talents have been rewarded. We wish him the very best moving forward and are extremely proud to be a part of his story,” DeCew told the NEC athletics website.
Haji played for the Pilgrims in 2016 before transferring to Division I Virginia Commonwealth University. In his freshman campaign, Haji played in 14 games and scored nine goals, while adding a pair of assists, as NEC captured its first North Atlantic Conference Championship.
During his two years at VCU, he went on to score seven goals and tacked on 18 assists in 37 games.
According to NEC, Haji is the highest pick in MLS history to have played Division III soccer. The previous highest was Julio Cengarle (Montclair State) in 1998 by the Colorado Rapids.
Haji credits the support he received growing up in Manchester with his success. He said the Bring It! after-school program at Hillside Middle School, which serves 500 to 700 youths from the fourth through 12th grades from more than 30 countries, helped him with his soccer skills and his homework. He also said Teen Night at the Salvation Army, which offered indoor soccer on Friday and Saturday nights, helped his development.
He also credited family friends Shawna D’amour, Benjamin Dick, the Paradise family, Amar Dzelilovic, a teammate with the NH Classics youth team (now called GPS New Hampshire), and his family, Heidi Cadwell and Linda Cadwell, and Jay Joseph of the NH Classics, his first coach in New Hampshire.
Haji is looking forward to starting his professional journey. He reports to San Jose next Sunday, and preseason training will be in Cancun, Mexico. The Earthquakes have a new coach, Matias Almeyda.
“I’m ready for the new city, the new life, he said. “I still love the Granite State, though.
“They have really great coaches, teammates with a really good support system,” Haji said. “I’m excited to work hard and ask questions and apply it. ... I’ve always just learned to ask questions and just keep moving forward.”
Haji plays because he loves the game, but he says he’s keenly aware of what his success means for other youths who come to America.
“I enjoy (soccer). I love it. I’m just basically playing for the next person that could potentially have the dream that I’m enjoying right now,” he said. “One of my fellow Kenyans can do it. That’s why (being drafted is) so exciting to me.”
He’s also looking forward to playing someday close to home, when his Earthquakes visit the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
“I’m excited to be able to be closer to home. There will be many friends to come to see me,” he said. “There’s been a lot of people who played a big role in my success in terms of just lioving me and welcoming me.”
But Saturday, 24 hours after hearing his name called, he still hadn’t slept from all the excitement.
“Man, I tried my best. I tried my best,” he said with an energetic laugh. “It’s quite an experience. I have flashbacks to having my name called.”