David Najem Has Been Reading a Lot, but He’d Rather Be Playing Soccer


People throughout the sports world, from athletes to arena staff members, tell The New York Times how their lives have changed during the coronavirus pandemic.

The professional soccer player David Najem has not put on his cleats or shot on a goalkeeper in seven weeks, and it is all very disorienting to him. Just as Najem’s team, New Mexico United, was commencing final preparations on March 12 for its second game of the season, his league — the USL Championship, just below Major League Soccer — suspended operations because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We got a little taste of it, and then the rug got pulled out under us,” Najem said.

Unlike his brother, Adam Najem, a midfielder in Poland who was able to rejoin their parents in Clifton, N.J., after his league halted play, David, 27, had to remain in Albuquerque. David and his roommate, the United midfielder Andrew Tinari, do not leave their apartment without each other.

Since teams are prohibited from training through May 3, Najem, a defender, and a few teammates have improvised by passing the ball around in a parking lot — at a safe distance, of course.

“We’re doing it responsibly,” Najem said.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.

Q: You signed with New Mexico in late January, as the coronavirus was spreading in China. Did you have any sense or apprehension then that it would eventually grind life to a halt here?

Najem: No, not at all. I was reading the reports, but I feel like, as a nation, we weren’t really prepared. We went into preseason not even thinking that it was going to affect us. I came here ready, prepared, fit, excited to start with a new team, and I don’t think it was until that second week of March where we thought this was becoming a very serious thing. It was pretty quiet here in Albuquerque for a little while.

But being away from family, that’s always tough. I think I’m calling pretty much every day just to make sure everything’s OK, especially with them being in a hot spot. I just want to make sure I’m not missing anything and they’re not feeling sick.

What has the communication been like from the team?

We’ve had a bunch of Zoom team talks, video analysis, team workouts and weekly FaceTimes to catch up and see how our families are, especially the guys who have been away from home. Our coach sends out a schedule every Sunday that consists of different workouts, and one of our physical trainers, he’s sent out a bunch of different types of lifts that we can do — body weight and with very little equipment.

There are plenty of ways we can stay fit and sharp, but it’s not in the more traditional ways. I’d say we’re lifting three to four times a week with a couple of runs in there, then some exercises with the ball, wherever we can play. We’re working in the parking garage, honestly, just knocking it against the wall, trying to stay sane and play with the ball, you know? It’s a weird time to be an athlete, that’s for sure.

Is it hard having this much unstructured time?

It’s tough — honestly, it is. Just because of the uncertainty. The way I prepare for a season, prepare for a game, I have an end date. I know the date I have to be prepared for, and I work backwards from that date. Now, I don’t know the date I’m supposed to be prepared for. At this point, it’s keeping busy, keeping the wheels turning, so I’m not starting from neutral again.

When you’re not preparing, what are you doing?

I’ve finished a bunch of books in this time, which is nice. Usually I’m physically exhausted and it’s hard to just decompress and read sometimes without falling asleep.

Watching old soccer games — some of them I’ve played in, and some other professional leagues where I watch different players. Sometimes we jump on a Zoom call with our coaches and watch a game together and discuss the tactics. We’ve had more time to do that, but at the same time, we’re not trying to burn ourselves out. How many games can you watch? How many matches can you watch in detail and not put into effect on the field?

Any favorite books you’ve read?

I finished “The Kite Runner” — that was a great one. I just started Malala’s book (“I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai), which is great. I did Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead.” And “The Power of Now,” I’m finishing that up, as well. But I’ve also just been reading a lot of articles because I’ve been super curious about what’s going on in the world and how it’s going to affect us. When will our league open up? What will it look like? How will it be organized? When will I be able to see my family again? Most of all, when will everyone in the country be able to live normal lives again?

When do you think you’d feel safe playing again?

It’s going to be a transition, that’s for sure. Our club is taking the utmost precautions — if it’s not safe, we’re not going to do it. I see it being a transition back into small group training and playing with no fans, maybe — maybe not even flying, and busing places. The league has a responsibility. They have to understand that if one person gets it, it’s going to be the team that’s in jeopardy, because everyone will be exposed at that point, because of the close quarters. I don’t see them making any rash decisions.

Have you thought about what you’re going to do when this is all over?

I’m just missing soccer so much right now that I’m excited to have an organized session, play with teammates, score some goals, start ramping up the fitness and be active again. It’s weird because in the off-season, I prepared so hard for the start of the season, and then all that preparation goes out the window. You’re like, “Wow, I miss it, and I want to prepare for it again.”

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