By Yousef Hattar
The road to becoming a professional athlete can be an adventurous, but long journey. It takes raw talent, years of practice and an exemplary work ethic to reach the pros. Sometimes there are obstacles, but that didn't stop VCU junior Siad Haji from realizing his dream of becoming a professional soccer player.
Haji was selected by the San Jose Earthquakes with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft in January. He is the highest draft pick by any of the major professional sports leagues in VCU Athletics history. The Earthquakes just recently began their 2019 season on March 2.
A Somali refugee, Haji and his family fled their homeland when he was an infant in search of safety during a time of violence. They found that safety in a refugee camp in Kenya. After living in Kenya for a few years, they were granted asylum to come to the U.S. and eventually settled in New Hampshire when Haji was four years old.
Haji knew he loved soccer when he was a young boy living in Kenya. Whether it was on the streets, in alleys, at the park, or even in the house, he always found a way to play. While he first fell in love with the game while living in Kenya, his passion for the game blossomed when he immigrated to the United States.
The first time Haji played organized soccer was when he came to the States. It was a challenging adjustment, but with the help of teammates and their families, it became much easier. The first team Haji played for was the New Hampshire Classics. He gives praise to the Paradise family, Dzelilovic family, Cadwell family and Head Coach Jay Joseph for being there for him when he needed it most. They provided him with rides to practices, games and tournaments so he could play the game he loved.
Without the help of those people, Haji says, his life could have turned out much differently. He says he repaid people's generosity by working hard to develop his game and become the best soccer player he could be.
"I'm forever grateful for the people that helped me and my family when we needed it most. Without them, I don't know if I'd be in this position," said Haji.
Haji says he garnered interest from a number of Division I programs when he was in high school, including Virginia and Penn State. He believed he had the skill set to play at a big school, but chose to attend Division III New England College to stay close to home and to focus on his grades. Head Coach Dave Decew believed in Haji and wanted him to come to New England College to further develop his game.
After a year of attending NEC, Haji decided it was time to find a D-I school with a prestigious soccer program so he could follow his dream of becoming a professional soccer player. That's when he met VCU Men's Soccer Head Coach Dave Giffard.
Haji eventually chose to transfer to VCU because Giffard "took the time to get to personally know me and my family, and that meant the world to me."
Along the way, Haji spent time at multiple levels with the U.S. National Team, most recently the U20 squad during its preparation for the 2019 U20 World Cup, in Poland. He says training with the National Team bolstered his belief that a professional soccer career awaited him.
Being around a professional environment and playing with and against professional players was a special time for Haji. He realized that his dream was inching closer and closer to becoming a reality.
Haji's two-year career at VCU was nothing short of outstanding. Along the way, he racked up seven goals, 18 assists and 32 points. He was named a TopDrawerSoccer First Team All-American, United Soccer Coaches All-Southeast Region First Team, the 2018 Atlantic 10 Conference Midfielder of the Year and earned A-10 First Team honors in his two seasons in the Black & Gold.
Haji signed a Generation adidas contract this winter and selected to forgo the rest of his eligibility to enter the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. It was a moment he and his family will never forget.
After signing the GA contract with the MLS, the next step for Haji was to attend and participate in the combine. The MLS Draft Combine, held in Orlando, Fla., is where the athletes showcase their skills to the teams and coaches in order to prove their worth. New San Jose Head Coach Matias Almeyda apparently saw something special in Haji.
"The combine and the draft process was like an adventure," Haji said.
He recognized that hearing his name called and standing on that draft stage is something few will ever experience. Haji says he made sure to relish the moment. Following his selection, Haji received a joyful call from his parents in New Hampshire.
They said, "We're extremely proud of you, son. We want you to enjoy every moment of it but the real work starts now," Haji recalled.
There's no doubt that Haji's story is unique. He and his family weathered a number of trials and tribulations that many people couldn't imagine going through, and that makes Haji's ascension to the No. 2 pick in the MLS SuperDraft that much more special.
Haji has a simple message to every kid who holds the same dream he once had as a young boy.
"Keep believing and keep pushing, but most importantly, just have fun and enjoy the game of soccer."