Ezana Kahsay's athleticism has never been questioned. Not at Buffalo's International Prep, Westside International Soccer, Black Watch Premier, BUSS of the Buffalo & District Soccer League or even college soccer power University of Akron.
You could even argue the refugee from African nation Eritrea has the ideal soccer body - he's blessed with long legs, rapid acceleration, straight-line speed and a deceptive wiry strength.
Naturally, Kahsay's soccer ability has taken longer to catch up with his physical gifts, posing a bit of a problem for his coaches: At what position would he be most effective?
After years as a center back for youth clubs, then a reserve role as a midfielder in his first two years at Akron, Kahsay has finally settled in as a striker, and considering his excellence for the Erie Commodores this summer, he could be in line to be Akron's first choice up top this fall.
It's hard to imagine a more productive start to the NPSL season than what Kahsay achieved this summer. He potted six goals over his first five games, including a hat-trick against Fort Pitt, propelling Erie to a 4-0-2 record that put them in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.
The striker was a shoo-in for BN Soccer's mid-season Best XI, and even after a personal five-game scoreless streak that saw Erie nearly botch their playoff spot, his contested header to earn a draw against Syracuse FC on the final day of the season clinched the Commodores' berth in the NPSL postseason, which begins at 7 p.m. July 22 at Gannon University.
Kahsay's statistics are more impressive considering just two summers ago he was a starting center back for Portland Timbers U-23. And it might sound cliche, but Kahsay credits opportunity for his rapid adjustment to the striker position.
"I think all I needed was games, more game time and experience, and I'm getting that right now," Kahsay said after his Commodores fell to FC Buffalo. "Training has been great, and I've been finding my feet.
He still trusts his natural gifts to a considerable degree - his fitness and long stride allow him to pester defenders into mistakes or earn a half-step advantage on his marker - but his finishing is no longer a weakness.
"Athleticism is an important part of [my ability as a striker], but getting into good positions and having the experience of full 90-minute games, that's what makes a striker better," Kahsay admitted. "These [NPSL] games have increased my confidence and obviously that's what I want going forward, to have that starting position going back to Akron."
The Great Lakes East Conference's co-leader in goals has also carved out a reputation as one of the league's bad boys; Kahsay accumulated four yellow cards in the first four games of the season, resulting in a one-game suspension, then picked up three more over the course of the season. Four were awarded for either unsporting behavior or dissent, while three were doled out for delaying a restart or persistent infringement.
The frequency of bookings is nothing new - Kahsay earned a red card once in each of his last two seasons with Akron, as well as for St. Louis FC U-23 last summer. The mixture of goals and cards makes him entertaining to watch because of his unpredictability, but his short fuse - especially in matches against FC Buffalo - has added some gray to his reputation locally.
A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP WITH BUFFALO
After escaping Eritrea with his mother and sister for neighboring Ethiopia - primarily to avoid being drafted into the Eritrean military like his father, uncle and brother - Kahsay was resettled in Buffalo, an American bastion for African refugees.
His tenure at diverse Buffalo Public School International Prep - formerly known as Grover Cleveland - helped him acclimate and thrive in his new home alongside fellow refugee and immigrant students.
Smart, gregarious and clearly talented, Kahsay earned the trust and support of I-Prep administrators Anthony Alessi, his varsity soccer coach as a senior, and Mike Masecchia, Alessi's predecessor. You can read more about their influence in a profile written by former News reporter Tiffany Lankes, in 2014.
But since signing with Akron, Ezana Kahsay's relationship with his American home has become more complex.
He's flirted with the idea of playing for FC Buffalo, attending a tryout before last summer, while FC Buffalo reached out to gauge his interest before this season.
Nothing materialized, and when Erie head coach and owner John Melody reached out to Akron head coach Jared Embick, Kahsay and his Zips mate Shane Wiedt were headed to the Commodores, the bitter rival of Buffalo's top-level men's soccer team.
Kahsay is certainly not a stranger to competing against Buffalo teams, however; over his three years at the University of Akron, he played the University at Buffalo on four occasions, and has now faced FC Buffalo twice in National Premier Soccer League games.
Playing for FC Buffalo's rival - the #HateErie hashtag never seems to lose steam - might be deemed a slap in the face to the city that helped cultivate his talents, but that's not exactly Kahsay's view.
"There's only one kid I've played with who's played for FC Buffalo, so really they're not my friends," explained Kahsay, "but this city is my city, I love the city at the end of the day.
"I love the fans, I grew up with them. But when it comes to games, it's Erie versus Buffalo."
And Kahsay's volatility has been in full bloom in his two meetings with FC Buffalo this season. A shoving match and exchange of words with Wolves' captain Chris Walter was unbecoming during their first meeting, and Walter's teammates took every chance to rattle the Erie striker, whether through hard tackles or chatter away from the ball.
Pushing and shoving between Kahsay and Walter after FCB captain collided with Wiedt in the corner. pic.twitter.com/jxhrPTITUi
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) May 26, 2017
In Erie's return visit to Buffalo, Kahsay's on-field antics were again on display, rashly going after FC Buffalo center backs Fox Slotemaker and Jordan Sinclair, with the tangle with the latter coming behind the play.
Forgot to tweet a yellow to Ezana Kahsay after thwacking FCB's Slotemaker. The two are not big fans of each other, we've seen. 1-0, FCB, 22'
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) June 30, 2017
Erie's Kahsay headhunts FCB's Sinclair, who's incensed that no one noticed the rather cheap play.
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) July 1, 2017
"As a striker, you need to get into players' heads and get them out of the game, and it works most of the time," Kahsay admitted when asked about his tendency to get into scuffles.
While there's clearly no love lost between Kahsay and FC Buffalo - his style of play and choice of summer team haven't exactly endeared him to Wolves supporters - there's no sense of vengeance or bitterness, just a combustible player in the heat of a rivalry.
WHAT TIES HIM TO BUFFALO
Ultimately, it's Kahsay's relationships cultivated in Buffalo that tie him to the city, not soccer organizations or any particular institution.
Three of his former Buffalo United Soccer Stars (BUSS) teammates - Gilberto "Polo" Suazo, Anthony Saysay and Bobby Calvaneso - were present for Kahsay's match against the Wolves, among a handful of other friends and supporters from his time in Buffalo.
"They've been a big part of my life - all of those guys - they watched me grow up, they helped me become a better player, now they're still following me and looking out for me," said Kahsay. "They come out and support at these games. They're truly my family in Buffalo."
Suazo, a veteran of the BDSL and the unofficial godfather of African soccer players in Buffalo, has nurtured a friendship with Kahsay since the two met at pickup at Rumsey in Delaware Park, when Kahsay was 14.
Over the seven years that followed, the two have been teammates on BUSS and in regular communication despite the distance. Suazo has nothing but praise for his close friend.
"When I met Ezana I could already tell this kid had some talent and a good work ethic," wrote Suazo in a message. "Since then his game has matured a lot. Physically and mentally as a player you notice his increase in strength and strategy.
"His vision on the field is outstanding and his ability to control the ball increased. His accuracy in passing shows you how smart he is with the ball. He went from a solid defender to a better forward."
And while Kahsay might seem temperamental on the pitch, Suazo sees no concerns over his attitude or character.
"Off the field he is a humble and outgoing young man," the BUSS co-manager explained. "He's a very smart kid; I'm sure he makes many proud, including me. This should be just the beginning for him, not a single drop of doubt in me for this guy."
And whether it's due to his rise from refugee to Division I soccer player or his commitment to his Buffalo friends, Kahsay still has a local impact. International Prep's Pa Lu, the first Western New York Player of the Year and all-American to come from a Buffalo Public School, credits Kahsay, a former teammate, as his role model.
A HOME IN ERIE
The spotlight will shine on Kahsay during the NPSL playoffs and, in all likelihood, in the fall with Akron. Some in the Buffalo soccer community will follow along with pride, knowing their efforts to help the Eritrean refugee - both as a student and as a soccer player - are being rewarded.
Others will wonder if his temper on the pitch will pose further problems, drawing the anger of referees, opposing players and coaches alike. For now, though, Kahsay's character off-the-field still shines enough to outweigh the maddening on-field antics.
"I'll tell you he is fiery, but I regularly bring my kids to practice and he's brilliant with them," said Erie's Melody. "He's done community service while here in Erie. He might seem a complex character but he's a good lad."