A few months ago, Kenny Saief wasn't aware city called Cincinnati existed, much less could he spin a globe and point it out.
The creative attacker was still on the books for Belgian giants Anderlecht, his fifth season in the country and second at the club. But things weren't going as well as they had the four seasons prior. He got hurt, there was an unfavorable coaching change and Saief found himself on the bench all too often.
Things are much better in the Queen City.
“I didn’t even know there was a Cincinnati to be honest!" Saief told MLSsoccer.com last week with a self-deprecating laugh. “It’s a very nice city, the people here are very friendly. It feels good to be in the city.”
Still, FC Cincinnati weren't Saief's only option. There was work to be done to ensure that the US international would soon be one of FC Cincy's most important players.
Fans can thank technical director Luke Sassano for getting the deal over the line.
“The guy who convinced me was Luke," Saief said. "I knew there was interest from multiple teams in MLS, but at that point I was focused on staying at Anderlecht. At one point, Luke took a flight over, we had a chat and he convinced me this is the right place. Something inside of me said this is the right choice to take right now.”
Saief playing for Gent in 2017 | Reuters / Dylan Martinez
Saief was born in Miami but spent only the first three years of his life in the country before his parents moved their family to Israel, where he would spend his youth. Saief then joined Gent in 2014 and enjoyed three strong seasons with the Belgian side, earning him a move to the storied club RSC Anderlecht, who have far and away won Belgium's most league titles.
“At the beginning at Anderlecht, it was all good until I got injured," Saief said. "Things changed with the new coach. I wanted to play, that’s what I like to do, to play soccer. That’s the most important thing, to get my minutes. Once I saw it was difficult, I had a chat with the coach. He didn’t want to let me go but I tried to convince everybody I want to play. They promised me in the future I’d get a chance but I didn’t want to wait anymore.”
With Saief ready for a change of scenery, clubs came calling, including more than one from MLS. He had a decision to make.
“You can talk to many people, but when you don’t feel this is the right thing between you and yourself, it’s something you won’t do, you know what I mean?" Saief explained. "Something inside me felt good with this move. People tried to talk to me, but when Luke talked to me I felt good. I trusted him. I’m very happy with this choice, hopefully it will keep getting better and better.”
In Cincinnati, just as he longed for, Saief hasn't struggled to get his minutes.
Even as the 25-year-old asserts he is still regaining his form and fitness, he has impressed with a goal and two assists across six appearances (four starts).
“There’s a lot still to improve," Saief said. "My level is higher than what I’m showing right now. I believe I can do much more to help the team get more points. It’s the beginning, to get used to the league and the players I’m with, it takes time.”
Saief after scoring a goal this season | USA Today Sports Images
If he is able to continue to raise his level to where he believes he's capable, a return to the US national team may be on the horizon. In 2017, Saief was selected to Bruce Arena's provisional Gold Cup roster seemingly out of nowhere. He was not on the radar for casual USMNT fans, having represented the Israeli youth national team at various stops and even earned a pair of friendly appearances with their senior national team.
But when America called, Saief had no hesitation about filing for a one-time nationality switch.
“At one point I got a call from Bruce Arena, they asked if I was interested to switch," Saief said. "I said yes, it’s been my dream through my youth to represent the country I was born. Israel also has a big part in my heart, but I wanted to represent the country I was born in. I didn’t doubt this decision.”
Could a run of form spark a return to the US national team?
“I hope so," Saief admitted. He added that he hasn't spoke with USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter yet. "Now, I’m focused on getting my level back step-by-step. It’s an honor to represent your country, I hope I can show the coach that I deserve to be there. I’ll do my best for my team. It’s an honor for every American to represent their country, this is a dream of every kid.”
For now, all he can do is focus on himself, his new team and new city.
“It’s really nice, it’s a great group and I’m enjoying my time here," Saief said. "On and off the field, I’m having a great time right now.”