In the basement of Sporting Kansas City forward Soony Saad’s childhood home in Dearborn, Mich., there’s a library of more than 600 video cassettes filled with matches from the UEFA Champions League, English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A.
Saad’s rise to national Gatorade high school boys soccer player of the year four years ago and now a regular starter in MLS can be traced back to those tapes and the hours Saad spent watching them with his father, Ali, and older brother, Hamoody.
“We used to watch them over and over again and analyze them,” Saad said. “That’s one thing my dad’s very good at. His knowledge of the game is incredible for somebody who’s never played it at the highest level.”
Ali developed a passion for soccer growing up in Lebanon before he came to the United States during the mid-1980s, settling among eastern Michigan’s thriving refugee population.
As a teenager, he was forced to sneak behind his parents’ backs to play soccer, but that didn’t tamp down his growing love for the game. If anything, it might have fanned the flames.
“When I was young, (soccer) was something taboo, because my parents kind of frowned upon it,” Ali said. “They just wanted me to go to school, but it was something that I loved to do and I was very passionate about it.”
When Ali talks about the game, he speaks about a religious-like passion for soccer and the immense artistry he sees in the beautiful game.
Growing up in a war-torn country, Ali saw soccer as a unifying force, bringing together people of different backgrounds in support of a common team, instilling rare camaraderie for a common cause.
When Ali finally had his sons — the boys are the youngest of four Saad children — he encouraged Soony, who turned 21 Saturday, and Hamoody, 22, to play soccer.
They played in the living room, dueling one-on-one with the couch or coffee table as the goal. They practiced in the bedroom, using the mattress to cushion landings on bicycle kicks. They waged fierce battles in the yard.
“For us, soccer was everything or it was nothing,” Ali said. “Looking back, it may be classified as child abuse, because I was so into soccer and I so badly wanted to instill it in them.”
Of course, living vicariously through his boys, Ali didn’t always make things easy on Soony and Hamoody.
“Even now, he’s hard on us,” Soony said. “At Michigan, when I scored 19 goals, he told me that was the worst soccer he’d ever seen me play.”
Bear in mind, Soony’s freshman year he set an all-time Wolverines scoring record and finished second in the nation, but Ali doesn’t apologize for demanding excellence.
“I was tough in the standard that I demanded and the seriousness of it,” Ali said. “I’ve continued putting pressure on him, because right now he’s getting an opportunity that he must deliver on. He can’t afford to rest on the success he had in the last game.”
Soony, who scored in his MLS debut on his 19th birthday two years ago, made only 13 appearances, including two starts, during his first two seasons with Sporting KC.
It was a difficult, humbling experience, but Soony appears to have turned a corner this summer, starting seven of the club’s last eight matches. He has three goals and three assists in that span for Sporting KC, which has gone 5-2-1 during that period.
“Throughout my whole career, there are times I would think he was too hard or I would be embarrassed,” said Soony, who had assists with his right and left feet last week in a 3-0 win against the New England Revolution. “But I guess looking back now, I know what he was trying to accomplish. I know he didn’t want me to settle for just being good. He wanted me to really push myself and keep raising the bar. I’m thankful for that.”
Ultimately, that’s the biggest lesson Soony took from his father.
“I don’t want to set a ceiling, because I don’t want to set a limit on myself,” Soony said. “But I want to be that guy where people say, ‘Oh, he’s gotten better and better and only continues to get better.”