His assistant coach calls him “that really good centre back from Buffalo” and was the hero in his debut game in London, scoring a goal for the North Mississauga Soccer Club’s League1 Ontario men’s team. The dedication to playing soccer, even when that soccer is in another country, Saleman Salim brings a lot to the Panthers as they look to earn their first ever playoff appearance in League1 Ontario.
He also plays on Buffalo State, The State University of New York’s soccer team, and this internationalism is just one part of a remarkable story from a relaxing recreation program leading to fierce competition, as well as lot of life lessons.
NMSC: What was your history and development like as a soccer player?
Salim: I was born in a refugee camp in Somalia. When we were younger we would just play for fun. I was never really that good [then]. My cousins were really mad because they were amazing and I used to look up to them. I used to play goalie.
I wasn’t really into the sport until I was about 12. I just played because everyone around me used to play. In the camps, we just used to play for fun. Then we came to New York [State] and then I played on my first team when I was 13. I started playing organized soccer and it grew on me to the point where I said I’m going to be better than my cousins.
It got to the point where they said “you should take it seriously.” But I started late. Lots of players start getting good when they’re 9, 10 or 11. I was thinking about it at 14 or 15.
Playing organized soccer was fun at first but then it got a little more serious. They moved me up because I got 36 goals in 12 games. After that I moved to Lackawanna FC [in New York State] and I was 14 on the U19 team and I played with them for a good three years.
I was one of the best players there, and I was one of the best players in my high school, but once I got to college it was different. I was thinking it’s a Division III college, Buffalo State, I’m going to go there and be a star. But I was benched the whole season except for a couple of minutes here and there. That hit me hard.
That makes or breaks you, so I talked to a couple of senior guys on the team and asked them why I was on the bench. They just told me “just focus” and I told myself that if I come back the same player next year, I shouldn’t be on the team at all, so I just focused. I put my head down and started working.
I worked with my little brother, I watched a lot of football (soccer), I learned so much during the summer. It made me a way better player. Then I started getting recognition, people were saying “you could go somewhere with this.”
NMSC: How did you end up playing for the Panthers?
Salim: My coach, who’s from Canada, told me about Canadian leagues and about League1 Ontario that I could play in the summer. Even though I had to drive, I’ve got to do what I’ve got
to do to go pro and I’ve just got to do it. I applied to a couple teams with no response, then coach told me about North Mississauga.
They were about seventh place and I wanted to go to at least a top 20 so I checked them out. Then I came and it was way different from what I expected.
The players were very intense. I said after practice that, “I’m probably the worst player on this team.” So I came to practice and made sure the coaches see me more.
I really like Canadian soccer. It’s really grown on me.
NMSC: What have you done to make an impression and how would you describe your game?
Salim: I told myself that I’m going to be the best player on every team. Once I thought that I was the worst player, that was the time to show them I can play. Then the coaches started noticing me more, so they said let’s see what he has in a game. We played a scrimmage against Vaughan and I showed something then. After that, the coaches said, “your coach wasn’t lying, you’re a good player.”
I’m a different player in practice and in a game. In a game, I’m more focused. I try to be aggressive and composed. I try to learn how to play every position. In the midfield, I try to stay composed as much as possible, so when I play centre back I have way more time than I do in the midfield. It’s easier for me to pick off passes. On defence, I only pass back when needed.
NMSC: Especially considering your early development playing unstructured in Somalia, how important is it to have fun?
Salim: It’s key. If you’re not enjoying it, why would you do it? If you’re not having fun, you’ll be super stressed. To this day, I still play pick-up, which also gives you a flair when you play. You can try more wide passes, you can do nice footwork, and it’s more enjoyable to watch. If you have fun playing, the competitiveness will come with it.
NMSC: What are your future plans?
Salim: My main goal is to go pro and helping my little brother go pro.
Saleman and his younger brother, Abdi have been an important piece in the Panther’s playoff push in 2019. Having a connection to Buffalo State, through the General Manager of NMSC (Chris Keem, Alum ’00 & ’05) and the coaching staff at Buffalo State (Coach Francesco – played for club Technical Head Coach Jhon Ardila) has been important in bringing them north of the border.
Currently the Panthers are in the final playoff position heading into their final four matches of the regular season. Next home match is Friday, July 19th, 7:45pm at Paramount Fine Foods Centre Field 1 (Outdoor field). Cost is $10 at the door or $7 online through EventBrite: https://www.facebook.com/events/442856283219474/