When Minnesota United searched for a new sporting director, it reached outside MLS and hired the son of a Lebanese father and a Czech mother who raised him in Sweden.
Khaled El-Ahmad comes from Barnsley FC in England's third division with a Midwestern connection, too.
He played center back in the early 2000s at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Minnesotans Manny Lagos and Tony Sanneh starred a decade earlier. Sanneh played in a World Cup and Lagos in an Olympics, but it's El-Ahmad whose college coach and teammates consider responsible for creating a team culture that took UWM to five consecutive NCAA tournaments, four Horizon League regular-season titles and ratings in the top 25.
"We'd had some other great players, but the school had never been consistent like that," former Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Louis Bennett said. "We went on a spell there, and Khaled was the catalyst for starting it."
Twenty years later, Loons CEO Shari Ballard sees some of those same leadership qualities in a multicultural candidate who speaks at least five languages — including Arabic and Lebanese — working in such a multicultural sport.
"Between Khaled and his older sister, they speak more languages than the U.N.," his college teammate Kirk Thode said.
El-Ahmad, 42, rose atop Ballard's list after their second conversation about the job. She hired the former college assistant coach, pro player agent, video coordinator, scout, recruiter, data analyst and entrepreneur, and the current CEO and sporting director for Barnsley FC — even though he was still under contract there until season's end next spring.
El-Ahmad worked for six years for the successful City Football Group before Barnsley hired him in 2021. In that time, he scouted CONCACAF regions for Manchester City and helped build the roster for a New York City FC team that won the 2021 MLS Cup.
"As a person, I find him endlessly interesting," Ballard said. "He's a byproduct of a lot of different contexts. He has seen a lot of stuff in his life. It makes him an incredibly thoughtful and flexible thinker. He's not a hammer who sees everything in the world as a nail."
Waiting for the right one
Currently seventh in England's 24-team League One standings, Barnsley announced Monday that El-Ahmad is headed to his new job at Minnesota United after he concludes his duties there Dec. 15.
He now is expected, pending his visa approval, to arrive in Minnesota to begin his new job after the holidays, just in time for the MLS preseason's start in early January.
Barnsley last month was disqualified from England's FA Cup because it used an ineligible player in a first-round replay game. That player was on loan to another team during the initial game's draw but was recalled and started the replay game. Barnsley won the replay 3-0. The club called the violation unintentional and a "regrettable error."
The Loons have yet to make El-Ahmad available to the media, but Ballard called him "the absolute best choice" and "worth the wait" for a club that still must hire a coach, sign free agents, select draft picks and pursue trades this offseason. El-Ahmad will consult with staff and be heard on all sporting decisions but won't solely hire the coach, Ballard said.
El-Ahmad was hired to replace coach Adrian Heath and technical director Mark Watson, who were fired as chief sporting decisionmakers late last season.
"I'm anxious to have him here," she said. "But I'm not losing sleep over decisions we make in the meantime."
Ambitious from the start
El-Ahmad was born in Lebanon and raised in a city north of Stockholm. He went to Wisconsin when he was 18 but probably would have pursued more of a professional playing career in Sweden or the Czech Republic if his father Moustafa hadn't pushed for a college education. Or if he hadn't sustained a serious knee injury in college summer-league play.
Bennett, then Wisconsin-Milwaukee's coach, traveled to Sweden in midwinter to scout a persistent teenager who reached out across the Atlantic at a time when few American college teams recruited internationally, particularly not in Sweden.
"He wouldn't stop calling," Bennett said. "I saw him on film, but I wasn't sure. Eventually I said, what do I have to lose? So I got on a plane."
Bennett watched El-Ahmad train with his club team outdoors on a red shale field surrounded by snow, in subfreezing weather, in balaclavas, hats and gloves. He stayed for more training sessions and two games, unnecessarily.
"The first training session, I knew," Bennett said. "He was smart, and he was skilled. The leadership, his character and his determination were a bonus."
El-Ahmad arrived in Milwaukee to a climate not that unlike his own, with ambition his new teammates found contagious. His knowledge of American soccer was limited, but his commitment and focus influenced teammates even when he was redshirted his first season while his course credits transferred. He earned undergraduate and/or master's degrees in marketing, business administration and international business at UWM.
"Even as a freshman, he came in with this mindset — why can't we be a top 25 team? Why can't we do this?" said college teammate Chris Dadaian, a goalkeeper whose final two seasons were El-Ahmad's first two. "He really was the person who challenged everybody. He was incredibly driven, and he dragged a lot of players with him. You see it wherever he goes. I'm excited to see what he does in Minnesota."
Culture and club
Thode and El-Ahmad arrived on campus at the same time and played together all their collegiate career. El-Ahmad was the best man at Thode's wedding. Both have daughters ages 6 and 4. Thode's wife has dual American-Swedish citizenship, and the two families spend part of the summer together in Sweden every year.
"He always was very serious about football and still is," said Thode, who now is a Morgan Stanley senior portfolio manager. "He wasn't coming to America to go to parties and just meet girls. It didn't mean he didn't have fun, but he definitely changed the culture. We had talent. When the whole crew started rowing the same direction, it all worked."
El-Ahmad speaks all those languages, most of them with authority.
"He doesn't stop talking," said Dadaian, who works for a Milwaukee IT sales company. "He's very opinionated, but he's very knowledgeable. So he tells everybody what to do, but more times than not he's right."
Several teammates from those UW-Milwaukee teams remain close friends. They attended Barnsley's League One promotion playoff game — a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in the 123rd minute — before 72,000-plus at Wembley Stadium in May.
"I've never experienced anything like that," Thode said. "Incredible experience."
Bennett predicts his former player will "build a culture and a club" in Blaine. El-Ahmad coached under Bennett temporarily at Marquette, where Bennett just left "college soccer" after 18 seasons there.
"We've spoken soccer all our lives," Bennett said. He played coy when asked if he'll join El-Ahmad in the pros now.
"He's a gifted guy, there's no two ways about it," Bennett said. "But he has earned it. He has pounded the pavement. He has not been given anything. I have all the admiration for him because of who he is. I think he is a great hire."