FEATURE: Tala Haddad, Former Titan Soccer Standout, Takes a Road Less Traveled

Tala Haddad
Tala Haddad
By Bill Sheehan
In his 12 years as the Cal State Fullerton women's soccer head coach, Demian Brown says only one of his student-athletes has pulled off the triple feat of becoming a Division 1 impact player, competing professionally and earning a master's degree.
Lauryn Pehanich, née Welch, was a three-time All Big-West midfielder, played in Germany for FC Guetersloh 2000 in Bundesliga 2 and received a master's in sports psychology from Fullerton. She is currently the women's soccer head coach at the University of La Verne.
Now, Tala Haddad is poised to become the second.
Haddad was a two-year starter for the Titans, who won the Big West tournament championship in three of her four years on the team. After graduating last spring with a business degree in marketing and information systems, she played for FC Nordsjaelland, a Danish pro team in Superliga 2. She's back at Fullerton, working on a Master of Science in information systems with a concentration in business analytics.
And she's volunteering as a student manager for her former team. "I want to give back to this program," said Haddad, 22. "It gave me the best four years of my life. And I used that as a springboard to play in Europe."
Brown calls Haddad a "perfect role model" for first-year student-athletes. "She'll be guiding and helping our younger players overcome some of the hurdles they'll face. She'll also be working with scheduling and academics."
"I love the coaching staff," said Haddad. "Demian makes you feel that you are a part of something bigger. He is intense but knows how to joke around. He pushed me and made me a better player. I owe a ton to him.
"As a freshman, I looked up to a lot of the seniors. I'd like to provide support as someone who has done it. It will be fun to watch the players grow and become leaders."
Haddad's longtime boyfriend, former Titan's men soccer player Nico D'Amato, said she is tailor-made for the manager's job.
"Tala is very personable and easy to talk to. Her mentorship will benefit the girls while they're on the field, and she'll be a friend off the field," he said.
It was D'Amato who inspired Haddad to rethink her post-graduate schedule. D'Amato had always dreamed of playing professional soccer in Europe before pursuing a career in health care.
And he, along with Brown and Haddad's family, encouraged her to take a break from her studies to play soccer and live in Europe.
"I was unsure. But people like Demian really came into play. He made some connections for me and gave me the confidence to go over there," said Haddad.
D'Amato played for FC Brauweiler FC, an amateur team in Cologne, Germany. "It was a great time – a lot of fun," he said. Haddad did tryouts with FC Cologne and MSU Duisberg but found a better opportunity in Denmark.
An instant starter on Danish team
Haddad's agent sent a personal highlights video to FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark. After a two-day trial in late July, she landed a spot on the team, which is in the Copenhagen suburb of Farum.
"They had been looking for a left wingback. I stepped in and played immediately," said Haddad, who joined the team at midseason. "I also played left center-back." She started every game and finished with one assist in her primary role as a defender.
The 5-foot-5 Haddad relished her three months competing for Nordsjaelland, which won its league. The squad included an American from the University of Iowa, a Briton who had played for DePaul University in Chicago and two girls from the Faroe Islands national team.
"I loved being able to live in a new country," she said. "I really loved Copenhagen and the people I met. They are some of the sweetest people, very welcoming and very nice."
The Nordsjaelland chairman is Tom Vernon of Britain, who founded the Right to Dream Academy in Ghana. The school provides scholarships for educational and athletic development for boys and girls from several African nations. Nordsjaelland supports the academy and gives it a presence in Europe. Many academy graduates have moved on to professional teams in Europe.
"Nordsjaelland is big on equality. The club is really trying to grow the women's game," said Haddad, who also assisted with marketing and data analytics as an intern in the Nordsjaelland front office. "The organization conducts a lot of humanitarian projects. I landed in a perfect situation."
Upper echelon Division 1 colleges could hold their own against European professional teams she said. "Playing at Fullerton really helped me transition to the professional level in Europe."
Haddad isn't alone in this regard. Other former Titans playing soccer in Europe are Karen Bardsley (Manchester City and the English national team), Morgan Bertsch (SC Braga in Portugal) and Christina Burkenroad (AC Sparta Praha in the Czech Republic).
"I had such an amazing time in Europe," said Haddad, who traveled around the Continent. But as much as she appreciated her time overseas, she was ready to return to California after the season ended.
Learning to play soccer in Bakersfield
Born and raised in Bakersfield, Haddad was first exposed to the sport as a 4-year-old at a park when her father, Kamel Haddad, placed a soccer ball in front of her. She competed on AYSO teams before joining the South Valley Soccer Club during its inaugural year. The club has grown from one to 30 teams and now has boys' teams as well.
Shelby Carter, who founded South Valley with her husband Jason, was a major influence on Haddad's soccer development.
"The club has been very successful and really catapulted girls' soccer in the Bakersfield area," said Haddad, who played for Carter from age 10 until her high school years. "A lot more players from Bakersfield began moving on to Division 1 college teams because of South Valley."
At Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, Haddad was named to the all-area soccer team in her sophomore, junior and senior years. She also competed in track in the 400 meters.
"Tala has always been very competitive," said Kamel Haddad. "In middle school, she and another girl had separated themselves from the pack in a 1500-meter race. Tala was behind but passed the other girl in the last 20 meters, then threw up her breakfast near the finish line."
"When I think of Tala on the soccer field, she's like a wild cat in her element on the savannah, tracking her prey," her father said. "She understands the tactical parts of the game and can see two or three plays ahead. She talked with me before games about formations and her insights were right on all the time."
Fullerton's Brown spotted Haddad at a soccer camp at Stanford and later offered her a scholarship. "It was a pretty easy pick," said Haddad. "I came to Fullerton for a camp and met the coaches, and I really liked the program."
As a freshman in 2014, Haddad appeared in 18 matches, starting five. She finished with one goal and one assist for the Titans, who won the Big West regular season and tournament championships. She made two starts the next year for the team, which again won the Big West tournament.
"I started out really strong as a freshman. But during my sophomore year, all the adrenaline wore off a little bit. It's common for athletes to go through a sophomore slump. And we had a lot of good players that year ahead of me."
Stepping up her game as a junior
A turning point came early in her junior season. Teammate Jazzmin Mancilla tore an ACL in the Titans' 2016 opener against Saint Mary's College of California, and Brown immediately shifted Haddad from left-center to the more defensive left-back position. She responded by having her best year statistically, scoring nine points on three goals and three assists.
"Demian had the trust in me to make the move. I saw my game improve so much. I loved playing there, and I became a much more of an all-around player," said Haddad, who also saw time at left center-back and left wing-back while starting 18 of 19 games. "I had always been a goal-scorer and an attack-minded forward, so it was ironic that I ended up being a really good defender."
She primarily played left-back her senior year, scoring three goals and two assists while starting all 22 matches. After Fullerton and Cal State Northridge tied 1-1 in regulation in the 2017 Big West tournament championship game, Haddad scored the penultimate Titan goal in a 4-3 shootout win.
Kaycee Hoover, who played all four years with Haddad, scored on the final penalty kick to clinch that championship, "That was one of the last times we played together. It was nervous taking those penalty kicks, but we were thinking, "We got it.' That was a really fun moment for us.
"Tala and I became best friends right off the bat," said Hoover, who occasionally plays for the Guam's national team and is a camera operator for Big West Productions, which broadcasts games for ESPN. "She was always very energetic and a very positive person to be around. She was the team clown and would make everyone laugh, even at the worst practices.
"She was nicknamed 'Bonkers' because she would wear her curly hair in a bun and her bun would go all crazy. Tala played every position. She was a tough, physical player who was always willing to sacrifice her body. She gave me bruises in practice. I asked her, 'Tara, why are you hurting me?' " Hoover recalled, laughing.
A child of scholars and athletes
Genetics likely played a role in Haddad's success in academics and athletics. Her parents, Kamel Haddad and Maureen Rush, both work in higher education. Kamel is vice provost for planning and academic resources at Cal State San Marcos. Rush is a professor of applied mathematics at Cal State Bakersfield. They met while working on their doctorates in mathematics at the University of Maryland.
Her parents also have athletic backgrounds. Kamel was born and raised near Beirut and became a top sprinter for Lebanon. An injury kept him out of the 1981 Universiade, or World University Games, in Romania. Rush was a dancer and cheerleader but now sticks to recreational sports such as cycling and swimming.
Kamel also is a musician and actor who has appeared on several TV series, including "ER" and "The West Wing." Haddad has a younger brother, Layth, who is starting out in musical theater in Southern California. "And I can't sing to save my life," she said.
"I'm really proud of Tala," said her father. "Not only is she an amazing athlete but an amazing human being. She's has a big heart and has been loyal and kind to her family and friends."
Away from school, Haddad enjoys outdoor sports and workouts at the gym, including hot yoga, weight-lifting and cardio-based exercises. She conducts private coaching for young soccer players. And she likes cooking and spending time with her family and D'Amato. "We've dated since our sophomore year. It's been a very fun journey with him," she said of D'Amato, who twice was Fullerton's Big West Scholar Athlete of the Year.
"I love to travel. Each summer, my family would go to resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean. I lived in Egypt for six months when I was young and have also visited Dubai," said Haddad, who also has traveled extensively on the U.S. East Coast.
She envisions working as a data scientist in the corporate world. Data scientists are analytical data experts who use their technical skills to solve problems and explore what problems need to be solved. Eventually, she would like to earn a doctorate degree and become a college professor.
Asked what advice she would give to the younger Fullerton players, Haddad said: "Work hard and don't take anything for granted. You don't realize it yet, but this will have an impact on your happiness and success in life."

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