Coach Abdi helps usher in new style of play


Soccer coach Abdullahi Abdi left, instructs one of his players, Mohamed Mohamed, during a practice held at the Geiger Elementary School gym in 2010.

It is the way many Mainers — and beyond — have played soccer. A player kicks the ball. The player chases the ball. The player kicks it again. And chases again. And on it goes.

But Abdi, a longtime coach likely won’t ever use the phrase, and you definitely won’t see him teaching it.

“I don’t like kicking the ball,” Abdi, who coaches the eighth grade soccer team at the Lewiston Middle School, said. “I like to control the ball. It’s keeps the ball and involves teamwork. I encourage them to work together.  I don’t want them playing like individuals. Passing is better.”

Watching the unbeaten Lewiston varsity boys’ team is a perfect example of Abdi’s philosophy. The 13-0-1 Blue Devils not only possess speed and quickness, but also precision passing and great teamwork. It’s just what Abdi likes to see — especially since he is one of the coaches that encourages that style of play.

“They are doing great,” Abdi said. “I’m enjoying the way that they’re controlling the ball, the way they are passing to each other and the way that they’re using their foot skills. All of that, I’m enjoying the way that they’re playing.”

Abdi has a great deal invested in the Lewiston varsity program.

He’s been coaching the middle school team for five years, where he coached many of this year’s varsity players. He’s also had three sons play for and graduate from Lewiston High School, and he has three more boys that will likely be a part of Lewiston’s soccer future. His son Abdijabar Hersi is the school’s freshman coach.

Soccer isn’t just a pastime for Abdi and his family. It is a passion and a constant part of their lives. Lewiston soccer has been a beneficiary.

“It’s really the most important thing — other than religion and family,” said Abdibaari Hersi, Abdi’s son, who graduated high school last year and is now attending Hyde School in Bath. “The first thing in the morning, I check the scores to see what I’ve missed or I watch highlights. In the afternoon, you go and play or watch soccer. When you’re away from school, it’s the first thing you do.”

Abdi came to the United States in 1996. He had been an athlete and coach in his homeland. He was well respected by Somalia’s National Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federation, the international governing body of track and field. When his civil-war-torn country sent a small delegation of athletes to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Abdi was the team manager.

He settled in Atlanta, but moved to Lewiston in 2006 on the advice of a friend. He thought it would be a better environment for his children.

He’s been a force on the local soccer scene since then.

In addition to coaching the middle school team, he coaches an elite travel team of high school and college-aged players. He has also been a confidante to Lewiston varsity coach Mike McGraw, who has welcomed Abdi’s advice and wealth of knowledge.

Abdullahi Abdi, a soccer coach in Lewiston, holds his credentials from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he was the manager of Somalia’s soccer team.

“He is so well respected by his sons and by all the other kids,” McGraw said. “After games, when I’d be done talking to (assistant coach) Dan (Gish) and my other coaches, I’d go to him and get his take. He’s a guy that I trust. He never said anything bad about kids. He loved kids. He’d say, ‘They need to pass more,’ or, ‘They need to trust more.'”

McGraw first met Abdi at a practice. He stopped by to introduce himself and found one of his sons, Ali, running laps because he was late.

“He said, ‘Coach, do not let my son get away with anything,'” McGraw recalled. “He said I had full reign to do what I needed to do in coaching his son.”

Abdi helped McGraw during summer soccer and eventually became the middle school coach. He tried to help the younger kids develop skills and appreciation for the game.

“I tried to help them learn fundamentals, especially passing and receiving,” Abdi said. “I’d see them kicking the ball and kicking the ball. So I wanted to help teach them ball control, how they control the ball and how they come back to the ball. We didn’t want them just kicking the ball.”

There aren’t many days during which Abdi isn’t practicing, watching soccer or preparing for various games and tournaments. He’s helped develop the love of soccer and dedication to the game in the community, with both Africans and Americans.

What has made this year’s group special is the year-round dedication. Soccer has become a priority sport for many of the kids.

“Even when the season finishes, we’d always go to Portland on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights,” Hersi said.”We’d practice and play together. We’d go to tournaments. The last few years it was a lot easier because we’d play every day. We’d go indoor in the winter and in the spring we’d go outdoor, seven days a week. We’d be training all season.”

As much as Abdi and his sons have been a part of the Blue Devils’ success, he’s also excited about the future. He had 22 players on his eighth-grade team this fall. Only a third of that team is African.

“Most of them are (Americans),” Abdi said. “So next year, most of the (Americans) I coach will make at least the JV and some of them will make varsity. They’re very strong players. They had a lot of improvement in the way they are passing the ball and working together.”

Though most of the current Lewiston varsity roster — 19 of 25 — Abdi said the program will continue to evolve as young American-born players and African-born players move up through the system together.

“In two or three years, the varsity will be half and half,” Abdi said.

Abdi has also inspired a new generation of coaches. His son, Abdijabar, was the first Somali coach hired at the high school, leading the freshman team this fall. Abdibaari has been helping some of his former teammates and hoping to get into coaching himself in the future.

“I had been helping Mo Khalid all last year,” Hersi said. “He didn’t make varsity last year. So he came to me and asked what he could do. To see him (in the Bangor game), he played great.”

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