CHESTER, Pa. – Before stepping onto the field last Saturday, Philadelphia Union midfielder Michael Lahoud looked down at the FIFA emblem and World Cup qualifying patch on his Sierra Leone jersey and got chills.
The game against Equatorial Guinea had no actual World Cup implications and Lahoud would end up playing only 15 minutes in a 3-2 win, but for the Union midfielder, those 15 minutes were extremely special.
Not only because they represented his first-ever international cap, but also because they culminated what was an unlikely and emotional homecoming.
After 21 years, Lahoud finally returned to Sierra Leone, a country he escaped with his family as a frightened 6-year-old boy at the beginning of a civil war that would ravage the West African nation for more than a decade.
“It was an emotionally exhausting trip,” Lahoud said this week, after rejoining the Union. “Even now, I’m just visibly exhausted and just recovering emotionally from seeing family, from seeing childhood friends I had lost contact with for so many years and still recognizing people and having certain memories come back. It was pretty special.”
While seeing old friends and family members helped him feel at home during his week-long African sojourn, there were still many things that were unfamiliar to Lahoud, who moved to Virginia as a child before playing soccer for Wake Forest, Chivas USA and now the Union.
It was especially difficult to see the effects that the Sierra Leone Civil War – which lasted from 1991 to 2002 and left more than 50,000 dead – had on Freetown, the country’s capital and the city where Lahoud lived in before fleeing.
“I could recognize faint similarities from my childhood,” said Lahoud, who’s raised money for a Sierra Leone charity over the past couple of years. “But it’s extremely impoverished – a lot more impoverished when I left. When I left, Freetown was arguably one of the most bustling cities in West Africa. Now, it’s probably one of the most struggling cities in West Africa.”
It was also difficult for Lahoud to initially fit in with his Sierra Leone teammates, who he said looked at him as “The American.” But former MLS star and Sierra Leone veteran Kei Kamara helped him in his transition, and Lahoud helped himself by playing well in training.
“With each day I was there, I just felt more and more like I belonged,” Lahoud said. “Obviously getting the call-up shows that you’re part of something. But with each training session, I just felt more and more confident. And when I got into the game for 15 minutes, it was awesome.”
In many ways, Lahoud’s first international call-up was a surprising one, not only because he’s lived in the United States almost all of his life but because he’s played sparingly this season due to a sports hernia.
But the 27-year-old midfielder hopes this is only just the beginning for him on the international stage.
“It’s definitely a pretty exciting adventure that just opened up for me,” Lahoud said. “And I’m looking forward to seeing how far down the rabbit hole goes.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.