Soccer has led Soony Saad, a Dearborn native and Sporting KC forward, on a worldwide adventure in the past year.
First, he played two seasons in Thailand with the Pattaya United in that country’s fledgling professional league only to return the heartland of Kansas — like Dorothy and Toto — with the same club he started his professional career in 2011.
“It honestly feels like a dream,” he said.
Then came the nightmare of traveling to North Korea in September with the Lebanese national team.
Saad, the son of a Lebanese immigrant, came on as a sub in the 88th minute in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier as the Cedars pulled out a 2-2 draw in Pyongyang at the same time its leader Kim Jong-un was conducting underground nuclear tests and trading insults with U.S. President Donald Trump.
“It was crazy ... I didn’t even want to go,” Saad said. “I was a bit nervous.”
An English journalist calmed his nerves before the flight, assuring him North Korea took hosting athletic endeavors seriously and no harm would come to him. Nonetheless, Saad handed his U.S. passport to the team manager to hide as a safety measure, according to an MLSsoccer.com report.
“It’s definitely an intimidating place to be in just because you don’t know anything about it or the world doesn’t know anything about that place,” he said. “It was a good experience at the end of the day.
“Not too many people can say they’ve been to North Korea.”
Saad now finds himself grounded in the harsh reality of trying to get playing time as Sporting KC is barreling through MLS’s Western Conference in the march toward the postseason.
The Peter Vermes-coached side collected its fourth U.S. Open Cup Sept. 20, downing New York Red Bulls 2-1. The cup, which is a 103-year-old knockout competition, was contested by 91 teams representing three professional leagues as well as amateur clubs.
Saad did not figure in the final. His last appearance was as an 83rd-minute sub in Sporting KC’s 3-1 home victory over New England Sept. 16. His last start came in a 1-0 loss at Seattle Aug. 12 where he registered one shot.
He’s started six matches of 12 appearances and has yet to score this season but has an assist.
For a talismanic figure who set both the state high school season (76) and career (172) records for goals at Dearborn High where he was the 2009-10 National Gatorade Player of the Year, the drought and inactivity are unfamiliar terrains. He also set the school goal-scoring mark at Michigan with 19 goals where he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
With Pattaya United, the attacking forward had nine goals in 28 Thai League appearances. He was injured his first year with the club but finished with 12 goals and 12 assists in his two years with the Asian outfit.
He finds himself down in the pecking order in his return to MLS where he has eight goals and seven assists in 70 appearances.
“It’s been a fight to get time,” said Saad, who has been used as on the left wing and central attacking roles this season. “I just have to keep plugging away. I definitely need to play. We’ll see as the season progresses, maybe I’ll be used a bit more. If not, I’m always ready to play.”
“It’s also difficult to mess with a winning formula. We won the Open Cup and we’re doing well in the league, thankfully, so it’s difficult to really switch things up or experiment when things are going well. I’m not complaining at all. To be a part of a team that is successful is important to any player.”
His coach suggests Saad has to take advantage of his opportunities.
“I always thought Soony has really good qualities in and around the box. He has a deadly shot,” said Vermes, who re-signed Saad to a two-year contract with an option for a third in January. “He’s a very good finisher. It’s always good to add a player with those qualities to the roster.”
“I think there was a little while there that he’d get some good opportunities. I think he was a little bit out of form for a little while. It’s just like any player, I think he’s got to keep working. When you get your opportunities, you have to be prepared and ready to go.”
Saad is another Detroit-area player whose Middle Eastern heritage enabled him to reach the international stage.
“It’s prestigious to be able to travel and see my dad’s homeland and see my dad’s family …” said Saad, who scored on his international debut in 2012.