Michael Lahoud: Bridging Two Worlds

Choose an aspect of Cincinnati FC midfielder Michael Lahoud’s life and the common denominator is almost invariably two attributes – Uniqueness and Character. Since his introduction into professional soccer in 2009, Lahoud has steadily built a reputation as one of the most engaging and considerate players around. His path to this point, however, was anything but easy. But it helped shaped the man he is today and produced one of the truly great ambassadors in all of soccer. To highlight his contributions, Athlete CRUSH sat down with Lahoud to hear his story.

Lahoud’s journey begins amongst unfortunate circumstances. At the age of six, he fled his home in Sierra Leone at the outbreak of a civil war that was decimating the country and claiming young children as the next wave of rebel soldiers. Unaware of the true magnitude of the chaos surrounding him, Lahoud was loaded on a boat destined for safer pastures by his uncle. When Lahoud left Sierra Leone to come to America, he left behind his family, but also his friends and classmates. They were not so fortunate, and he understands that. It’s spurred his desire to give back to his home country and those who gave him the opportunity for a better life.

In 2010, Lahoud joined Schools for Salone, an organization that, following ten years of crippling civil war, aims to improve education in Sierra Leone by constructing schools and training teachers. The relationship between Lahoud and the organization has been mutually beneficial. “I’m constantly learning about a part of who I am that was kind of taken away from me through a civil war. Schools for Salone gave me that opportunity to even learn what I escaped and how fortunate I was to escape that, to have the life I have now.”

Lahoud’s efforts were called on again when the Ebola virus hit the African continent in 2014.  The heart of the epidemic lay right in Sierra Leone; through 2016, the country saw over 14,000 cases and nearly 4,000 deaths. The crisis in his native land evoked a strong reaction from Lahoud. As a result, he decided to travel to the heart of the storm to both lend a hand and represent the Sierra Leone national team.

Not all were supportive of his trip back home. The Philadelphia Union ended up benching Lahoud for their first U.S. Open Cup final against the Seattle Sounders, which they lost 3-1. But Lahoud was determined to show support for his troubled countrymen. He started the “Kick Ebola in the Butt Challenge,” a soccer competition between two people, which through video participation and sharing, aimed to raise Ebola awareness and funding for Doctors Without Borders.

“Kick Ebola in the Butt was an even more personal thing because of my family that lives there. Personally going through that — the fear, the stigma, and just the destruction that causes…having that personal experience with the Sierra Leone national team as well as knowing that my family was experiencing the stigma in Sierra Leone as well and seeing how it could have potentially been a world epidemic.” For his efforts in Sierra Leone, Lahoud won both the 2010 MLS Humanitarian Award and the 2015 FIFPro World Players’ Union Merit Award, along with compatriot Kei Kamara.

Lahoud’s contributions in Sierra Leone are just the tip of the iceberg when recognizing his character. While he remembers where he came from, he also maintains a strong connection to local communities. Lahoud has been active in The Wall Las Memorias, a “community health and wellness organization dedicated to serving Latino, LGBT and other underserved populations,” whose aim is to educate about HIV/AIDS, substance abuse prevention, and community building in the Los Angeles area.

“In 2009…I’d just been drafted by Chivas USA…I went to the Chivas front office and told them that I wanted to get out in the community; that any appearance that they had that was community related, that I was their guy.” That led Lahoud to The Wall Las Memorias, and after discovering their mission, he was all too ready to assist. “That year, I actually just had my aunt on my mom’s side die of AIDS…when I got there, I found out that they not only supported the gay and lesbian communities, but more importantly, they were huge advocates for AIDS awareness. So when those two things crossed paths, I knew I had to just get involved.”

Additionally, Lahoud has been involved with the No H8 Campaign, where he has advocated for equal rights and a soccer culture inclusive of all. In showing his support for charitable initiatives, one thing in particular has stood out – his authenticity. “It’s very hard to pretend that you’re interested in something. You can only pretend so long before you get found out…it’s been one of the things that has made a world of difference in my motivation to continue to do good and my motivation to continue to believe in the projects and the things that I’ve done.”

It’s that same genuine character that’s led Lahoud to connect with spectators and fan groups so well, regardless of which team he’s on. It’s no surprise that he’s been a fan favorite at all four teams for whom he’s played — Chivas USA, Philadelphia Union, New York Cosmos, and Miami FC. “I think engaging with the fans wherever I go helps me to claim the club that I’m at as my own. It makes me feel like I’m really part of that community.”

Lahoud described a moment during the crucial US Open Cup final in 2015, when he was a part of the Union, that particularly resonated with him. “I was going up to take a penalty kick and there was all this pressure where you had to score or else we lose. Looking up in the stands, and seeing so many familiar faces that only became familiar because I’ve chosen to engage with them through social media, through just local outings, and team events — in that moment, when I looked up, it took all the pressure away because I knew who I was playing for. I knew what I was playing for and the crest on my chest meant something.”

Philadelphia hasn’t been the only stop where he’s felt that way. “I took a lot of pride in being a part of the New York Cosmos; being the darlings of the NASL and the pressure that that brings. And here at Miami FC, I take a lot of pride in writing a new chapter of soccer in Miami.”

As he’s moved on from other clubs and different cities, he’s maintained relationships with those supporters and fan groups. “Whatever team I played for, that doesn’t change who I am, that doesn’t change how I treat people. I’ve always tried to treat people the same whether they support the New York Cosmos, the Philadelphia Union, or Miami FC.”

Fan groups from the Union and Miami FC happily echoed those same sentiments. “He’s genuine. Even though he’s been gone, he’s still interacting with Philly fans via Twitter and Facebook. That’s the great part about Mike –  he still cares. He treats people like family…as a dad, that’s the kind of guy you want your kid to look up to,” said Jeff Mitchell, Vice President of Philadelphia’s Son’s of Ben.

Mitchell Torres, Founder and President of Miami’s Dade Brigade, has been equally impressed with Lahoud’s presence at Miami FC. “In all honesty, there’s not much more we could ask from him. He’s literally taken time out of his personal schedule to come sit down while we’re eating dinner and answer questions…not only from a fan aspect, but from a team aspect he’s been such a difference. It’s hard to imagine what we’ll be without him, but I hope that he hangs around for quite a while.”

A good portion of Lahoud’s development as a person has come from strong role models he’s looked up to. From the soccer world, one player he’s particularly admired has been British soccer legend David Beckham. In a story when Beckham, as a spokesman for UNICEF, visited Sierra Leone, Lahoud tells of how the LA Galaxy star went off script and off road all for the benefit of a group of kids.

“He was in this convoy,” then all of a sudden, “he stopped what he was doing, he made everyone stop and he got out of the car. He saw these kids playing soccer. It wasn’t scripted. He just saw a group of kids playing soccer and he goes out there and he starts playing with them. Before they realized it, they realized they were playing with David Beckham which, for a lot of those kids, that may have been the greatest moment of their lives and maybe one of the few positive moments they’ll ever get.”

That story made a deep on impression on Lahoud, who had just begun with Schools for Salone. “When I heard that from an athlete who’s so successful, who is so committed to his performance on the field and taking care of his body, and who’s had such an amazing career but also is equally as committed to doing good, that was a huge motivation for me.”

Similar to Beckham, Lahoud wishes to leave a lasting impact on soccer’s development in America. “Ultimately, I want to be able to look back at my career — I want to be able to look back at the people that have made an influence and the teams that I’ve played on and continue to take pride in being a part of the growth of the world’s biggest game in this country. I hope, and I think, that I’ve been a good ambassador.”

Lahoud’s continual growth as a person has made him a man of high integrity and Character. Along the way, he’s dealt with the ups and downs, but his endeavors have always had a purpose. They’ve all been about who he is.

“To me, personally, all these things that I am involved with, I feel like they’re all telling and connected to a personal story — my story — in one way or another. That’s what keeps me motivated to not just get involved with any cause or any organization but to get involved in something that I feel connected to and passionate about.”

His authenticity is impressive as his story is inspiring. For the boy who escaped such hardship and made the most of his opportunities, he’s been about as good an ambassador as one could hope for.

 

Follow Michael Lahoud on Instagram @mikelahoud and Twitter @MikeLahoud

Written by Athlete CRUSH Staff

Posted 12 October 2016