BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, November 16, 2010
As the US U-20 national prepares to open camp next week in Atlanta for the Torneo de las Americas, it will mark the much anticipated US debut of Maccabi Haifa winger Alexander Zahavi.
Zahavi, 19, was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Portugal while playing in various prestigious youth academies throughout Europe.
Zahavi went on to play for youth national teams of Portugal, but is now going to switch his international soccer allegiance to the United States.
"I am actually very proud to be part of the team because I know it's a talented group of players," Zahavi told YA from Israel. "I am very happy to finally join the national team of the country I was born. I feel the most love and passion for the United States. I feel that I have a duty that if I get an invitation from my birth country that I would love to represent them."
Zahavi's switch to the US has been in the works for the past year in large part due to the positive discussions he has had with US U20 head coach Thomas Rongen along with his close friend Greg Garza who was Zahavi's teammate at Sporting Lisbon's U19 team that saw the duo win two Portuguese titles.
"I feel like coach Rongen sounds like a really nice guy," Zahavi said of his discussions. "He's very serious. I think he is very happy to have me so I am also very happy to be part of the squad. I will do my best and help the United States win. But I think we actually had a tournament with the United States in the U18s [of Sporting] and of course Greg Garza was my teammate. So it's been in the works for six months to a year."
Zahavi admits that Garza was very influential in his decision to play for the US. The two had a good personal relationship on and off the field and Graza is currently the only player on the US team that Zahavi knows.
"Mostly my knowledge of the team comes from him," Zahavi pointed out. "We were teammates for two and half years at Sporting Lisbon. He's a great player. He played as a left back and I was the left winger so we have a really good feeling between us in the way we play."
"Off the field he is also a really good friend of mine," he continued. "So I am very excited to be playing with him again. So yeah, he was very important in my decision. He spoke to me about the US."
Zahavi has also indicated that even when he was playing for the Portuguese national teams, he always had an affinity for the US and representing them was on his mind.
"The truth is that I started playing for Portugal because I was playing in Portugal and I had no way to reach the United States national team. It was the easiest way because I got invitations all the time to play with Portuguese national teams and I decided to join them."
Now that Zahavi is representing the US, he will miss the Portuguese system but he is focused completely on the US U20 national team and he is thrilled to be putting on the US jersey next week.
"I'll miss Portugal because they also have a great team and I felt good there. But I am concentrated on the United States and I am the happiest guy in the world to be joining the USA."
Zahavi's representation of Portugal at the youth national team level in official UEFA qualifying competitions has also presented the issue of him being required to file a formal one-time switch with FIFA if he wants to represent the US.
He does not need to file a switch to play in the Torneo de las Americas due to their unofficial nature but to play in U-20 World Cup qualifying and U-20 World Cup, the switch would be required.
Zahavi is unfamiliar of the technicalities but he is ready to begin the process immediately because he is now committed to the US program and he knows that such a switch would permanently tie him to the Stars and Stripes.
"I actually don't know exactly how long it will take and what is needed," Zahavi said of the required one-time switch with FIFA. "Coach Rongen told me that they have already dealt with players in those situations in the past. So I will leave it for whoever is responsible to do that and I have no problems with it. Of course I am interested to file the switch."
Zahavi feels strongly that he is going to be joining a team that is talented and will be able to make a run next year at the U20 World Cup in Colombia.
"I know that they had a great tournament in Northern Ireland," Zahavi assessed. "And also from what Greg told me and from the way Coach Rongen speaks I believe we have a talented group. I am only expecting great things."
While Zahavi will begin to integrate himself into the US U20 national team next week, he is also in a similar process on the club front with Maccabi Haifa whom he joined this past summer. It is his first season of first team soccer and he feels as if things are progressing well.
"Actually, I am adjusting pretty well because it is the first season and I am moving from junior to professional," Zahavi said of his first season with Maccabi Haifa. "So everyone always expects it to be a difficult switch especially physically and because the rhythm of the game becomes a lot faster. But I am adapting really well. The fans really like me and the club is very happy with me. So I think it's been a very positive switch. I am happy to be here."
When Zahavi decided to leave Sporting Lisbon over the summer, he had offers from numerous clubs. He decided on joining Haifa because he was impressed with the high level professional nature of the club and their winning tradition.
"The truth is because Haifa is a team that every year fights to be champion of Israel and fights to win every game," Zahavi said of his decision. "They're a good team and they're at a good level. They have goals of being in the Champions League. Actually it is a completely European team. The training facilities, the coaches, the way we train, everything is completely European."
"I was very surprised, positively, when I got here," he added. "I really don't feel a difference between being at Sporting and being here. I felt it was very important to go to a team whose ambition is to win and play championship [soccer] and beautiful [soccer]."
Zahavi has begun to earn minutes with Haifa in cup competitions but he is confident he will contribute more as the season progresses. Further, he understands that patience is required when trying to break into the rotation of a club that is a traditional power in the Israeli Premier League.
"I really believe in myself and in my ability," Zahavi said proudly. "So of course, my ambition is to slowly gain more minutes in playing and end up being a decisive player on the squad. Because I know I am capable and it takes patience and time in the first year for adjustments. I am patient and I am ready. I feel good when I play."
Zahavi's initial time at Haifa was rough because he was battling a thigh injury that he sustained toward the end of last season with Sporting. He ended up missing the first three weeks of the preseason with Haifa and well as the Milk Cup with the US U-20 national team where he wanted to make his debut.
Shortly after regaining his health, Zahavi suffered another mild setback but is now fully fit as the season enters its third month.
"I tore the muscle in my left thigh," Zahavi described. "I was out for about three months and I started the preseason about three weeks late with Haifa because of it. After about one month I hurt it again with a micro tear but now everything is fine. So now I feel really good. Now I have a good training program and I am recovering and now I am at 100 percent. I am happy to finally be okay."
Now that Zahavi is healthy, he will travel back to the US to make his debut. His will join the team with an impressive resume that includes learning the game within the youth systems at Arsenal, Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon.
"They have great schools," Zahavi said of where he learned the game. "I had two very good years at Arsenal and three good ones at Barcelona as well. I learned a lot. Some of my teammates from back then are now entering the first team and getting to the highest level. I learned a lot and I hope it is all going to be an advantage coming to the US."
Zahavi and the US U-20 national team will begin their Torneo de las Americas against Colombia on November 26th at Kennesaw State Soccer Stadium followed by a game against Mexico on November 28th.