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Union Academy grad’s confidence ‘sky high’ heading into Sweet 16 with Duke

Issa Rayyan has five goals in his last six games for the Blue Devils

Duke Athletics

Issa Rayyan has electrified crowds and kept the attention of the Philadelphia Union technical staff while collecting the coveted ACC Freshman of the Year award this season at Duke.

But there’s at least one person in his life who isn’t happy about his backflip goal celebrations, which have become common place in recent weeks.

“My mom doesn’t like me doing the flips,” Rayyan said in a phone interview this week. “They scare her.”

Considering the risk involved, it’s understandable that Rayyan’s mom back home in Michigan wants him to change things up when he scores. It was a small knock in training last spring while he was still with the Philadelphia Union Academy that led to a hematoma that ended up keeping him out for three months and on the sidelines for the Union U19 team’s run to the national quarterfinals.

The injury initially slowed Rayyan’s transition to the college game, but it didn’t keep him out of the lineup when the season started. His position when the season opened was a little different than what he was used to playing though.

“I was playing wingback so it was an adjustment to me not being as high up the field and having to defend more,” Rayyan said.

Even playing further back on the pitch, Rayyan was able to leave his mark on games in ways that didn’t show up on the score sheet, using his quickness to draw penalties in back-to-back games against FIU and Vermont and creating numerous scoring chances with his pace and skill on the ball.

His first goal wouldn’t come until the second week of October in a 2-0 win over Campbell. In the eight games since then, he’s scored five times.

“In the beginning of the season he was playing really well but wasn’t finding the back of the net,” freshman midfielder and fellow Union Academy grad Seth Kuhn said in a phone interview. “Now his confidence is sky high.”

Kuhn and Rayyan were already close in their academy days, but their bond has strengthened as they’ve gone through their first season in college and adjusted to the demands of playing two and sometimes three times a week on top of the demands of school work.

“It’s made going through everything easier having Issa here,” said Kuhn, who played in all but two games this season, more recently as a reserve off the bench. “It’s been awesome.”

Rayyan’s form — he’s second on the team in goals to junior Daniele Proch, who has 11 goals and 4 assists — has helped push the Blue Devils into the Round of 16 for the first time since 2009. It’s also caught the attention of Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin, who mentioned Rayyan at his press conference on Monday.

Rayyan was flattered by the remark — Curtin also name-dropped Kentucky sophomore Kalil ElMedkhar and Villanova senior Zach Zandi as Union Academy grads who have had great seasons in college — and said it serves as motivation to keep pushing and working hard toward reaching the next level.

“My goal has always been to go pro,” the Grand Blanc, Michigan native said. “That’s why I left home when I was 14.”

Whether a first team deal awaits when the semester ends or not, Rayyan is focused on the task at hand right now, beating Maryland on Saturday and extending an already impressive freshman campaign another week.