From the apartments occupied by the San Francisco Deltas in the city’s Nob Hill neighborhood, Saalih Muhammad feels far removed from his hometown of Richmond.
It’s not the physical distance — the 21-year-old has played as far as Croatia. Rather, just nine days away from the opener of the Deltas’ inaugural season on March 25 — Muhammad feels miles from the talented teenager who attended El Cerrito High.
Still a young player — he’s reportedly the youngest on the Deltas roster — Muhammad has in recent years added maturity, discipline and an intense work regimen to that raw ability. Those factors, Muhammad admits, may not have always been as prevalent when he was a teen. But today, they’re a large part of why he was selected to play for the Deltas, a member of the North American Soccer League, which is one level below Major League Soccer.
That mix of effort and talent has paid off immensely. In November, the Deltas held tryouts for 300 players from all over the world. At the end of two days of tryouts, Muhammad was one of the four players selected to stay on the team through February. None of the four players were guaranteed a contract, and a few weeks ago, three were released from the team. Muhammad was signed.
While this seems like the beginning of a budding career, Muhammad has endured a long journey. He started playing soccer at age 7 and began taking the sport seriously at age 12, when he began noticing his talent.
The more he developed, the more he realized he could play high-level soccer, and he yearned to do so overseas. At age 16, that happened when he was selected to play for the academy of the biggest club in Croatia. He recalls how that was culturally difficult at points, as “there aren’t a lot of black boys playing soccer” there.
As with the Deltas, he wasn’t promised a spot with the Croatian club. His trial was set to last two weeks with no guarantees of making the team. At the end of the trial, the coach told him he could remain with the club for an extra week. It was a fleeting moment of excitement, however, because the very next day the coach came back and informed Muhammad he should go home.
Fortunately, Muhammad had already adjusted his flights, so the coach conceded.
“He said I could stay the extra week.”
Muhammad played soccer in Croatia for two years.
Eventually, the Richmond native returned to the U.S., partly because he couldn’t play in games overseas due to his young age. Before landing with the Deltas, he spent time with the Portland Timbers Academy and Sacramento Republic FC.
“Everything has happened for a reason,” Muhammad said. “It’s been a hard route with a lot of life lessons. But I wouldn’t have wanted anything to happen in any other way.”
While Muhammad believes he may be the youngest and least experienced player on the San Francisco Deltas, he trusts in his ability. He’s more composed on the field than he used to be, noting that dedication to repetition and perfection has been key.
“I’ve worked really hard to this point…I’ve been doing really well in training,” he said. “Overall, my practice habits have improved. I have been able to learn and build-in habits into everyday life. And so when it is applied in the game, it becomes second nature….I think that’s the big difference from me now and then.”
While Richmond seems far away right now, Muhammad said the city remains close to his heart. As a professional soccer player, he said, he hopes he can build the kind of success that can bring pride to his hometown beyond Coach Carter.
“This is a city where people work hard…some of the best people I’ve met came out of Richmond,” he said. “It’s a small city but it’s got so much.”