MILFORD — FC Cincinnati midfielder Kenny Saief wasn’t on the pitch for the entire training session on Thursday morning at Mercy Health Training Center, but it didn’t take long for him to impress his new coach and club.
“You can see his quality,” said coach Alan Koch. “You can see in possession how calm he is on the ball. You can see his individual class as well.”
Saief, 25, who has four caps for the United States Men’s National Team, joined FCC on loan from Belgian power RSC Anderlecht. He has featured in Champions League and Europa League matches.
Now, after falling out of favor somewhat at Anderlecht, Saief could make his FCC and MLS debut on Sunday at Atlanta United.
“I’m optimistic,” said Koch. “Whether he’ll start or be in the 18, that’ll be determined in the next few days. He’s obviously not completely acclimated, but it’s not like he’s not been training. He’s been training in a good environment.”
Saief spent the past five seasons in Belgium with KAA Gent (2014-18) and Anderlecht (2018-19). He will occupy a domestic roster spot.
Saief made a combined 147 appearances, including 96 starts, over his five seasons in Belgium, with 16 goals and 13 assists across all competitions. He made his international debut for the U.S. in a friendly against Ghana on July 1, 2017, ahead of the Concacaf Gold Cup.
After representing Israel at various youth levels, Saief began his professional career in 2010, playing for four clubs in Israel’s top tier. He had a breakout season with Hapoel Nir Ramat HaSharon where he scored seven goals in 23 league appearances.
“He’s a very skilled player who can create things out of nothing,” Koch said. “He’s very versatile. He can play as a left back, he can play as a winger too. We can even play him inside as an attacking midfielder. When he gets acclimated, safe to say he’ll be one of our best players.”
FCC’s technical director Luke Sassano traveled to Belgium to lure the Panama City, Fla., native to the Orange and Blue. Former FCC captain Dekel Keinan also had a positive influence on Saief’s decision.
But in the end, Saief said his mom’s fondness for the U.S. might have been the deciding factor.
“Very excited to be here,” Saief said following training on Thursday. “I got a very warm welcome from everyone, from the fans, from the team, the staff. It was really nice. Luke came over to Belgium, and something inside me said ‘This is the right place.’ Also, my mom, she’s a big part of my decisions. She loves the U.S. She said, ‘You should go.’ It made me feel good about the decision.”
FCC defender Greg Garza hadn’t played with Saief with the U.S. men’s national team, but he received positive reports on him from both Andy Najar, a friend and defender at Anderlecht, and former Sporting Lisbon teammate Renato Neto, who played with Saief at Kent.
On Thursday, Garza got a first-hand look.
“You can see it from the very first day there’s a lot of talent there,” Garza said. “We’re very excited to have him here. He’s a great player.”
GARZA EYEING DEBUT IN ATLANTA
Garza participated in full training again on Thursday and appears to be on track to be in the squad on Sunday against his former club Atlanta United.
“It’s been good to be back on the field with these guys,” he said. “I feel like I’m actually part of the group. It’s definitely frustrating to watch from the outside, especially from the very beginning. I’ve felt great, just to touch a ball for the first time in a few weeks. I feel good physically.”
Garza said he chats with former Atlanta teammates almost every day, but he plans to impart his wisdom on their strengths and weaknesses heading into Sunday’s match.
“However I can help,” Garza said. “The next couple days will give us a chance to chat and pick out their strengths and weaknesses and where we can try to gain our strengths in the field. It was a really close group over there, but that’s past life. We’re gypsies of this sport. I’m very satisfied with what we’re doing here.”
On Sunday, Atlanta is expected to honor last year’s MLS Cup champions and present the team with their championship rings. Garza said he doesn’t know if Atlanta plans to honor him for his contributions to that title.
Koch said if Garza is fit and ready, he’ll be in the squad on Sunday but sternly added that Atlanta’s championship celebration will not factor into that decision.
“If he’s ready to go, then he becomes available for selection,” Koch said. “You can always get caught up in the emotional side of going back to play against his old team, but we have to make the right decision. It’s great that Atlanta is celebrating. We’ve got a job to do. We’re focused on our job. We’re not in the charity business.”
CRUZ BACK IN THE FOLD
Allan Cruz’s absence from last weekend’s historic MLS opener in Seattle had many fans scratching their heads. On Thursday, Koch revealed why the Costa Rican midfielder was left off the squad.
“I had a chat with Allan the other day,” Koch said. “He wasn’t going to be in the 11. We wanted to be loyal to the guys who helped this club get where it is. That’s why we had a lot of those players on the bench. He completely understood it.”
Emmanuel Ledesma, Blake Smith, Forrest Lasso, and Spencer Richey — all returning players from the USL franchise — comprised the bench for the 4-1 loss to the Sounders.
Koch said Cruz is in contention for the starting 11 this weekend in Atlanta.
“We made the decision for one game,” Koch said. “It’s a whole new challenge this week.”