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Giant expectations

Despite size, Abdulla Al-Kalisy anticipates being a leader for men's soccer

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Abdulla Al-Kalisy weaves through defenders and squeezes the ball between shifting ankles. His head lines up with his opponents’ shoulders. But that doesn’t stop him from blowing past them, making them look so slow it’s like they’re going in reverse.

Sometimes, size really doesn’t matter.

“Every time I play, I have to prove my worth,” Al-Kalisy said. “I’m just as good, if not better, than anyone else out there.”

Al-Kalisy, a freshman on the men’s soccer team, is an undersized forward for the Bulls. He makes up for what he doesn’t have in stature with speed, ability and will.

At first glance, you may never suspect that he is one of the cornerstones to the future of Buffalo men’s soccer. He stands at 5-foot-8 and is only 18 years old, but he has already shown potential to become one of the best players in the Mid-American Conference. His two assists and 19 shots this season led all Buffalo freshmen this season – a season that ended with a loss in Akron, eliminating Buffalo’s chances to play in the MAC Tournament. But Al-Kalisy figures to play a big part in the Bulls’ in the team’s coming seasons.

Al-Kalisy’s listing at 5-foot-8 is generous. The Auckland, New Zealand native looks like a young James Dean, showing his strong jaw line when he grins. His dark brown eyes match his dark brown hair that is always neatly combed to the right. He is relaxed when speaking – slow, concise, but engaging.

His charisma ropes you into the conversation. Or maybe it’s just that New Zealand accent.

Head coach Stu Riddle believes that Al-Kalisy is going to contribute to changing the Bulls’ future.

“He’s going to be a top striker in the league,” Riddle said

But Al-Kalisy didn’t begin his athletic career in soccer. He began it playing rugby.

“I started [rugby] as soon as I could run, really,” he said. “I played until I was about 15, but soccer was always my passion.”

He played as a winger, which is a similar position to one he plays now in soccer. Al-Kalisy said to play a winger “you just got to keep running straight and be faster than your guy.”

Al-Kalisy used the skills he learned in rugby and translated them over to soccer when he started playing at 6 years old.

“I learned a lot in rugby: the side-stepping, the idea of passing to the open pockets. Things like that,” Al-Kalisy said.

Al-Kalisy’s mother, Nagham Aldurra, said she loved watching him play soccer when he was young. Soccer was a safer than rugby and demonstrated his raw talent from a young age.

“He was 5 years old and the club had chosen him best player of the year,” Aldurra said in an email. “They used to call him the smallest, the shortest and the fastest.”

Al-Kalisy was born in Jordan and moved to New Zealand when he was only a few weeks old. He lived there until he was 7, but moved to Dubai when his father, Tahseen Al-Kalisy, was offered a better job there with a higher income.

Growing up, Al-Kalisy’s two younger brothers, Yousif and Laith, often played soccer and rugby with him. His siblings eventually assisted in his practice regiment.

One of his favorite things to do in a game is to dribble past a defender by placing a ball through their legs.

“It’s a close second to scoring a goal,” he said, grinning.

When Al-Kalisy and his brothers played together, he tried to work on this skill by using his siblings as practice dummies and repeatedly kicking the ball between their legs. Now, he uses what he has practiced with his brothers to create thrilling breakaways and goal opportunities for Buffalo.

Nagham’s love for her son is evident, even through email. Even with Al-Kalisy playing thousands of miles away from his family, they stay in touch often. She said the family misses Abdulla “a lot.”

Al-Kalisy misses his family and former teammates but is happy to be playing in Buffalo.

“I enjoy myself when I’m playing football in a good professional atmosphere,” Al-Kalisy said. “That’s all I require, and I’ll be fine.”

Al-Kalisy’s time in Dubai helped shape him as a player. He played for Arsenal Academy and the Precor Football Academy. He helped the Precor team reach the Gothia cup, an international youth world cup in Sweden, two years before he came to the United States.

“[There were] so many countries, so many different kinds of players,” he said. “Small and fast, big and strong – it was just every style of football in one event, and it was the greatest thing ever.”

Al-Kalisy was one of the smallest players in the tournament but was eager to showcase his talents. He watched matches, learned different styles of play and indulged in his environment.

One of his favorite memories was watching a Brazilian team play. It had two small strikers who were outmatched against center backs that were 6-and-a-half feet tall.

“The small guys were winning headers against them just because they played with so much heart,” he said, rising from his seat with excitement. “They had so much fight in them that the center backs just didn’t know what to do with them. They’re testaments that size really doesn’t matter.”

His Arsenal team made it to the round of top-16 teams out of the hundreds that had entered the tournament.

What truly shaped Al-Kalisy’s ability to play at such competitive levels is his relentlessness during practice. Once team practice is over, he spends hours repeating the skills he had just been taught.

His life is dedicated to soccer and becoming a perfectionist at the sport.

“You can only go to practice so many times and the coach can only tell you so much,” he said. “But I’ve noticed that I’ve excelled most when I wait to do what the coaches tell me to do after practice. I just want to be perfect at everything I do”

When Al-Kalisy isn’t playing soccer, he’s watching it. His favorite team Liverpool – he wears their trademark red scarf during the winter.

When he was asked what hobbies he has other than soccer, he was stumped.

“This shouldn’t be so hard,” he said in response, covering his face with his hands.

With hopes for continuing soccer in more competitive leagues, Abdulla moved to Minnesota when he was a sophomore in high school to play academy soccer at St. Mary’s. Before the moved, his talents had gained Riddle’s attention.

“I was with a friend who coached an academy in Michigan and saw Abdulla play,” Riddle said. “After I saw him play, I knew I wanted him on our team.”

Riddle, who is also from New Zealand, and Al-Kalisy communicated through email from the time the freshman forward was in Dubai until he moved to Minnesota.

After finishing second in the nation in goals his senior year of high school, he was highly recruited. Riddle was pleased that Al-Kalisy chose to come to Buffalo.

Al-Kalisy had five goals in three preseason games with the Bulls, but he was unable to score his first official goal this season. Riddle said the freshman had been dealing with injuries and said Al-Kalisy’s best is yet to come.

“We expected him to be a really large piece of what we intended to do,” Riddle said. “I’m sure you’re going to see the best out of him as he grows.”

Because Al-Kalisy moved around his entire life, it has been difficult for him to find a niche with a team that doesn’t feel temporary. But the youth of the Bulls made him feel welcome this season and the transition has been smooth. Eighteen of the 24 players on the team are either freshmen or sophomores.

Al-Kalisy feels he is going to grow and develop with the other players on the team, and he said it has the potential to reach the NCAA Tournament.

“I spoke with Stu and saw the team he was bringing in and struck me as a place that’s growing,” Al-Kalisy said. “Stu has a plan, a vision for this team. He’s not just getting players that are going to get him through the season, he actually has a long-term vision, and that mattered to me a lot. I needed to know we were going somewhere with this.”

His impeccable work ethic, determination to be the best and desire to win makes Al-Kalisy the fierce competitor he is.

“I see myself being one of the leaders on the team in a year or two,” he said. “I want a championship.”

Al-Kalisy can easily be singled out on the field – and not just because he’s one of the smallest ones on the pitch. He’s always trying to break through the defensive lines to create opportunities for his team – you’ll probably catch No. 18 flash by on jersey when the Bulls are about to score a goal.

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