WORDS: GARRY HAYES
Chicago Fire forward Mike Magee has been a regular on the MLS top scorer tables over the years, but the former team-mate of David Beckham and Robbie Keane has often slipped under the US national team radar. We spoke to him about life as a member of American soccer’s breakthrough generation…
A relative unknown outside of Major League Soccer circles, the name Mike Magee suddenly reached a global audience in May when he departed LA Galaxy for Chicago Fire as part of the deal taking Robbie Rogers the other way.
Rogers is the first openly gay footballer in MLS, with his trade and subsequent debut for Bruce Arena’s side proving big news.
For the world’s media, Magee’s role in it all was nothing more than an after thought, though, with his name merely tagged onto the end of reports explaining the intricacies of how a player who had never played for the Fire was suddenly turning out for the club David Beckham once called home.
Magee has made a habit of being undervalued in his career, only to turn heads with some fine performances that frequently remind MLS fans at least that he remains one of the finest US talents of his generation. It’s been no different since May, either.
A Chicago boy, born and bred, he had often spoken of his desire to return home following a 13-year absence. He left Illinois as a 15-year-old to join the US national residency programme and hadn’t been back, being drafted by New York Metrostars a few years later.
It’s been a long journey, via the Big Apple and LA, but he’s finally back in the Windy City and making up for lost time. He’s had his scoring boots on at Toyota Park, helping give his hometown club a realistic chance of making the MLS Play-Offs, firing himself to the top of the league’s scoring charts in the process. TheInsideLeft caught up with him to get an insight to life as an MLS star…
Mike, since joining Chicago Fire In May, we’ve seen you switch back to your more natural position as a striker, with devastating results. Having started your career as a forward with New York Metrostars, what influenced the decision for you to drop into midfield for the past decade or so?
It definitely wasn’t my decision. I did well in my rookie season for New York, I was only 18 and I scored some goals. I was happy with how it went, but in my second year I played the first game as the striker, scored, and was put back into midfield. When you’re young, you score on the first day of the season and you think you’re going to score 50 goals that year, so I was confused. The manager [Bob Bradley] put it to me that he saw more as a midfield player, though, and that if I wanted to play it would be in the midfield. That lasted a decade, so I’m thrilled be back up front now. As dumb as it sounds, I always saw myself as a forward in that time. I accepted my role into the team, playing on the left, but in the back of my mind I always knew I would get back to where I wanted to be.
In 2011, you also played in goal for LA, after your goalkeeper was sent off and the replacement got injured.
That’s one I try to forget! I did keep a clean sheet, though, so that was pretty cool. I was only hoping to play a couple of minutes to see us through to half time, but then Bruce [Arena] made me stay in for the second half. If the situation ever comes up again, I’ll have to fake an arm injury, or something.
So we shouldn’t expect to see you prolonging your career in the next few years as a goalkeeper?
Not a chance. Those days are over and when my time comes, I’ll retire gracefully.
In 2006, you suffered a serious knee injury playing for New York. What was your state of mind at that time? It took you a long while to come back.
It was pretty serious stuff as my MCL went missing. I had surgeries for two years in a row and it kept me out for around 18 months. It was a long way back and I’d say it wasn’t until three seasons or so ago that I felt I was my best again. I started to feel confident again, making tackles and being physical once more. It had been a crazy time for me though. It was my first real injury and it kind of got ugly, going through surgery and still feeling the same. The doctors never thought I’d be the same again, so it was scary. I’d put all my eggs into one basket, I hadn’t gone to college and I had all these aspirations of doing certain things that I thought were going to be taken away by something I couldn’t control. Looking back now, it has helped me put some things into perspective, but I’m glad that part of my life is over. It was a dark time.
Following that injury, you said moving to LA revived your career. What was it that helped turn things around?
When I was living in New York, I told the club I wasn’t going back. It was a rough time for me, but then Bruce Arena called when I was considering retiring. He told me he wanted me when I didn’t think anyone did. It was pretty much all I needed to hear, especially coming from a guy like him. My first two years were OK, but they weren’t great. I wasn’t completely rehabbed and then in my third year it just clicked. I changed my perspective from wanting to get minutes here and there, to putting my footprint on the team.
Looking at your international career, you were a junior with the US team, but are yet to win a senior cap for your country. Given that your record stands up against most American players, how disappointed are you to have not been given that break?
Before my knee injury I was called into camps and was unfortunate not to get caps at the time. When I got injured though, not being on Twitter letting everyone know how I was doing in my recovery, it kind of hurt me. I guess people forgot about me and thought I wasn’t playing well. Sometimes what a coach sees or wants is the next up and coming kid, so it’s perhaps worked against me. If I keep doing what I am doing, playing well then they have to give me a chance. For whatever reason, if they don’t, my career has still been pretty good.
How frustrating is it when you’re the leading American goalscorer in MLS, but Jurgen Klinsmann still overlooks you?
It raises my eyebrows every once in a while. Obviously I am not looking at other players, suggesting I should be there over them, but I do wonder why I haven’t been given my shot. My focus is on Chicago Fire though. They’re my priority and I just want to play well for my team and then hopefully one day I may get the call.
Growing up in the Midwest, it wasn’t exactly a hotbed of soccer. How was it for you as a youngster trying to carve out a career in the game?
The coaches I played with when I was younger were the best around. They were amazing, so they developed me the best way they could to help me make it to where I am today. I was very fortunate. There may not have been so many great teams in Illinois, but day in, day out I had people doing great things for me that I wouldn’t have got growing up elsewhere.
MLS was in its infancy when you were a teenager. Do you think it was harder for you to make it professionally than a teenager growing up today?
There wasn’t a blueprint when I was a kid. I didn’t have anyone to look up to and soccer was never on TV. Looking back, I wish as a kid I was able to look at Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan to see what they’re achieving, but it wasn’t like that. Seeing guys be successful, making money and the atmosphere at stadiums – I didn’t have any of that. It would have been pretty cool, but instead I was watching Michael Jordan and teams like the Chicago Bears. That was still cool, though.
Did you have an idol?
Not really. When I was around 16 years old and in residency in Florida, that’s when I realised how big soccer is around the world. We were playing international games against the likes of Brazil, but before then the only big sports in my eyes were American football and baseball. I played soccer simply because I enjoyed scoring goals.
What made you choose soccer over the more traditional American sports?
Well my dad played football and had a serious injury, so my mum wouldn’t let me play. It worked out well as I’m not a big dude anyway. It came down to baseball and soccer for me, so when I made the youth national team I realised the opportunity that I had and it just made sense to me.
Your manager at the Metrostars was Bob Bradley, who has had played a big role in the development of your career.
Bob’s the one who pretty much started my career. He saw me playing as a 14-year-old and made the call to the US national residency programme in Florida, telling the coach down there that I had to be part of the team. And then he drafted me at New York Metrostars a few years later, so I owe a lot to him.
You were a Metrostar when the club rebranded, becoming New York Red Bulls in 2006. What was that like as a player for a club to totally change its identity like that?
Becoming a Red Bull was amazing. The Metrostars’ ownership at the time wasn’t great. The front office was a disaster and the facilities weren’t much better, either. Suddenly Red Bull came in and changed it all. The franchise did a complete 180. They put money in and got things moving, trying to sign big name players. I wasn’t there when Thierry Henry came in, but his signing just shows what they’re all about. Red Bull were exactly what that franchise needed.