You don’t have to remind Ezana Kahsay on how important soccer has been to him.
While growing up, playing the beautiful game helped get him through some tough times in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
Kahsay and his family fled their native Eritrea and lived in a camp from 2005-2010.
The Erie Commodores FC standout made the best of a difficult situation.
“It was hard,” he said. “We were kids. Our mother was there to take care of us, no matter what. We went to school. What we did after was to play soccer. Just nothing else mattered, to be honest with you.”
Now, Kahsay hopes to turn his passion for the sport into his life’s work.
He will get an opportunity at the fourth annual NPSL Player Showcase at Austin-Tindall Park in Kissimmee, Fla. Jan. 13-15 in front of professional scouts and coaches.
A junior at the University of Akron, Kahsay was pleasantly surprised when he heard he had been invited to the showcase.
His goal? “Just go in there, perform as best as I can,” he said. “Maybe score a couple of goals. That’s the plan.”
A little more than a decade ago, his mother had a plan — to get out of Eritrea, a country in eastern Africa, and find a way to the United States. His father, a former professional soccer player, was forced to serve in the military at the time.
“It was a dictator-based country,” Kahsay said. “It’s hard to do anything. We had no future in anything. Our mother thought a better life could be away from that country and she took us out.”
It turned out to be the best thing to happen to the Kahsay family, although they experienced a culture shock or two along the way. In 2010, they were relocated in Buffalo, N.Y.
“When we were back home, we used to wake up to 60-70 degrees weather and then we came to Buffalo,” he said. “The first time we came it was snowing. You see that in the movies, just slow snowing falling easily. It was amazing. The weather there is very cold. We adapted to it over time.”
Kahsay, who was 15 at the time, adapted quickly on the soccer pitch. At the International Prep School, a subsidiary of Grover Cleveland High School, he set school scoring records by with 55 career goals.
But when time came to find a college, Kahsay found himself behind the curve. After some research, he decided on NCAA Division I powerhouse Akron.
“When I told the coaches around Buffalo, they told me it was hard for me to get in,” he said. “They start recruiting around the freshman and sophomore years.”
International Prep coach Anthony Alessi discovered Akron was holding an ID camp. So the I-Prep teachers put some money together for a hotel and Alessi drove his star to Ohio.
“I played the weekend and the rest is history, I guess,” he said.
Kahsay hasn’t filled the net as much as he did in Buffalo. He started out as a defender, but was switched to forward last season.
“We have been impressed with his work ethic,” Akron head coach Jared Embick said. “He came to us with someone with great physical qualities, his size, speed, strength. But his technique and skill level weren’t always what you maybe think of an Akron player. He was just really working hard to get his skill level up. He’s been an important piece the last couple of seasons.”
The 6-foot-2, 175-lb. Kahsay scored two goals for the Zips in 2017.
“He was in a tough spot this year because we had so many seniors, especially one of our better forwards was in his spot,” Embick said. “One of the key moments for our team was in the game in Syracuse. We had several guys out injured. He really stepped up and played a terrific goal. This year, we’re all looking for him to make this jump to hopefully fulfill his potential and get the time he’s worked for.”
Kahsay found his scoring touch with Erie, connecting for seven goals, including six in five games early in the season.
“His attitude is always right,” Commodores FC manager John Melody said. “He comes in with a smile on his face.”
Kahsay’s greatest asset? It could be his versatility.
His biggest liability? It probably is his versatility.
“Please take this the right way,” Melody said. “He is a victim of his own ability. It’s hard to settle on what his best position is, whether he is in the hole as a No. 10, or he is trying to stretch defenses as the lead attacker or whether he would be playing wide left or wide right. He does a good job for us in all of those positions.
“At this point you would like to see him settle into one or two positions and do them well.”
Kahsay’s most important Erie goal came in the 2017 regular-season finale, a 1-1 draw with Syracuse FC that clinched the Great Lakes East Division Conference crown. He came off the bench to replace an injured teammate and connected for the equalizer that lifted Erie into the playoffs.
“He realized he had to put it on his back that day a little bit because the goals kind of dried up for him at the backend of the season,” Melody said. “When you really, really needed him to do it, he did it.”
Kahsay missed some time during the NPSL season, but he had a good excuse — he was obtaining his U.S. citizenship. He called “the most important thing that I did in the year.”
“My teammates were all foreigners,” he added. “There was only one American, our captain. To be the second American on that team was certainly amazing.”
Kahsay said he felt “very fortunate” his family landed in the U.S.
“You couldn’t ask for more,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a land of opportunities and we gained opportunities. It feels amazing.”
Now, he wants to make the most of that opportunity. After college and the NPSL, Kahsay wants play professionally.
“He is a raw talent,” Melody said. “You’re just hoping that somebody takes him along and he’ll develop. He’s developed quite quickly and now it’s a point of what’s going to separate you from the next player. The showcase is right for him because he has those raw qualities that the coach might look at: ‘You know what? There is a bit of work that needs to be done here. But I feel will be a finished product after the work.’ ”
Regardless what transpires, Kahsay would love to take advantage of his sports management degree he is pursuing to coach someday.
“I wouldn’t want to be too far away from this game,” he said.