Playing for United States 'much bigger' than playing for Israel - Kenny Saief

EAST HARTFORD, Connecticut -- Kenny Saief said there is a simple reason why he switched his international allegiance from Israel to the U.S.

"I was born [in the U.S.], and I feel like I belong to this place," he said ahead of Saturday's friendly against Ghana.

Saief was born in Panama City, Florida, to Israeli parents. He and his family moved back to Israel when he was three, and as his soccer talent grew, he represented Israel at various youth levels. He even played in two friendlies at senior level for the Blue and Whites, but couldn't make a significant breakthrough, this despite some impressive displays for Belgian side Gent in the UEFA Champions League.

But all while, Saief had professed a desire to play for the U.S., telling ESPN's Sam Borden back in March, "I want to play for America."

Saief was left to play a tense waiting game. Should he go for the sure thing or wait for a U.S. call that might never come. He said he was never contacted by the U.S. when former manager Jurgen Klinsmann was in charge, but when Bruce Arena took over, the interest picked up. Saief had been playing primarily as a left wingback in Gent's 3-5-2, impressing with his ability to take on players one-on-one and get in crosses. Sensing an opportunity, the U.S. finally pounced in May.

"I saw the number from the U.S., and then I just picked up," said Saief. "He said, 'My name is Kenny [Arena] and I'm the assistant coach of Bruce Arena.' I was like a few seconds on my own saying, 'Okay.' Then he said, 'We've been following you for a long time. We like the way you play.' He was asking more how I feel. That's how it started. He asked me if I was interested to play [for the U.S.] and I said yes I am."

Saief added: "It didn't go well with the Israeli national team, and I got a call from the U.S. To be a soccer player for the U.S. is much bigger than to be a soccer player for Israel."

Saief then began the process of filing a one-time switch with FIFA to allow him to represent the U.S. The process was completed a little over a week ago, clearing the way for Saief to play in the Gold Cup.

"It's something from inside saying to me to decide for the U.S.," he said.

Saief could see the field on Saturday, though at Friday's pregame press conference, U.S. manager Bruce Arena tried to dampen some of the building expectations, noting that the player is "out of season a little bit." It would also appear that Arena is willing to take a long-term view in terms of integrating Saief into the U.S. program.

"The week of training has been a little bit of a push for him," Arena said about Saief. "You can tell there's quality here. We intend to follow him during his season in Belgium, and have a closer look at him as well once he leaves the Gold Cup. We'll see if he can be a player that we can figure in our plans as we move towards 2018."

But for now, Saief is trying to navigate his way through his first U.S. training camp, and leaning heavily on roommate Eric Lichaj.

Saief didn't dispute Arena's assessment of his fitness, admitting: "It's step by step. I'm not in my best condition, but I'm trying to build my condition easily."

But there is no hiding his enthusiasm for what lies ahead.

"It's a very special moment for me," he said. "I'm very excited for the game [Saturday], for my first minutes."