By most measures, Kalil ElMedkhar had a successful freshman season last year at the University of Kentucky, earning regular minutes as a rookie and delivering a pair of assists on a team with a winning record.
But coming off a productive summer starting for a Reading United team that made it all the way to the Premier Development League final, the former Philadelphia Union Academy attacker from Delaware had much higher expectations for himself.
“I’m an attacking player so I’m not happy if I’m not scoring goals,” ElMedkhar said in an interview after Reading United advanced to the PDL final back in August.
Score goals is exactly what ElMedkhar and another former Reading United forward — JJ Williams — have done this season in the Bluegrass state.
ElMedkhar has nine goals and 10 assists while Williams, who had a goal in seven appearances in Reading in 2017, has become one of the nation’s most lethal target forwards, finding the back of the net 16 times this season while assisting on seven other goals. Both players tied program records and collected postseason first team all-conference accolades, which included a conference player of the year award for Williams.
“Things just started to click for us,” ElMedkhar said of his partnership with Williams, a Birmingham, Alabama native. “All spring we were just working on becoming a dynamic duo and we’re still working on it. Even after we won the conference tournament he was upset about one play where I didn’t pass the ball so I was asking him what he saw so we could be on the same page for the next game.”
Together their increased production — from a combined three goals and six assists in 2017 to 25 goals and 17 assists this season — has helped partially explain Kentucky’s dramatic rise from a decent 8-6-4 season and a one game and out postseason in the conference tournament to a high-water mark for the program with a 17-1-1 record and a conference double.
Kentucky’s 1-0 win over Charlotte on Sunday — Williams had the lone goal off an assist from ElMedkhar — was the first in program history in a Conference USA tournament final less than two weeks after claiming the regular season title. (The team won three Mid-American Tournament titles from 1999-2001).
“It was an incredible feeling,” ElMedkhar said of winning the regular season and conference titles. “The crowds here have been amazing and we feel really confident, like we can beat anyone at home.”
As the No. 3 overall seed, UK will host a second round match in Lexington against Portland on Sunday at 4 p.m.
It will be a first taste of the NCAA Tournament for ElMedkhar, who has an older sister who played soccer at Arcadia University, an older brother who played at West Chester University and plenty of support from family back home in Middletown and in the Middle East, where his Syrian-born father grew up and lived before coming to the U.S. to study medicine.
“I’m always talking to my dad about his family in Syria and seeing how they’re doing,” ElMedkhar said. “I have a lot of family in the surrounding countries that are refugees and they’re always watching my games, sending me pictures watching me on ESPN and that makes me really happy to see that.”
A former Penn Fusion Academy and Kirkwood Soccer Club talent who spent five years in the Union Academy, ElMedkhar is one of several former Philadelphia Union Academy attackers in the tournament who have made a noticeable impact in the college game this season. Issa Rayyan won freshman of the year in the ACC for his standout play at No. 6 seed Duke and Justin McMaster has five goals and four assists for top-seeded Wake Forest just to name a couple examples.
ElMedkhar has done well to build off his productive summer in Reading, where he showed the kind of threat he could be attacking from wide areas with his pace, size and skill on the ball, finishing the short season with three goals and three assists.
Back in Lexington, he now finds himself in a similar place he was when the regular season ended in Reading, coming off a successful season on a team aiming for a deep postseason run.
“It’s a similar situation as Reading,” ElMedkhar said. “If we keep winning we’re going to host every game up until the final four and at Reading we were able to host every game and the national championship. I think it definitely prepared me. The national championship game I think was the biggest crowd I had played in front of until our game against Indiana this season.”
ElMedkhar was one of two Union Academy and Reading United players in Kentucky to capture a conference tournament championship last Sunday along with Louisville defender Lamine Conte. The Cardinals will also be hosting a second round game against Michigan State, where another Union Academy grad, Olu Ogunwale, is a freshman.
“It’s definitely really cool to see two teams in Kentucky winning their conferences and it’s really good for Lamine and Louka Masset who also played at Reading,” he said. “I’m happy for them, even though Louisville are our rivals.”
Though it’s a long way to go to Santa Barbara, where the College Cup will be played in December, the only time the rivals would meet again this season — Kentucky won 3-0 in Lexington back in September — would be in the final, which would be a first for the Wildcats. Who they play doesn’t really matter at this point though as much as extending the season does.
Their ninth appearance in program history, which only dates back to 1991, Kentucky has never won more than one game in an NCAA tournament.
“I’m just looking forward to getting out there and going as far as we can,” ElMedkhar said.