Yosef Samuel made history in the first game of the inaugural season of Atlanta United 2, the reserve unit of the major league soccer team. Samuel, originally from Ethiopia, scored the first goal for his team, leading to a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls II on March 24.
After playing for the Philadelphia Union United Soccer League affiliate and Bethlehem Steel Football Club, Samuel is thrilled to play soccer in his hometown of Atlanta.
“My family hadn’t really been able to watch me play, so it was nice for them to see me and show them.”
The 21-year-old midfielder is originally from the Endegagn region in Ethiopia. He began playing at age 7, and says soccer was a way to keep him out of trouble.
“When you’re a teenager, you want to get into trouble, but all my brothers played soccer and I wanted to be like them,” Samuel said. “I spent all my time on the soccer field.”
Samuel developed his skills playing in the Atlanta Youth Soccer Association in Decatur, the Gwinnett Soccer Academy and the Maccabi Games. Playing professional soccer has always been his dream, he said.
When he scored the first Atlanta United 2 goal with a scissor kick, Samuel kissed his wrist, a homage to his older brother, Sol, who passed away tragically in 2014. After the goal, Samuel knew he was well on his way.
The youngest of nine siblings, Samuel said his large family with Judaism at its center, has always been a source of strength. He credits his mother, author Melissa Fay Greene, who attends every game, as the driving force behind his ambition.
“My mom does everything. She’s on top of everything, … my life and everybody’s life,” he said. “I think if I wanted to become a doctor, she would have made it happen.”
Greene, a novelist and author of “The Temple Bombing,” adopted Samuel and his brother, Daniel, when they were in elementary school. Yosef being the younger of the two was always happy, Greene said, describing him as “an imp of a child,” because of his small stature.
“When they arrived, just turning 10 and 13, it was obvious to us how much Daniel had taken on the weight of the world and sheltered Yosef,” Greene said. “So Yosef still had the merriment and innocence of a little kid. Whereas Daniel had the weary outlook of an old man.”
The boys lived in Ethiopia during the AIDS epidemic, which left them at the mercy of a country gripped by fear, Greene said. It was during this time she wrote a book titled “There’s No Me Without You” about a grandmother taking in children with AIDS in Ethiopia.
“People were terrified of the disease. People were afraid of the children, even children who were HIV negative,” Greene said.
Greene and her husband, Don Samuel, prominent criminal defense attorney, already had four children by birth and three by adoption when their son, Lee, called, asking them to adopt the Ethiopian siblings. Lee started a soccer league for orphaned children in Ethiopia and bonded with the brothers. While in Ethiopia, Yosef took the orphanage league games as seriously as the World Cup Final, Lee said.
“He would run laps inside the orphanage compound. Other kids would be asleep and he would be practicing dribbling a soccer ball and getting in shape because we had a game against another orphanage the next day,” Lee recalls.
It’s the way Samuel carries himself on the field that caught the attention of Atlanta United 2 coach Scott Donnelly, who recruited him last year.
“He’s a strong performer and he’s an attacking player,” Donnelly said. “He meshes well with the team because he’s a good person. There’s no ego; he’s down-to-earth and also coachable.”
Samuel’s dedication to the game resulted in him being called up to play for Atlanta United in its U.S. Open Cup match against Charleston Battery.
And while Samuel is in Atlanta, the family takes advantage of the time they have together. They caravan to every game to support Yosef. Lee, who has always been Yosef’s biggest fan, said nothing compares to watching his brother play. So when he was finally signed to Atlanta United 2, Lee said it was one of the happiest moments in his life.
“For me my happiest sports moments are the 1995 World Series, the first three-quarters of last year’s Super Bowl, and Yosef’s goal,” Lee said. “Yosef’s goal was the happiest I’ve been watching sports. He’s so beautiful to watch play.”