University of Akron soccer coach Caleb Porter called sophomore Saad Abdul-Salaam “the find of the year.”
That was an understatement, even for a coach who isn’t afraid to reveal his grandiose dreams. In his seven-year tenure, Porter has never discovered a contributing player the way he found Abdul-Salaam, even though he kept showing up at his door.
When Abdul-Salaam played for the Cleveland Internationals, coach George Nanchoff said it was common for the feisty youngster to score five or six goals in one game.
Abdul-Salaam did not take an easy path to the nation’s No. 1 team with his family moving from Cleveland Heights to Columbus before his freshman year of high school.
At Gahanna Lincoln, he didn’t make the varsity team until his junior year and played little until he became a starter his senior year at a new position.
Until the summer before his senior year, he stood just5 feet, 6 inches. Then came a crazy growth spurt that saw him shoot up about 6 inches. Abdul-Salaam is now listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.
“He was skinny; you blow on him and he’ll fall down,” said Nanchoff, who wondered why Abdul-Salaam wasn’t tall like his brothers.
About to start college in 2010, Abdul-Salaam was ruled academically ineligible because of what he called “a misunderstanding” over classes he had taken at another school. Forced to sit out a year as a Prop 48, he enrolled at UA in January 2011. That’s where he’d wanted to play since his best friends from the Internationals — Darlington Nagbe, George’s son Michael Nanchoff and Chris Korb — had been standouts there.
Determined to be with the Zips, Abdul-Salaam frequently stopped by Porter’s office and talked to him every time he saw him on campus.
“I’d bump into him from time to time and he’d say, ‘Hi. Remember me? I want to try out,’ ” Porter recalled Sunday. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, OK.’ We get that all the time.”
In the spring of 2012, Abdul-Salaam got his chance. Losing eight players in the past two Major League Soccer SuperDrafts, plus those who departed because of graduation, Porter needed bodies. When spring practice ended, Abdul-Salaam barely made the team. Porter said a good final week saved him, but Abdul-Salaam wasn’t added to the roster on the university’s website.
But Abdul-Salaam had always played on successful teams. He helped Gahanna Lincoln win the 2009 state title. Now Abdul-Salaam, a walk-on, hopes to provide a spark as fifth-seeded UA opens NCAA Tournament play Sunday in pursuit of its second national championship in three years.
Abdul-Salaam scored the game-winning goal, the first of his career, in the 2-0 victory over Northern Illinois last Sunday in the Mid-American Conference Tournament final. In a 2-0 semifinal triumph over Bowling Green, he recorded his first assist.
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ The reality is he came out of nowhere,” Porter said.
“I knew if I worked hard enough he would give me a chance and see my potential inside,” Abdul-Salaam said.
Every UA team has walk-ons. Soccer is allowed only 9.9 athletic scholarships, Porter said, and he has 28 on the roster. But nearly all of those are recruits, some on full academic scholarships.
“Rarely do we have someone literally walk on campus and say they want to make the team and really make the team,” Porter said. “We’ve had one other player since I’ve been here who did that. He was on for one year and just wasn’t good enough.
“We hit the jackpot with [Abdul-Salaam].”
Dwayne Marshall, who coached Gahanna Lincoln for 15 years until he stepped down to concentrate on teaching, said most in the program didn’t make the varsity as underclassmen. When Abdul-Salaam did as a junior, Marshall said there was no spot for him at forward, because the Golden Lions had Wil Trapp, now a sophomore at UA, and Chris Davis, now at Slippery Rock.
When Abdul-Salaam moved into the starting lineup, he played outside back. He helped Gahanna Lincoln stun previously undefeated St. Ignatius, the nation’s top-ranked team, on penalty kicks in the state-title game.
“He had the winning assist that put us in the state championship. How he went through two players to pass the ball to our open guy, it was incredible,” Marshall recalled by phone this week. “He had the whole package. He has good speed, he can turn it on when he needs to turn it on, and his ball skills are tremendous.”
In training, though, Abdul-Salaam rarely turns it on, a maddening trait that dates to his youth.
“During practice when you push him, he was like, ‘Do I really have to do this?’ ” said George Nanchoff, who played for UA from 1973-76. “But game time comes, boom. I’m not going to say the kid was lazy, but at the same time, he was not like some of the other kids.”
Porter is leaning Abdul-Salaam is a “gamer.” In October, he earned a starting role in three consecutive matches — against Michigan, West Virginia and Ohio State. Porter said Abdul-Salaam’s laid-back personality keeps him from feeling the pressure in big games.
Nanchoff has been watching the Zips closely. (His brother Louie, another former UA player, also coached Abdul-Salaam on the Internationals.) George Nanchoff believes Abdul-Salaam can be a weapon in the tournament.
“Once he gets someone one-on-one, he’s got to start going at him,” Nanchoff said. “With his long stride, he can beat people all the time. I think he’s more dangerous. That’s something that comes with confidence.”
Although still a work in progress, Abdul-Salaam has earned the respect of his teammates.
“Saad has always been a guy who works hard. He has tons of talent and he’s extremely athletic,” Trapp said. “He’s just one of those guys, that if he gets the right confidence, he can be a star player wherever he is.
“He had some tough times at the beginning of the year adjusting to being a full-time guy, but Caleb gave him a shot and he took it and ran with it. He has been playing very well for us ever since.”
Abdul-Salaam knows no UA walk-on under Porter has done what he’s done. He said he’s “blessed” to be in this position. He realizes how far he has come since high school.
“All the kids had already hit their potential and I was still like the slow person behind,” he said. “But I’ve caught up now.”
UA will host Michigan at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at FirstEnergy Field in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.