American Dreams

I first met Abdi and Omar Mohamed in 2006, or maybe it was 2007. I can’t remember the exact date. I didn’t record such things back then. It was through our local soccer club in Northeast Columbus, called Blast FC. My son Xavier played for the Blast, which brought together the more competitive and skilled recreational players whose parents were willing and able to fork out the extra fees for some great coaching and more competitive games. Lesh Shkreli, a former professional soccer player from the former Yugoslavia, ran (and still runs) the boys’ side of the club. Lesh was always generous with his time and offered a few scholarships to talented kids from the neighborhood. Enter Abdi and Omar.

My son’s age group featured a duo of Somali boys, which later became a trio, who lived nearby and loved soccer more than anything. Abdi and Omar Mohamed (unrelated, although they claimed to be at first) were both extremely shy and polite and they each had smiles that would disarm a would-be bank robber. These characteristics made it easy to offer them the occasional ride home from practice when they needed it. Little did I know that this simple and minimal act of kindness would enrich my life for years to come.

The occasional ride home turned into the occasional pick up for practice or for a game, which then led to me providing rides for the boys to tournaments, which then gave rise to me signing off on parental forms and handling birth certificates and all kinds of other ancillary matters. I became a surrogate soccer dad. I don’t say this because it was a hassle or a burden of any sort. I always wore it like a badge of honor. To earn this right, I needed to go to each boy’s house and meet his father. To shake hands and look the patriarch in the eye, because both Abdi and Omar were (and still are of course) well-loved and well-cared for by their respective families. However, as part of a wave of Somali immigrants who settled in Columbus, Ohio, their families often took working class jobs (sometimes multiple) and simply didn’t have the luxury of taking the boys to their events. In Abdi’s case, his father was (and still is at an advanced age) a hard-working small business owner. Omar’s father was working in a factory on third shift. The families greeted me kindly, offered me food and drink, and thanked me for my service. Just like that, I had a bigger family. I became the boys’ primary provider and decision-maker for soccer concerns.

Soccer concerns dominated most of our free time in this age bracket. The boys diligently practiced throughout the year often 4 days a week in addition to games. Lesh always found indoor spots for his teams to practice, so skills training went year-round. We played in indoor leagues in winter and outdoor leagues in spring and fall. Now having been around the game for 40 years, I can say that Lesh offers some of the best youth training around. If a player was serious, he could potentially go far. My own son thrived in this environment with his own accomplishments. But his is another story. This is a story about two of “my” other boys who took their training seriously and went all the way.

As our team aged, some boys developed their skills beyond others. Omar certainly stuck out from the rest. He displayed skills and creativity in games that impressed everyone, including the opposing team coaches and parents. Abdi was always incredibly talented and smart, but he lagged behind in size, which made it easier for bigger kids to knock him off the ball. Omar was our superstar. Abdi kept working. A couple of years later, we picked up a third Somali boy, Mohamed Adam. Mohamed was a big boy and he carried himself authoritatively. He became our midfield enforcer and garnered a lot of attention. Omar kept shining. Abdi kept working.

Often, we would have to stack the four boys in the back of my small sedan to get everyone home. My son and Abdi were the smallest. Inevitably this led to shenanigans. The bigger boys wouldn’t pick on Xavier as much even though I encouraged it. If we’re going to be a family, everyone is going to get equal guff. But the reality is that Abdi took most of the ribbing. Just when I could see the frustration on his face, I’d verbally slow down the shenanigans and tell the bigger boys to watch out because Abdi is going to be bigger than all of them one day. Abdi would figuratively thumb his nose at them and sit a little taller, smiling. Don’t get me wrong here, the boys were all respectful and treated each other like – well – brothers. They may pick on each other in the car from time to time, but let someone from the opposing team step on Abdi or whack my son from behind. Paybacks are hell. Usually, that came from Mohamed.

As the boys aged, we did like all families do. We started to drift apart. Soccer club politics, playing opportunities at other clubs, high school interests, all kinds of things set in. But even when you don’t see your teenagers all the time any more, there is still a bond. Every now and again, we’d run into each other around town and catch up. It was – and continues to be – great. We keep contact through social media and I have followed the boys’ soccer careers ever since.

Dreams Come True

Everyone from the team is now in his early twenties. Three years ago, Omar signed his first professional contract to play for FC Cincinnati. Since then, he’s moved to the Portland Timbers, spent time on loan in Sweden and Switzerland, and if all goes right, he’ll be joining his old manager back in the US for another pro team this fall.

Omar and I share a friendly hug after a rainy game in Cincinnati

Abdi joined The Ohio State University out of high school in 2015 and started as a freshman at center mid, where he played for three seasons. For his senior year, he transferred to the University of Akron and changed to the position of right back. Akron is a smaller college than OSU, but their soccer program is much bigger. This past season, the Zips went all the way to the final in the College Cup and I cheered Abdi on from my living room. Abdi’s performances in college earned him a spot in the Major League Soccer (MLS) College Combine. We got together for a good luck dinner prior to Abdi’s departure, a photo from which is the lead picture in this post. I presume he did well because this past Friday, January 11, 2019, he was selected by New York City FC in the second round of the MLS Super Draft.

Abdi Mohamed selected by New York City FC (NYCFC) on Friday, January 11, 2019

Beaming with Pride

As I watched the video on my phone of Abdi being selected by NYCFC a sense of pride welled up inside. Not because I had anything to do with Abdi’s success. No, his work is all his. Just like Omar. For that matter, just like the other successes that other boys from the team have had. Rather, the sense of pride that I have for Abdi as he hugged his father in that ball room in Chicago after being drafted was my sense of pride in America. Say what we will about all the negative headlines and the three ring circus that we call Washington DC. But the fact remains that this country, warts and all, still provides a chance for a young man who came as an immigrant from war-torn Somalia to settle into sleepy Westerville, Ohio and to “make it.” Obviously, Abdi has a lot of work ahead of him. Getting drafted essentially means that he’s earned the right to put his head down and keep working the way he’s always done. But just for a moment, let’s celebrate this young man. And yes, let’s celebrate America, which is still the land of opportunity.

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