KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the matter of 12 months, Soony Saad’s soccer career has taken him all over the United States and Europe in search of the perfect environment to take the next step.
Last August, Saad was starting fall practice as a heralded freshman at the University of Michigan. A few months later, he was in the College Cup semifinals as the nation’s leading scorer. Fast-forward a few more turns of the calendar, and the 19-year-old found himself traversing Europe in search of a professional contract.
Now, he’s a Major League Soccer rookie, learning the trade day-by-day as a member of Sporting Kansas City after signing with the league in early July.
Almost a week after Saad scored his first goal for Sporting — in his league debut, no less — MLSsoccer.com caught up with the striker to talk about his transition to the professional game, his role on the team, and whether or not he has any regrets about the path his career has taken.
MLSsoccer.com: You’ve been with Kansas City for almost two months now. How does it feel to finally be a professional and be in this environment every day?
Saad: It’s been really good. It’s exactly what I signed up for and exactly what I wanted. The level of play is intense every single day, and I’m happy that I have the chance to play against the best players in the league. Sporting Kansas City is on a hot streak right now, and it’s because we have a lot of great players. To be training with these guys is a dream come true.
MLSsoccer.com: You got here at a nice time instead of during the period early in the season when it seemed like nothing was going right for KC. Was it nice to immediately be a part of something successful and have some sort of gauge for what it takes to win in MLS?
Saad: Of course. I’m happy I came at the right time when there wasn’t that much pressure on me to produce something. I could take my time with things. We’re doing well. We’re sitting in second [in the East] because of all the work we’ve put in to get there. For me, I’m glad that I am able to be on standby and help out whenever I can. Obviously, I would like to be on the field, but it’s up to the coach. You never know what will happen, and he doesn’t like to rush things.
MLSsoccer.com: What have been the biggest challenges for you coming to Kansas City and a professional environment? A lot of guys talk about the speed of play, for one.
Saad: It’s been a combination of things. Being by myself, I’ve done that before in college and also with the [US] Under-17 residency program. Before I got here, I also had a little bit of experience playing in Europe, which kind of helped me out with the level. I think I’ve been transitioning nicely. Some of the challenges, though, are just accepting my role on the team. In college, I was kind of the go-to guy. In club, I was the go-to guy. In high school, the same thing. Now, I have to understand that this is the professional level and you’re not always going to be the go-to guy. I have to understand where I am in the pecking order.
MLSsoccer.com: Everyone who manages to play professionally has aspirations, and most want to work their way to being, as you said, a go-to guy. When you look at your game and your acclimation so far, what are areas you’ve identified as places to improve?
Saad: Technically speaking, it’s with game experience that you get better. I’m just working day-by-day to improve myself, work on my touch and also my strength. … After my debut, I realized I can only work harder and I have to work harder. I’m looking at things a little bit differently now. Taking on players and shooting are things I like to do, but I need to adjust defensively with playing attacking midfield in the game and reserve game.
MLSsoccer.com: Speaking of your debut, how big of a motivator was getting your first taste of league action? Scoring the goal had to be a nice touch, too.
Saad: That goal was huge. Even playing was huge for me. To get on the field and get some minutes in for my first MLS experience, it really showed me a lot. There are some things I need to work on, and also there are some things that I’m pretty good at. It’s a chip off my shoulder. I got my first game under my belt and now it’s time to work even harder. I’m a guy that doesn’t just settle for one goal or one appearance. I want to get going, be a starter, get some more goals and help the team out as much as I can.
MLSsoccer.com: Is there anyone on the team that you look at as an example of a guy that you can take things from?
Saad: There are a couple guys. When I’m looking at the attacking midfield role, Graham Zusi and Jéferson are guys that I pay attention to; how they are working on and off the ball. Up top, C.J. [Sapong] has definitely been a good target forward this year. The way he holds the ball up is something I look to be able to learn. Kei Kamara, as well, is a great go-to guy and is really passionate about the game.
MLSsoccer.com: Has Sporting manager Peter Vermes talked to you at all about what role they see you in after playing you in the midfield against Portland and in the reserve game? You played mostly center forward in college.
Saad: I’ve played [midfield] before with the national team. Recently, I haven’t been playing it, though, and it has been a little weird at first. I have a good coaching staff behind me and they are really helping me out. I want to be helping wherever I’m needed. If I need to play center mid or attacking mid or right wing, I’ll do it.
MLSsoccer.com: It seemed like you were really pushing to go to Europe out of school. Do you have any regrets about your decision to choose MLS?
Saad: To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t like to think about what could have happened. I’m thankful for the opportunity that I have right now; to work hard every day, train as hard as I can, get better and get more experience. … I’m happy with the decision I made. I’m happy that I got a chance to come to Kansas City and I’m excited to score more.