Just Listen for the Sound

Jun 21 2017
Photo by
Rob Tringali
Mike Grella
New York Red Bulls
Jun 21 2017

Whenever I heard the sound — one very particular sound — I knew what was coming.

Someone was about to score a goal.

The sequence is ingrained in my memory. I heard it hundreds of times when I was a kid. And it went something like this:

I’d hear a short, ridiculous jingle involving trumpets … and then there’d be a GOAL.

Just thinking of it takes me back to when I was seven years old, on the Sunday mornings when my dad would have me and my brother with him to watch Serie A matches. My dad was really into soccer. But me being just a kid? It couldn’t always hold my attention for the entire match.

Except for the goals … I loved the goals.

And I always knew exactly when I’d see one because … I’d just listen for that sound. During the matches, the broadcast would routinely cut away to highlights from other matches around the league. And you always knew when the goals were coming by this little fanfare that would play before each highlight.

I loved to see the goals from Baggio, Totti, Pirlo and all the other great players in Italy.

Elise Amendola/AP Images

And when I heard the trumpets, I knew that it was time. I’d sit up in front of the TV and watch — and study, really — how each of those players put the ball into the net so gracefully.

I still love watching Serie A on a Sunday with my dad and the rest of my family … and hearing the sound of trumpets.

I grew up in an Italian family on Long Island and soccer was a part of my everyday life. My roots are very blue collar and so I never really went to many semi-pro, or pro games. When I got to watch Serie A on television, it meant a lot. I also took watching the U.S. and Italian national teams in the 1994 World Cup very seriously.

Sundays were all about soccer. When the Serie A matches finished on TV, usually by midday, my younger brother and I would head out to our backyard to try to replicate what we had just seen. With BAGGIO on my back, I’d go toe-to-toe with him. It didn’t matter what the weather was like. We couldn’t be stopped. In the winter I’d shovel the entire yard so we’d have room to play.

My brother, Frank, who is 18 months younger than me, was really good as a kid. Like really good. Better than all my friends. And we loved to play the same position — the number 10 role as the attacking midfielder. We grew up wanting to be like the great number 10’s from Italy. We each had the same skill set and saw the game in a very similar way. We played more with our minds than with our bodies. It was more tactical and technical than physical.

I’m not going to outrun you or outwork you; I’m going to outthink you.

All I wanted to do when I was playing soccer in youth leagues and in high school was to play someday in Europe. Italy, England, Germany, Spain — it didn’t matter.  I wanted to go overseas immediately after I finished high school. But my parents weren’t having it. When offers from colleges started coming in, my family made it clear — I was going to go to college in the States. I was going to get a degree.

I committed to Duke on a soccer scholarship and I spent my four years in Durham trying to be the best. Duke was a great place to play, and an even better place to get an education. In the back of my mind I felt that even if I didn’t reach my goals in soccer, I would have a great education to fall back on.

So a few months after I graduated, I left for Leeds United in England.

In January of 2009, less than a year after I left Duke, I began a trial period with Leeds United. I trained with the team for two weeks before playing in a reserve game in which I scored a hat trick. After that, Leeds United wanted to sign me. A few teams in England did, actually.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

I was very proud and excited to sign my first professional contract with Leeds. Some of England’s most legendary players have gone to battle on that pitch. I remember showing up to Elland Road for my first game with the senior side. Lining the entrance to the car park was a crowd of at least 3,000 fans welcoming the players into the stadium.

There I was — a kid from Long Island — getting asked for autographs outside one of England’s most famous stadiums. It was … surreal.

I had success in my first season at Leeds, but not as much as I expected. I was a technical player — and that style didn’t really fit in the second division. The soccer in England is physical, and in leagues below the Premier League it can get very rough. There are a lot of hard tackles and very little space to maneuver. At the least I was able to add a whole new physical side to my game.

But even though I learned to get physical if I needed to, I had a hard time sticking at a club in England. Being a foreigner was difficult enough, but being such a technical player and having to play for some very old-school English coaches was difficult. A lot of time we just didn’t see eye-to-eye.

It’s funny when I look back on it now, but one of my worst experiences in England was at Scunthorpe, where I played after I left Leeds two seasons before. I was having a tough time and wasn’t playing much when I was finally given a chance against Bournemouth late in the season. I made a nice play — sombreroed a defender who then touched the ball with his hand — and got a penalty for our team. I went to go take the penalty. I was nervous, but I had a trick up my sleeve. I tried to chip it, like a panenka, but instead I fluffed it down the middle. David James, their goalkeeper, sort of kick-saved it and they countered and scored in the 45th minute. You can just imagine what the manager was saying to me at halftime.

It got to a point where I decided that the best course would be for me to display my ability and talent in a different country — one where it would be valued a little bit more. I had been in England for five years. The wages were good, the people were nice and it was a high level of football, but I was not developing and not getting any closer to joining the U.S. national team, which had been another dream of my mine. And I hated that feeling.

I then went to Scotland, and then to Denmark, where I would be playing in a more technical league. I then made the decision to go back home to the U.S. because ultimately I wanted to start a family with my wife. I wanted to play the game in the States and continue to progress as a player — in a place where I felt my game would be valued.

I took some time to rest after my return, and then I played in the NASL with Carolina for a bit in 2014, just to get back into shape. The itch to play returned fast. I wanted to play at the highest level in the U.S. And I knew I was capable of it. If it didn’t work out, I would just move on. I saw it as sort of a last-ditch effort to make it.

I got a call from my agent in the fall of 2014 saying that David Villa needed players to train with ahead of the start of his first MLS season with New York City FC. Carolina’s season had ended a few months earlier so I was bit off the pace to start, but when I got going, I was playing really, really well. I felt like my old self again. I thought NYCFC, might offer me a contract, but nothing official came my way.

In January 2015, I heard from Ali Curtis, the Sporting Director of the New York Red Bulls, who invited me to train with the club. Around that same time, I had also gotten a call from NYCFC’s coach, Jason Kreis, inviting me to play preseason with the team.

The Red Bulls then made me an official offer. I spent some time down in Florida with Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch and his staff, and loved their approach and how honest Jesse was. I thought we had a great relationship developing.

Three years on, the Red Bulls have become like a family to me. I’m proud to represent the people of New York in the way that we have. We’ve come close to winning a title, and we aren’t satisfied. This team has a lot of talent and we are looking forward to another strong season this year.

I’ve enjoyed my time in MLS tremendously, and I’ve become a huge fan of the league. I don’t think it’s as far off from other leagues in the world as many people think. The progress in quality is noticeable.

A few months ago, Atlanta United played its first MLS game. The attendance that day was 55,000.

Yeah, 55,000 people. To watch soccer. In Atlanta.

We were Atlanta’s opponents that night. I started the match on the bench, and I made a point of paying attention to the crowd.

Will they really enjoy it and engage in the game? It’s a game that requires focus from fans.

I was watching the play on the field, but also listening to crowd. Every pass, every good touch, every switch of play, was applauded and cheered by the crowd. When there was a strong tackle they erupted as if a goal had just been scored. It felt real. It sounded real. It’s a testament to the growth and future of this league.

It’s hard to describe, but the sound I heard that night is one that just makes you want to play. It’s a sound we have heard at Red Bull Arena many times since I’ve been with the club. When you hear it live from the best supporters and fans in MLS … it’s even more electric than on TV. And the sound in our stadium … it’s more than the sound of soccer.

It’s the sound of a culture. Our own soccer culture.

Mike Grella
New York Red Bulls