By Kyle Eliason
This week, at Braemar Field in Edina, Minneapolis City SC will host the final round of tryouts for its 2022 Futures Program. The purpose of the program is to help supplement existing opportunities for local players aged 16 to 20 years to transition between youth soccer and further competitive play, and to help identify talent that may be a good fit for the Crows’ senior team.
When the program was launched last winter, Futures Program Lead Jeremiah Johnson and his staff researched potential recruits ahead of the inaugural tryouts. One of the players that blipped on Johnson’s radar was a goalkeeper from Humbolt High School in St. Paul. That keeper held onto the Hawks’ No. 1 shirt during the 2019 season, and while splitting time at forward, also led his team in scoring with 14 goals.
“Because I place high value on goalkeepers who can play with their feet, I thought he could be an ideal fit for our program,” Johnson said.
Contact information for Eh Ku Say, the goalkeeper in question, was somewhat scarce online. However, Jeremiah Johnson had become familiar with one of Say’s former teams during online networking sessions held while social distancing during the summer of 2019. So, he reached out to the founder and executive director of the Karen Football Association, Kyle Johnson (no relation).
Established three years ago, the KFA aims to support the growth of soccer within the Karen community, providing the equivalent of a national team for Karen ex-patriots. That the Twin Cities are home to the KFA is not a coincidence, as they are also home to around 8,500 Karen — the largest expat Karen community in North America.
“It’s an unknown community, even in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,” said Johnson. “I feel like I could easily turn to my neighbors and ask if they’re familiar with the Karen community, and they would have no idea what I’m talking about. Many people don’t know about the different ethnic communities from Burma.”
In brief, British colonial rule of Burma, followed by Japanese occupation during World War II, and then independence for the country now internationally recognized as Myanmar set the stage for brief attempts at peaceful coexistence between the Burman ethnic majority and the Karen. When those attempts were unfruitful, the decades of subsequent sectarian violence drove hundreds of thousands of Karen to refugee camps on either side of Myanmar’s border with Thailand.
Say was born in one of those camps, and remembers watching the soccer played in them.
“It’s a little bit different because there are no shoes,” Say recalled. “Literally, you play on really hard, flat ground. It’s not soft like the turf or nice grass in the U.S.”
Making his way to the United States while still a child, Say began playing soccer in Minnesota at age twelve. In addition to being a standout player at Humbolt, he also played for the Saint Paul Blackhawks Soccer Club for two years as a teenager, but did not have a wholly typical development path.
“So Covid [in 2020], it put a halt to some of this, but there are pockets of the [Karen] community all around the United States and Canada,” said the KFA’s Johnson. “They have tournaments literally every weekend during the summer in different parts of the country.
One notably large Karen tournament is held in South Dakota each summer. In 2018, a team with Say in goal took second place, and Say’s performance drew attention.
“A lot of people recognized me as a young goalkeeper who was up-and-coming,” noted Say.
“I would say, this past summer, he was the most sought-after goalie in the Karen community,” said Kyle Johnson. “Literally, teams all across the country were calling him to say, ‘Can you come play with us in this tournament?’"
“Those teams he played with won a lot of trophies, and a lot of it was really due to his talent.”
Say helped the KFA secure a trophy of its own as part of a KFA side that took second place in the Boys U19 division of the 2020 U.S. Youth Futsal National Championship.
The KFA’s performance in Kansas City that year was meaningful for Say and his teammates.
“I just want to show the world that there’s a Karen people who are good at soccer, but don’t really have an opportunity to play at a high level. Right now, Kyle is creating a really good opportunity for Karen people. A lot of people [at that tournament] were asking us where we came from. Being able to tell them is what the KFA means to us.”
That same talent that made Say a sought after keeper within the Karen community also drew notice at Futures tryouts last winter. Say raised eyebrows during speed and agility drills, and he was ultimately graded the 22nd-best player to attend tryouts, irrespective of position. Evaluations submitted by Futures staff praised his technical ability, distribution and organization.
Offered a spot in the Futures Program, memorable performances would follow for Say, both in goal and afield.
When occasionally deputized as a defender in Futures matches, Jeremiah Johnson noted that Say left opposing forwards “visibly frustrated”.
Jumping in goal at halftime of a Futures friendly against Shattuck St. Mary’s on March 27, Say made a number of exceptional saves to help preserve a 2-0 victory for the Rookery. Later, on May 9, Say was also in goal for the Futures’ 3-2 friendly victory over the Minnesota United Academy.
But for Say, the highpoint of his 2021 season came on September 7, when he made his senior-team debut at Breese Stevens Field as Forward Madison hosted the Crows in a fall friendly.
"Oh, I was so excited to get a call from our first team,” said Say, beaming. “That was really exciting news for me — to get to travel to Forward Madison and see how the NSPL level and USL League One level compare.”
The 6-0 scoreline reflected the distance between the professional hosts and visiting amateurs, but the margin of defeat did not spoil the evening for Say.
“In my life, I’ve not played at that high a level before. There were a lot of fans out there, and that made me nervous,” Say said with a slight chuckle.
As for building on the experience he gained in 2021, Say has his sights set on a pair of goals in the coming year.
“I’m hoping to go back and play again with the Futures. I’m not turning 20 until December, so I still have an opportunity to play one more year. And also, to trial with the senior team — the UPSL team. I want to go out there and see if I can earn my spot.”