Kenny Saief is good enough for the Champions League, but not the U.S.?
GHENT, Belgium -- When Kenny Saief sustained an abdominal injury during warm-ups before KAA Gent's Belgian league match on Sunday, he was understandably frustrated. Gent has the second leg of a Europa League match scheduled for Thursday, and the Belgian league's playoffs are a few weeks away.
But Saief, a talented midfielder who was born in the United States, raised in Israel and is eligible to play for both countries' national teams, did find a lone positive in the situation. "From the international perspective, the timing might not be a bad thing," he said.
If that sounds strange, consider Saief's situation: Israel was expected to call him up for its World Cup qualifier against Spain next week, yet Saief is not sure that is the country he ultimately wants to represent.
"I hope I will get a call from the United States; let's be honest," he said. "The U.S. is a much bigger and better national team than the Israeli national team. They qualify for almost every World Cup, and it's a dream of every football player to play in the World Cup. So that is where I want to play. I'm just waiting."
As it turns out, Saief's injury gives the United States an extension of sorts -- because while Saief's sentiment about the U.S. team was not surprising, it also almost surely would have gone unrequited during this particular international window.
U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena is expected to announce Wednesday which players will be called in for training ahead of two critical World Cup qualifiers on March 24 (vs. Honduras) and March 28 (vs. Panama), and Saief, 23, was not going to be on the list, even pre-injury.
Why not? Given Saief's rise in the club soccer landscape over the past few years, some fans may reasonably be wondering. He joined Gent in 2014, started for the Belgian team in the Champions League last year as it made a run to the round of 16 and has been a key part of its success this season, both in the domestic league and the Europa League. Last month, Saief played 90 minutes in both legs of Gent's round-of-32 victory over Tottenham; last week, he played 76 minutes and had an assist in the round-of-16 first leg defeat to Genk.
With that kind of pedigree, how come the odds were against Saief getting called up by the U.S.? The answer, as is often the case in international soccer, is complicated.
First is the timing: After the Americans lost their first two World Cup qualifying matches last fall, Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and Arena was brought in with a basic mandate: get to Russia. As such, there are unlikely to be many new faces among the team called in for these qualifiers. Arena wants to use familiar players he feels he can trust in these games in which the United States desperately needs points. Tying a dual-national player to the U.S. simply can't be a priority.
The United States has scouted Saief -- they had a representative at one of the Europa League matches against Tottenham -- and the evaluators are also not necessarily convinced he is a significant upgrade over the other attacking midfielders on the roster (Arena has expressed an interest in seeing Fabian Johnson further up the field, while Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley seem entrenched).
Additionally, since U.S. Soccer, which declined to comment on Saief's situation, would have to shepherd Saief through the paperwork of a switch from Israeli-to-American registration with FIFA, it would have to be fairly certain that Saief could make an impact right away. At this point, it doesn't appear to have that level of certainty.
Taylor Twellman, who played for the national team from 2002 to 2008 and is a soccer analyst for ESPN, said Saief's versatility and potential should make him a strong consideration for Arena.
"He's a left-footed player, prefers to play as either a left or right winger but has at times played even left-back for Gent, which is a question mark for Bruce Arena and that group," Twellman said. "Why wouldn't you call him up with his Champions League experience and enthusiasm for representing the U.S. national team? I think it would be a mistake to pass him up. It obviously doesn't mean he is a guarantee to be a starter, but building a pool of quality players who create competition for one another is a massive step in the growth of U.S. national team."
Of course, it is also worth considering that the kinds of players a team needs during the rigors of CONCACAF qualifying can be -- and often is -- different than the kinds of players it needs during the World Cup, when opponents from the rest of the world present different challenges. Neither John Brooks nor Julian Green, for example, played a significant role in qualifying for the United States ahead of the 2014 World Cup, yet both made impacts for the Americans in Brazil.
Some observers think Saief, as a playmaker, could have a similar impact if the United States reaches Russia. But then the question with him remains: Will he still be available?
Saief played for Israel at the youth level and has made two appearances in friendlies for the senior team. Yet optics and politics may be working against Saief in terms of his relationship with the federation. Time spent in Israel is a factor. By playing abroad -- he made 39 appearances for Israeli club teams before moving to Gent -- Saief is different than the vast majority of players on the national team, who generally play in Israel or at least spend significant time there before moving to a foreign league.
"In Israel it always is and always will be political decisions," Saief's agent, Dudu Dahan, said. "It was like this before current manager Elisha Levy and will also be after him. This is the mentality in the country, and not just in football."
There is also a lingering effect from Saief's professed interest in the United States, a feeling within the federation that if Saief does not want to play for Israel with all his heart, perhaps he shouldn't.
Yet all indications were that Israel was planning to call him up for the match against Spain, which -- if he played -- would have tied him to Israel permanently.
"Take him and let him play official minutes so he can be Israel capped," said, Oren Josipovich, a senior writer at Walla Sports in Tel Aviv. "If he won't be included in the Israel team and in two or three years he is a remarkable star for the U.S. team, it will be the stupidest thing that the Israel team ever did, and they have done a lot of stupid things."
Saief said he is not sure what he would have done if he were called by Israel and were healthy. "I can't be certain but I think maybe I would not have gone because I want to play for America," he said. For now, the issue has been delayed at least until the next international window in June.
It's a decision Saief has waffled on in the past. There were a series of media reports that his father, who died in 2015, had told Saief he should play for Israel. Saief disputed the dramatic nature of the reports and said he believes his father would be happy if he ended up representing the United States.
"At the time, I was trying to make it as a professional player and that was the natural thing for him to want," Saief said. "If he were here right now, he would be excited if I played for the United States. I know that for sure."
At a minimum, Saief's club career appears to be on the rise. He has found a comfortable life here in this city about half an hour from Brussels by train, and he said the dynamic in the dressing room is "the kind that makes you want to play for everyone."
In 2015, Gent won the Belgian league title for the first time in its history and last year it became the second Belgian club to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League. Saief scored in his second league game for Gent -- "in Israel I scored in front of 200 people and here it was like 20,000," he said -- and said he has seen his decision-making improve with each game he plays at the high pace of European soccer.
"When I came here, I was in the mindset that to be a good young footballer, you have to dribble and beat opponents that way," he said. "Now, I am more focused on my game. I try to make every control perfect. I try to make every pass perfect. I never ease off. My focus is sharper."
His agent believes Saief will be playing in a bigger European league soon -- there has been interest from German and English clubs -- but the larger question remains as to where Saief will find his home internationally.
"I feel like I can't control who calls or when it happens," Saief said. "It is out of my hands. So I will wait."
Raphael Gellar contributed to this report.