American football came first and baseball came second. Soccer was last—but by no means least. Columbia freshman David Najem, a young member of the men’s soccer team, was introduced to “the beautiful game” at the tender age of six, thanks to the influence of his father and uncle.
Fast-forward some 12 years. At the end of August this year, College Soccer News identified Najem as a “freshman to watch.” He was selected as one of 100 freshmen across the United States whose performances fans and media should pay attention to this season. The midfielder from Clifton, N.J. has certainly lived up to expectations and was just named Ivy League Rookie of the Week—a testament to the flying start he’s made in his Light Blue career. He is the second member of the Lions squad to pick up the award this season, as his classmate Henning Sauerbier won it earlier this month. Columbia has won three games in a row for the first time since 2003, and Najem has played no small part.
“I’m really happy now that we’re winning,” Najem said. “I knew from my official visits that Columbia was the right school for me, and I’m really enjoying myself here.”
The Ivy League award is by no means the first major recognition Najem has received in his soccer career, but it is his first at Columbia. In his senior year at Paramus Catholic High School, Najem was named New Jersey High School Player of the Year by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, and he also earned NSCAA All-America honors. At Paramus Catholic, Najem was a four-year letter-winner, captained the side for two seasons, and set a school record with 54 goals and 146 points. He will also continue to represent the prestigious New York Red Bulls Academy team—which he joined at the age of 14 when it was still called the MetroStars—when the college season is over.
Najem has played a significant role in helping the Lions to their 4-4-1 record so far this season and leads the team in assists with three. He has played most of the Lions’ last four fixtures and made major contributions to the team. He earned a well-deserved rest in the second half against Delaware, but only went off after the Lions were leading 3-0. Najem hit the post with a quick free kick when the score was level at 0-0, and his marauding run in the first half started the attack that led to the Lions’ opener. In last week’s 3-2 win against Seton Hall, Najem helped the Lions fight back from 2-1 down when he leveled the game with a superb left-footed strike into the bottom corner. Soon after, his delivery from a corner led to the game-winner. His pinpoint set piece was met by junior Ronnie Shaban, who was able to head it toward junior co-captain Mike Mazzullo. Mazzullo then had the simple task of nodding the ball home. Najem added to his assists account with a delightful through ball at the start of the second half against the Long Island University Blackbirds on Friday. His pass put sophomore striker Will Stamatis clean through against the Blackbirds’ keeper for the goal that gave the Lions a 1-0 win.
“It’s nice to see the success coming back,” Najem said. “We’re looking to break old records and set our own ones as well this season.”
Head coach Kevin Anderson is happy with the way the newcomer is performing, but will not let him get carried away.
“He’s a good player. Everyone knows that, and there’s no doubt about it,” Anderson said. “But he’s only playing as well as he is because of the work the 10 other members of this team are doing around him.”
Najem excelled in the second half against LIU, playing in a slightly more advanced role ahead of Mazzullo instead of alongside him, and created numerous chances for his teammates. His passing has been a joy to watch, and his composure on the ball inspires confidence in the rest of his teammates.
Sophomore striker Nick Ayers, who scored the opener against Delaware, was full of praise for his new teammate. “He’s a really great player, and he definitely inspires us all,” Ayers said. “He’s a clever player who can find me with an incisive pass, and I love playing with him.”
The Lions open their Ivy League campaign when they visit Brown on Saturday, and Najem’s quality in the center of the park will be vital if they are to come away with a win as they attempt to better last season’s 2-5 Ivy record.
“We’re all really excited for the Ivies,” Najem said. “It’s a boost to go into the game with three wins on the trot, and now our warm-up is done. Here’s where the big games start