PALM DESERT, Calif. — His name is Mohanad Jeahze, and he is D.C. United’s new left back.
He is the middle child of two teachers, Kadim and Naghada, who before locking eyes in language class in Sweden left war-torn Iraq in the 1990s. Their children were born in Sweden and brought up in Linkoping, a metro area of 165,000 with a sizable immigrant population.
They learned Swedish and English and embraced local culture. At home, they spoke Arabic and carried on family traditions, which began in Iraq’s north (mother’s family) and south (father’s side). His parents, Jeahze said, do not like talking about the past.
Jeahze (pronounced Ja-haz) was classmates and teammates with Syrians, Afghans and Somalis — first generations from families that had fled turmoil to provide better lives for themselves and their children.
“For me, it was the perfect mix,” Jeahze said. “We met people from everywhere.”
His soccer career blossomed, and he was invited to the Swedish youth national teams. It’s not uncommon for players from immigrant families to represent Sweden. The most famous is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the superstar striker whose parents emigrated from Yugoslavia.
Jeahze’s Iraqi teammate Amir al-Ammari followed a path similar to Jeahze’s, playing for Sweden’s under-19 squad before committing to Iraq, his father’s homeland.
Jeahze takes pride in his multicultural background and upbringing. In his heart, he said, “I feel both Swedish and Iraqi.
“In my head, I am from Iraq, but everything I learn is from Sweden: school, soccer, everything,” he continued. “I still see myself as Swedish. When people ask, I say I was born here but my parents are from Iraq.”
Jeahze’s path to the Swedish senior national team took longer than he expected. Coaches told him he was close to a call-up, but after a few years, “I had been close for too long,” he said.
Aware of Jeahze’s roots, Iraqi soccer officials had been reaching out regularly. In 2021, he committed to a program that, like the country, had been decimated by war.
“Football is important in Sweden,” he said, “but when I play for Iraq, I see how much it means to the people.”
At the beginning of his Iraqi tenure, Jeahze thought he had to prove himself both on and off the field. “It felt like maybe some of them were thinking: ‘You’ve been lucky all your life in Sweden. Nothing will be easy for you here,’ ” he said. “I couldn’t do anything about it. Maybe they didn’t think I was as Iraqi as they were.”
Jeahze started three 2022 World Cup qualifiers and came off the bench in a fourth. Intermittently banned by FIFA from playing home games because of security concerns, Iraq hosted most qualifiers in Qatar.
“That first game [against Syria], I was real proud, but if there had been fans there, it would’ve been better,” he said. “I was thinking of my family and how proud they are.”
Iraq did not qualify, finishing fourth in a six-nation group in the final round of the Asian confederation’s competition. The country’s only World Cup appearance came in 1986. Represented by the under-23 team, the Olympic squad was a semifinalist at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.
This winter, Iraq hosted an international tournament for the first time in more than 40 years, and it won the Arabian Gulf Cup for the first time since 1988. Because he was going through the U.S. work visa process, Jeahze was not on the team.
Before joining United, he played 2½ seasons for Hammarby, which finished third in the top division in 2022. Last summer, Jeahze seemed primed for a move to Scotland (Celtic) or Turkey (Besiktas). Talks stalled. In the fall, United initiated serious pursuit.
Assistant coach Pete Shuttleworth attended Hammarby matches and reported back to Rooney and the technical staff. United paid a transfer fee of an estimated $750,000 and signed him through 2025, with a club option for 2026.
“Pete thought he fit into our system,” Coach Wayne Rooney said. “He is a very good footballer on the ball, very good left foot, comfortable attacking.”
At training camp, Jeahze has roomed with Icelandic midfielder Victor Palsson, who, thanks to one season with a Swedish club, speaks Swedish. To help ease Jeahze’s transition, Palsson engages with him in Swedish.
Palsson is in his second MLS tour after playing for the New York Red Bulls in 2012. Until a few weeks ago, Jeahze had never been to the United States. Asked if he has introduced Jeahze to anything new in America, Palsson deadpanned, “I am just trying to introduce him to salad at the moment because he needs to get fit.”
Rooney has placed a heavy emphasis on fitness. Jeahze, who in D.C.’s system will need to run the left flank and join the attack, is a little behind.
“I have said to him he needs to work on fitness. He knows it,” Rooney said. “We are pushing him.”
With the season opener against Toronto FC 4½ weeks away, Jeahze understands he needs to make strides. United will play four matches at the Coachella Valley Invitational, starting Wednesday against Charlotte FC (a 90-minute match) and the Vancouver Whitecaps (45 minutes).
“When D.C. showed interest, I thought this could be good,” Jeahze said. “I’ve made it here. I like it here. Now I’ve got to keep working and show the club they made the right decision.”