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Life As A Pro: Mike Grella
Mike Grella was one of the most promising young American players coming out of college; a contract with Leeds United, playing understudy to the prolific Jermaine Beckford, and having the ability to help move the storied club back to prominence. It didn't go as planned though, and now, eight clubs later, he is re-discovering himself in MLS. 

By: Christopher McCollum

Mike Grella was the national high school player of the year before going to Duke University. While he was with the Blue Devils, he was one of the most feared collegiate strikers in the country. He scored over 40 goals in his four years there, earning All-American honors. Mike was of the mold that could have sent him to the professional ranks right away. He had the right build, he had a nose for goal, and he had the mentality to succeed at the highest level. However, a scholarship to Duke was too good of an opportunity to pass up, no matter what the potential for stardom was. There had to be a sense of pragmatism at play before dreams could be chased.

“For me, there was not too much of an option because I had a scholarship at Duke and my parents weren’t going to let me go anywhere else,” Mike told SoccerViza, reflecting on his university career.

“I always wanted to play professionally, and MLS or Europe was on my mind a lot back then. Playing at university for me was very enjoyable but it was difficult because I always had my mind on playing pro.”

 

It was difficult at times, continuing in the classroom and abiding by NCAA rules, waiting for his opportunity to start making a living as a player. It’s a struggle that collegiate athletes face across the board: Earning a degree is a special thing, and being a collegiate athlete is also a special thing, but with valuable years ticking away and the risk of injury getting greater with each passing season, the appeal of dropping out of school and chasing a contract is immeasurable. It took patience on Grella’s part, but it wasn’t easy. It’s something he’s pleased he did though, looking back.

“Playing professional soccer is not something that’s guaranteed; there are a lot of players who want it, and you’re only as good as your last game.”

“It was definitely difficult (to wait). In my personal life and opinion though, I’m very happy that I stayed patient and stayed in school. Playing professional soccer is not something that’s guaranteed; there are a lot of players who want it, and you’re only as good as your last game. So I’m glad I finished school and that I have something to fall back on in case my career takes a turn in the wrong direction.”

MLS was a growing league, coming off of an immediate spurt in popularity with David Beckham’s continued success with the Galaxy. The league was expanding, the competition level was increasing, and it seemed that the financial viability of the league was at a level that promised a respectable career payout for players who could lock down their position with a team. MLS was thus on Grella’s mind from the get-go, though England was also calling. It ended up being too tantalizing of a prospect to turn down; playing in Europe is the dream of players around the world, so when the opportunity came to Grella to go to Leeds United, there was little that MLS could do to keep him stateside.

“I saw MLS as a very interesting prospect, it was an interesting league that was growing into what it is today. I also was very interested in playing in Europe though, I think naturally every player is. But for me, MLS was definitely on the table, but it just turned out to be that opportunities lined up to send me to England. I would have been happy either way, though.”

“It was nuts, because you don’t actually think that people will come up to you and want to take pictures with you and get autographs, that pulling up to the stadium on match day you have like 6,000 people there waiting for you to take a picture with you.”

While Leeds had fallen on hard times by the time Grella arrived, the success of the club, historic and contemporary, was also a source of pride for The Whites. A club pushing 90-years old at the time, the team was less than a decade removed from a series of top-five finishes in the Premier League and semi-final runs in the UEFA Champions League.

“It was nuts, because you don’t actually think that people will come up to you and want to take pictures with you and get autographs, that pulling up to the stadium on match day you have like 6,000 people there waiting for you to take a picture with you.” Mike described his early tenure at Leeds. They were a Championship level team at the time, but had been demoted to League One due to going into Administration, a process that forfeited enough points at the end of the season to push them into relegation.

“How you play under pressure, how you play in front of 30,000 people and how you play when someone is aggressively trying to take your job every day, it was a big step up for me.”

It was obviously a brand new experience for Mike. Making the jump from NCAA to a team only a few years removed from a UEFA Cup semifinal against Galatasaray is inevitably going to produce a series of interesting leaps. “It’s pretty eye opening. It’s a crazy experience, especially if you’re not expecting something like that. Soccer wise though, there wasn’t an insanely high step up,”

“But just the way… how you act, as a professional… the way you treat your body, all those little things, how you play under pressure, how you play in front of 30,000 people and how you play when someone is aggressively trying to take your job every day, it was a big step up for me to get my head around and try to get comfortable with it.”

This theme of professionalism is something that is recurring when talking to players for the Looking Back series, it’s a point of reflection that they hold in common, understanding that there was not a point in their careers where they could sit back and let their professionalism slide. It was the abrupt and pride-wrenching acknowledgment of being replaceable, playing with teammates trying their hardest to take your job and underneath a manager who is worlds apart from your youth team or college coach.

“It’s entirely results oriented. It’s more competitive, you’re competing for your spot and it’s probably one of the most aggressive jobs in terms of competing for your career and to play this game professionally. Competing every single day to get a spot in the starting 11, it’s one of the most aggressive fields you can be in. That was the biggest step up for me; how competitive it was, even between your own teammates. You want your team to do well, you want your mates to do well, but you always have your eye out for yourself to make sure you’re doing what you need to do stay in the team. So it was very cutthroat and very aggressive in terms of holding onto your job and progressing within it.”

For Mike, he was entering an impossible situation from the get go. Luciano Becchio and Jermaine Beckford were combining for over 40 goals per season, both players hitting their prime and exploding into one of the most dynamic duos in that era of the league. Despite doing well in limited opportunities, whether it be pre-season, friendlies, or Cup games, there simply wasn’t room in the squad for Grella beyond that of a role player.

“It was very difficult mentally to go from being one of the best players… any team I was ever on, I was one of the best players and I always played. I was a big factor in the team,” Mike explained. Whether it was high school, club, or college, there was always a place of honor for him. Until Leeds.

 “Going to a role I wasn’t familiar with, a role where I had to take a back seat and do what the team needed at the time… To be professional and learn and sit back and wait for the opportunity to come was very difficult for me. In the end, that’s probably why we ended up parting ways. They wanted me to play that role for them and I wasn’t prepared to do it for too long. I wanted to be a player who was playing week in and week out, and that’s how every player grows. I’m 100% up with being professional and waiting for your moment, and working hard and earning your spot, but also I think players grow by playing the game. There’s a balance between those two things, and just learning that and dealing with that was extremely difficult. Me saying extremely difficult is an understatement. It’s very, very hard.”

“I was a young kid away from home and I had to learn a lot of things on my own. I think it’s a necessary evil, and it was definitely for me a learning experience. There were a lot of different options, a lot of different things that I could have done, but looking back at it, I’m proud of what I’ve done so far.”

With that being said, there aren’t any regrets in Mike’s heart. He loved his time at Leeds, he loved the fans, the loved the facilities, and it just ended up being a necessary end to a necessary chapter of his career.

“I think it was something that had to happen,” He commented. It was a tough part of his career, but a necessary one in his mind. Looking back, he wouldn’t change his time at Leeds, nor would he change his departure. It was something that simply had to happen in order to keep his career on track.

“Just to put on record, and I think everyone knows this; I loved the club. I loved Leeds, I loved the supporters there. They always treated me really well, but I think it’s part of professional football. It’s part of taking that big step up in being a footballer, I was a young kid away from home and I had to learn a lot of things on my own. I think it’s a necessary evil, and it was definitely for me a learning experience. There were a lot of different options, a lot of different things that I could have done, but looking back at it, I’m proud of what I’ve done so far. I’m still learning every day, just like everyone else, so it was something that had to happen. But I absolutely loved it there, and enjoyed my time there.”

The dream of a young soccer player is to find himself in a big club and make their career there. Maybe move to a bigger club at some point, play in the Champions League, the World Cup, but the sad reality for so many players is that they bounce around from team to team, home to home, in order to make a career for themselves and support themselves and their families. As with the majority of others, it was the same for Mike. While at Leeds, he was loaned out to Carlisle and Swindon Town. After Leeds , he spent a season at Brentford, followed by half a season at Bury. This was followed by time at Scunthorpe United before he finally moved away from England, going to the mainland to join Viborg in Denmark. The 2013-14 season petered out before it really began. He ended up only appearing in two games for The Greens, which marked the end of his time in Europe.

“A lot of the managerial molding or style was very aggressive and dictatorial. It was difficult for me. Bouncing from team to team was even more difficult, meeting new teammates, learning new systems … but I also believe that I never really lost sight of hunger of wanting to play in a World Cup or play in the Champions League.”

“It was extremely difficult,” Mike explained, going into the struggle of moving from team to team, and finding a new home every season. It wasn’t just the physical act of moving, it was the psychological toll that came from having to continually adjust to new environments, on and off the field.

“For me, it was already hard being so far away from my family, and being in a foreign country and be learning something new every day. A lot of the managerial molding or style was very aggressive and dictatorial. It was difficult for me. Bouncing from team to team was even more difficult, meeting new teammates, learning new systems, and I found that very difficult. But I also believe that I never really lost sight or hunger of wanting to play in a World Cup or play in the Champions League. I never lost belief in that, and I think that’s very important and kept me going. I never sort of went around and said that I’m just going to make a living at it. I think if I ever had that mindset, I’d probably just hang them up. I still have a huge belief in what I want to accomplish for myself in this game, and in my own ability as a player to reach some of the higher levels. I keep all that in mind. It ended up being that I bounced around a lot, but I met a lot of great guys and had great learning experiences. It ended up being positive in the end.”

While the time in England might not have gone the way it could have, or the way many stateside wished it had, the only thing that really matters in the grand scheme of things is what Mike Grella himself thought of it, and what he took from it. It’s a sage sort of wisdom that was imparted on him in England, and the key takeaways were physicality on the field and professionalism off of it. The latter is something that Mike speaks regularly on, the importance of being a gentleman, and how vital it was for him to learn that as time went on.

“And realize every day you’re working, no matter what level you are, what kind of athlete you are, a lot of the younger kids look up to you and you’re in the public eye. Be mindful of that and be a real gentleman and show younger kids the way.”

“The biggest lesson I learned in England, on the pitch was how to play aggressively and how to protect the ball, how to play with a lot of strength. It’s one of the most aggressive leagues in the world, I don’t think anyone would argue that. So just being more of a man on the field and shielding people off and protecting the people in the front third, was definitely what I learned the most on the field. Off the field, I learned to really be professional and be a gentleman with the fans, as much as I could be. And realize every day you’re working, no matter what level you are, what kind of athlete you are, a lot of the younger kids look up to you and you’re in the public eye. Be mindful of that and be a real gentleman and show younger kids the way.”

In the end, it was an easy decision to come back to the United States. He still had offers to play abroad, with options open to him around the globe. Despite the difficulty in finding a permanent home, he had established a reputation in England as a technically skilled, physically gifted striker who could find the back of the net in the right situations. Family came first though, and Mike decided it was time to return to New York, where he was born and raised.

“Mainly it was my family. I wanted to start a family, and be back home. I felt that I was away from home for so long, and that I really wasn’t progressing in the English style of football, and MLS has always been attractive to me. It’s grown at such a quick rate, so it was just attraction to the league and the idea of being back home. I have a son now, he’s three and a half months. I wanted to get back home and settle down somewhere in America, and there’s no better place than New York.”

The first step along the way for Mike was re-establishing his fitness and his stateside reputation. It had been a long time since he played in the United States, and it was going to take a bit of work to get back into the game here. He started with the Carolina RailHawks, a club he was familiar with and played with during his days at Duke.

“It was a comfortable move for me. I still had a lot of options over in Europe, and a few worldwide. Some funny ones, like Australia, Eastern Europe, but going back to Carolina was comfortable for me. It was where I went to school, I’ve always loved North Carolina. I knew Dewan Bader and I met Colin Clarke, the manager there, and they made it really easy for me. They were understanding of my situation and what I wanted to accomplish. They have great facilities and it’s a great group of guys down there, so for me it was easy. I came in, got fit, go to play some games, and it was definitely a positive experience. I enjoyed it all.”

After regaining his fitness through the end of the 2014 season with Carolina, it was a permanent move back to New York for Mike, who had MLS in his sights. It started with a trial with MLS debutants NYCFC where Grella was tasked to warm up the league’s new star David Villa. Through weeks of training, doing well along the way, it just seemed that a contract was out of reach. There were times before the New York Red Bulls came along that retirement entered Mike’s mind. Despite still being in his physical prime and having a lot to give and receive from the game, the responsibility of parenthood and having a family to take care were at the forefront of his mind.

“Absolutely there were times (I thought of retiring)… I always knew I was good enough to play in the league, ability wise, and I learned enough on the professional end in England, to do that side as well. I knew I was at a level where I could play in MLS, it was just taking longer than I expected. I had to go through trials and re-prove myself because people hadn’t seen me in so many years, and that to me was difficult to understand, to take, especially when I have a young son and a growing family and I was settling down. There were realistic moments in my life where I thought about hanging it up, and get some other profession going for the rest of my life and pay my bills. Being a professional soccer player is very difficult not just for you, but for your family and everyone else attached to you. You’re constantly moving, constantly getting new contracts, some good, some bad, and there are a lot of ups and downs. There were times when I thought it was time to move on from playing and get something more stable, more long term, because it would be of better benefit to my family. But I’m very… I’m beyond happy that it didn’t end. No player ever wants to stop playing, so I thank God that the right opportunity came at the right time, and that I stuck through some of those dark times where I wanted to hang it up.”

It’s during the dark times of one’s career that things happen on the emotional front. Players fall in and out of love with the game they’ve devoted their lives to; it’s a natural progression to get to a point of frustration, of feeling like you’re spinning your wheels, taking one step forward and two steps back. It’s easy to throw your hands in the air and cast the game aside. Something of the sort happened with Grella as it has with so many others.

“You know… maybe I didn’t fall out of love with the game of soccer, but definitely with the business side of it. Definitely with some of the stuff that goes on off the field, some of the stuff that goes on in the business side of it really turned me off to being a professional player. It turned me off for awhile, but I don’t think I ever lost the love of playing the game.”

It finally clicked though, maybe when things seemed the most desperate, or the most hopeless. An invitation to join the New York Red Bulls pre-season camp in Florida became a spark for the 28-year old who was seemingly getting nowhere with the Red Bulls’ new cross-town rival. Scoring in pre-season and wearing the captain’s armband was a boost, and when the contract offer came, it was validation of what he’s always known.

“I can’t even really describe it. I’m so thrilled. The respect for everyone here, the professionalism, just the way they run the club, it’s at such a high level that I couldn’t be more pleased to be a part of it. Really, it’s very family oriented and we feel like a group of guys who can be close to each other and grow that way. I couldn’t be more ecstatic with how happy I am and how exciting this is for me.”

“I’d like to go back and be 21-years old again and have the knowledge that I have now, about the other end of soccer. There’s playing, but there’s a lot that goes on off the field and you have to be a gentleman around the clock, and do the right thing around the clock. In the long run, people will appreciate that.”

When you started playing in pre-season with the Red Bulls, a lot of the social media reaction was one of surprise. It was basically a sense of “wow, this is a blast from the past. Where has Grella been for all this time?” Were you surprised you were able to work your way into the starting 11 for the season opener, as so many other people were, or did you simply know oyu had it in you?

There was surprise on the social media side of things. It came from many directions, fans and journalists alike, when his name popped up in Red Bulls pre-season. Again when he was signed. And again when he made it into the starting 11 for New York’s opener against Sporting Kansas City. And then one more time when he scored New York’s historic 1,000th MLS goal, a game winning long distance chip against the Columbus Crew.

“I knew for a very long time, like I said, that I can play at that level, no problem ability wise. I didn’t expect maybe to make so many strides forward that quickly. It speaks volumes about the manager and sticking to your guns and working hard. Not so much surprising, but definitely thankful. I really want to push forward and be a solid member and lock down a position In the starting 11. That’s my main goal, and I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity I’ve gotten.”

Looking back at your career, college, England, Denmark, MLS, is there any part of your career that you would go back and change, that stands out?

It’s been a long career for Grella, with ups and downs, highs and lows. It’s a difficult question of whether or not he’d change any aspect of it. It’s a commonality he shares with many players though of wishing to be able to go back with the knowledge he’s gained over the years and apply it to himself when he was younger and getting into the professional game. Hindsight is 20/20, after all. But as for changing anything? Mike has thought long and hard about it, and doesn’t believe so. It is what it is, as the mantra goes, and if you’re proud of who you are on and off the field, that makes the mantra all the sweeter.

“I’d like to go back and be 21-years old again and have the knowledge that I have now, about the other end of soccer. There’s playing, but there’s a lot that goes on off the field and you have to be a gentleman around the clock, and do the right thing around the clock. In the long run, people will appreciate that. There’s nothing I would go back and change though, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, I’m very proud of the way things have gone… of course, as with any professional player, I’d like to be able to go back and play in the National Team and play in the World Cup at a younger age, but I’m at a place where I think I can still push for that, still dream for that, but as for where I am… I’m happy, I wouldn’t go back and change anything.”

As for what motivates Mike? It’s family, primarily. But there’s also the fire that still burns within him to compete at his utmost ability.

“That’s a tough one. There’s my son, my wife, they’re two huge motivators. There’s been a motivation in me for as long as I can remember to always push myself as a person, as an athlete, as a soccer player, as a dad now, there’s always been something in me to push myself to my limits and be the best I can be in all those fields. So I would say those are my main motivators.”

With everything that Mike has gone through in his six years of professional soccer following his standout career at Duke, he finds himself in a position of being able to dole out advice to players coming up through the game, starting in the footsteps he followed when he entered the professional ranks. It isn’t a silver bullet piece of advice, it isn’t life changing, paradigm shifting, revolutionary ideas. It’s simple, really. It’s hard work. It’s another one of the commonalities between players interviewed in the Looking Back series there’s professionalism as a lesson that needs to be learned sooner rather than later, and there’s hard work as the number one ingredient in the recipe to succeeding.

“The best piece of advice I can offer players, and I know this is what everyone will say, it’s hard work. Hard work and perseverance; it’s the thought of never giving up. It’s not just dumb hard work though, it’s smart hard work where you’re advancing yourself mentally, advancing yourself physically, and just being a good person around the clock. Being good to people who may not even be able to help you in your career or in your life, because I’m a big believer in what goes around comes around, so just being a good person and working intelligently on the mental side of the game as well as the physical side.”

Mike’s next game with the New York Red Bulls will be on on the road against D.C. United on April 11.