Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
In front of more than 20,000 fans at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, former Rams midfielder Siad Haji wore a huge grin, waiting to enter the game in the 67th minute.
Haji, who was drafted second overall in this year’s MLS draft by the San Jose Earthquakes, was making his professional debut about 78 miles from where he grew up: Manchester, New Hampshire.
“It was like home,” Haji said. “Friends were there, coaches were there, family was there, so being able to make my debut was just amazing and life changing. Just a lot of emotions I really can’t explain, but it was a happy moment.”
He played 24 minutes as the final substitute for San Jose. The Earthquakes fell 3-1 to the New England Revolution, but that didn’t impact his debut.
“I just went out there and just gave it my best for the team, and that’s all that mattered to me,” Haji said.
The 5-foot-8-inch midfielder became the highest-drafted player from VCU in any sport.
Soon after being drafted, Haji went home for a few days before traveling to the MLS Rookie Symposium in Phoenix, Arizona.
“They taught us the rules, taught us about taxes, taught us about basically everything rookies should know,” Haji said.
Haji moved to California shortly after the Rookie Symposium to join the team and start training. His first practice was a dream come true.
“First time was just amazing because it was something that every kid dreams of and just being able to do it and make it a reality, it still amazes me today even though it’s my sixth month in,” Haji said.
Haji’s transition to the professional level has been eased by living with two of his teammates, goalkeeper Matt Bersano, 26, and fellow midfielder Luis Felipe, 23.
“I can connect with them even more because we [are] around the same age,” Haji, who is 19, said. “They tell me about how the transition was for them and how everything is for them week in and week out.”
Haji also has Chris Wondoloski, former U.S. men’s national team midfielder, to lean on as well. Wondoloski gives him tips on how to focus or be mentally ready, with help on “doing every drill properly.”
And just because he was selected as San Jose’s top pick in the draft doesn’t mean anything is guaranteed for Haji.
“Obviously you have to earn everything,” Haji said. “You have to earn respect, you have to earn minutes, you have to earn all of that. It’s basically like a restart button, being able to adjust in terms of living conditions and also getting to know the guys.”
Haji, who was drafted his junior year at VCU, is taking online classes to complete his degree.
“I’m taking online classes right now because education is important to my family, and I just want to be able to complete that as well,” Haji said. “After training, I still do online classes so I can complete it.”
There are two other things to get used to in southern California, though: the traffic and the heat.
“But other than that I’m loving every bit of [living in San Jose],” Haji said.