As a child in his native Kenya, Haji Abdikadir kicked soccer balls made of socks and shirts stuffed into plastic bags that the players shrank with a little fire.
“I didn’t kick a real ball until I came here,” he said.
His family fled political unrest in Kenya when he was 8, settling in Louisville after spending three months in Florida.
This year, Abdikadir, 18, who played with Louisville Collegiate High School, was named by USA Today as the nation’s best high school soccer player, the All-USA Soccer Player of the Year.
His high school coach calls him a game-changer, the kind of player who makes all of his teammates better, while the coach of Louisville’s pro soccer club says Abdikadir has enormous potential.
In his most recent season with Collegiate, the striker scored 40 goals. That’s 15 more than the prior school record. Not bad for a player who was injured part of the season and prefers playing defensive midfielder.
His coach at Collegiate, Chad Wozniak, said Abdikadir presented such a threat for opposing teams that he drew multiple defenders and created space for other teammates, one of whom also broke the school’s previous scoring record, with 29 goals. The team altogether scored 162 goals, a state record.
The nicely manicured fields and pristine soccer balls with which Abdikadir plays these days stand in stark contrast to his early playing days.
As he recently sat on a wooden table near the Collegiate practice field, Abdikadir told Insider that he had been playing soccer since he could walk. He attended school even though he wasn’t enrolled. He just followed his brother there, and not to learn, really. He just wanted to play soccer.
Outside his childhood home in Nairobi, he would see kids play soccer and join them every day for pickup games.
Abdikadir said that unstructured kind of play, without a coach directing players, helped him develop his style.
“It’s just creativity at that moment,” he said. “That environment was key for me.”
The pickup games also instilled in him a preference to have the ball at his feet and direct play from the rear of the field as a defensive midfielder, like a point guard in basketball.
“When I was little, touching the ball was more important than scoring,” he said.
While he played some of that position in his last year at Collegiate, the team used him primarily as a striker, thanks to his technical ability and powerful shot.
“My friends would always joke around like I could kill a baby with my shot,” he said with a chuckle.
Wozniak said that he especially has appreciated Abdikadir’s versatility. When the team needed him to score, he scored, and when it needed him to intercept the opponent’s attacks, he played as a defensive midfielder. He idolizes Ivorian international Yaya Touré, a central midfielder with English club Manchester City — though Abdikadir’s favorite club is City’s archrival Manchester United, whose squad has included such stars as David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Abdikadir also was Collegiate’s designated taker of free kicks, and Wozniak said that if the team had a big lead, the teen sometimes got a little “cute” and tried to go for the perfect shot into an upper corner or, on a penalty kick, would chip the ball straight down the middle. The so-called Panenka is risky because it’s an easy save for the keeper if he doesn’t move — but it’s also a trick play that can be somewhat embarrassing for the keeper if he dives into either corner as the ball leisurely drops into the center of the net.
Wozniak said Abdikadir also had an immense will to win, and not just in soccer. His competitiveness became apparent when the coach recalled a trip the two took to the West Coast to accept an award. During one of the activities, the coach beat his student in a juggling contest. Abdikadir interrupted, saying that he was handicapped because he was wearing formal attire. “I was, too,” Wozniak replied. “Yeah,” Abdikadir said, “but I’m not used to it.”
The coach gave the “prize” he won, a set of player cards, to Abdikadir. Later that evening, when the coach checked on him, Abdikadir had placed all of the player cards in his room, arranged in their proper playing positions. It’s indicative of how much Abdikadir loves the sport, Wozniak said.
The teenager said he even enjoys conditioning drills during practice — so long as they involve a ball. Otherwise, he said, “it’s just running without a reason.”
“Haji works hard,” Wozniak said.
Sometimes he needs to be pushed a little, he said, but when it’s time to work, he works.
Wozniak said that beyond Abdikadir’s progression as a player, he has admired his striker’s character. Early under Wozniak’s tenure, Abdikadir missed a Saturday practice and, per team rules, had to sit out a game. He wasn’t very happy about that, the coach recalled, but Abdikadir apologized to the team and learned a valuable life lesson.
When Abdikadir was named one of the finalists of a state recognition, he learned that if he won, a charity of his choice would be awarded $1,000, and he seemed much more excited about that than about winning the award, Wozniak said.
“Spoke volumes of him as a person,” the coach said.
Abdikadir won the award, and he donated the $1,000 to the Bantu community, a refugee group that came from Kenya.
He said he hopes to return there one day, though it would not be safe for him there now. Abdikadir became a U.S. citizen last year.
In his spare time, he enjoys reading, especially novels such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” that shine a light on social ills.
He will attend the University of Louisville next spring, on a full-ride soccer scholarship. He does not yet know what he plans to study, but eventually hopes to play professional soccer.
“I don’t see myself doing anything other than that,” he said.
He’s already practiced with the local pro soccer club, Louisville City FC.
Coach James O’Connor said Abdikadir shows a great range of ability, has good awareness of the field and distributes the ball very well.
He has “a tremendous amount of potential and ability to impact games,” O’Connor said.
The coach said he looks forward to seeing how Abdikadir develops at UofL.
Ultimately, Abdikadir said he hoped to play for ManU, though he understands that’s a long way off. For now he is focused on keeping his skills sharp for his first season at the college level.
“I’m just ready to have a good season,” he said.