FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Faced with the next step in his career, Gabriel Somi, then of Swedish club Östersunds FK, had plenty of options.
He could stay in the Allsvenskan, Sweden's top flight, or head overseas to “top clubs” in Scotland and Denmark. But two doses of persuasion ultimately convinced the 26-year-old left back that Major League Soccer would be his destination for the 2018 season.
The first came via a phone call from Brad Friedel, the newly-minted coach of the New England Revolution, who Somi had only previously come across from watching the ex-Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper on TV. The other came via Mohammed Saeid, a fellow Örebro, Sweden native who had stints at Columbus Crew SC, Minnesota United and the Colorado Rapids from 2015 to 2017.
The kicker? Somi wanted a new challenge – even beyond playing for Östersunds FK in the Europa League – and that Revs presented exactly that.
“Of course I had plenty of options to stay in Europe,” Somi said, “But I felt it would be a great adventure in MLS and the way Brad [Friedel] wanted to use me was the key.”
Somi’s journey, however, comes with a twist. He’s of Syrian descent, and was first called up to their national team for pivotal World Cup qualifiers against Australia in October. Somi didn’t feature for The Qasioun Eagles then, but he now stands as the sole player of Syrian descent in MLS.
Somi isn’t comfortable speaking about the civil war which has ravaged the Middle East nation since 2011, but other parts of his heritage are entirely fair game.
His mother left Syria in 1989, two years before his birth, in search of a better life for their Christian Orthodox and Assyrian Syrian minority family. When Somi was younger, he’d return to Syria every year to visit relatives and cousins, but “since the war it's been pretty hard” to maintain that tradition.
From that upbringing, Somi speaks five languages – Swedish, English, Arabic, Spanish and Syrian, which he speaks in the home. When asked if he feels more Syrian or Swedish, Somi’s answer resembled that of many dual-nationals: it’s complicated.
“It's hard, but when I’m home it's all Sweden for me,” Somi said. “I'm born and raised there, so I grew up with everything in Sweden. Then in my blood, I'm always Syrian.”
Background aside, all signs point to Somi playing a major role in Friedel’s plans for 2018. The 46-year-old said he identified Somi long before he took the Revs’ job, and once Some was out of contract with Östersunds FK and personal terms were agreed upon, the free transfer fell into place.
Friedel has hailed Somi’s pace, and his sole competition for minutes is likely Chris Tierney, a 10-year veteran and the Revs’ longest-tenured player. Further, when Somi’s in the lineup, Friedel said New England is afforded great tactical flexibility, be it a traditional four-man backline or three center backs with wing backs.
“[He] allows, hopefully, you to pin back some teams if we’re capable of doing that,” Friedel said. “ ... He possesses a lot of the qualities we want from a fullback.”
Whichever way Friedel deploys Somi, the left back hopes that his time in MLS results in an extended run with his national team. Syria recently hired a new German coach, Bernd Stange, and most pressing on their calendar is building up to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, held in the United Arab Emirates.
“I spoke to [Stange] recently, actually,” Somi said. “He checked out my situation here in MLS and asked if I'm still interested in representing Syria, and of course I am. It’s all exciting.”