By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 25, 2015) US Soccer Players - Giuseppe Rossi is back in the USA, and even on holiday, he manages to find the net.
It's a warm, rainy night just before Christmas at the Chelsea Piers sports complex on the east bank of the Hudson River. The New Jersey native has been calmly watching rec-level soccer and posing for photos for nearly three hours. Rossi showed no signs of the restless urge to play that led his agent to tell reporters earlier this month that “he's like a dog chasing his tail” in a bench role for Fiorentina.
But the inaugural “Pepito Cup” tournament, the indoor tournament created in his honor by the Gotham-based fan club that bears his name, is over now. A few kids are idly smacking shots off the plexiglass walls that flank the cramped field's goals as Rossi chats with friends, family, and fans.
Finally, the itch becomes too much to ignore. Rossi walks over to an empty patch of artificial turf and makes eye contact with a child with a ball at his feet. Rossi receives the pass with a little flick to lift the ball into the air, takes another juggled touch to set his feet, and casually strikes – with little to no back lift – a wicked volley that arrows into the top corner of the net. The fleeting sequence is fluid, subtle and silent, until the ball clangs off the goal's interior piping with a loud gong and bounces away.
There's no sign of the litany of injuries that have ravaged his right knee over and over again for the better part of four years. Those injuries sidetracked a career with world-class potential. But the instinctive finishing, that nose for goal that is so priceless in this game, shines through even in street clothes.
“I get a chance to come back only twice a year. Five or six days at Christmas, and a month off in the summer,” Rossi – who keeps a residence in New York City – told USSoccerPlayers.com. “So when I come back, I try to enjoy it to the max.”
Of course, more than anything – to American eyes at least – this is the one that got away. One of the best goal scorers ever born on US soil doesn't wear a US national team kit, and never has. Born and reared in Teaneck, New Jersey, his parents' Italian culture was always part of his life. When it came time to push his soccer career to a higher level, Giuseppe left these shores to take a spot in Parma's youth system at the tender age of 12 and never looked back. It's a loss that still stings many US supporters, who watched longingly as he proved his quality in the top divisions of England, Spain and Italy.
A place with Italy's illustrious Azzurri was always Rossi's dream, and he kept at it, even after Bruce Arena came calling with an invite to the USMNT when he was 18. He reached his goal, in a manner of speaking. Rossi has earned a hatful of caps for the three-time world champions and scored seven goals along the way. But injuries – he's suffered a heartbreaking amount of damage to that troublesome knee – and last-ditch managerial decisions have denied him a place in three straight major tournaments, a painful streak he hopes to end at Euro 2016 next summer.
“Yes, I'm back fit, thank God,” he said this week. “I'm training regularly and it's just great, because it's tough being injured. It's tough looking at your teammates being on the field, and fighting and trying to win and you can't be part of it. So I'm lucky enough to have had the right treatment, and I'm just enjoying it.”
Rossi's short-term future is uncertain. Despite signing a new deal with Fiorentina in the fall that swapped a reduced base salary for enhanced performance bonuses, he's in the shop window for the January transfer period. His agent says he's “99 percent” likely to move to a new club, with Liverpool, Bologna, and Sampdoria among those reportedly interested. But the US remains his home, and a respite from the attention and ambition and intrigue of Europe.
He says he'll return here someday to play in Major League Soccer. It's just a question of when.
“That's something that's always crossed my mind,” said Rossi. “It's always great to play at home. It's always great to be able to play in front of my family every week. And I'll be looking forward to that one day.”
The thought of Rossi in a Red Bulls or NYCFC kit would be scant consolation for a USMNT fan base. It's also a reminder of the nuanced challenge that is unique to the United States, even in the relentlessly globalizing landscape of international soccer.
From his blue jeans to his rapid-fire Jersey accent to his commitment to being home for the holidays, Rossi is deeply, clearly American. Yet the crowd that gathered at Chelsea Piers to salute him spoke both English and Italian, bearing the trappings of the “hyphenated American” experience a cultural space where soccer has always thrived, but allegiance to the US program – not to mention this country's domestic leagues – remains a highly subjective and individual decision.
Rossi and his family didn't just nurture a dream of Azzurri. They felt the need to send him abroad to provide him with the optimal tutelage for a pro career, and it's hard to argue with their choice. Soccer culture and developmental infrastructure here remain steps, some would say lengths, behind more established nations overseas. As my conversation with him underlined, you can soften that reality, but not completely correct it by a persistent narrative of growth and progress.
“I see soccer growing immensely. When I was driving back home from the airport just a couple days ago, I was seeing more soccer games being played in the park than football,” said Rossi. “So that's something nice to see, because when I was a kid, it was hard trying to find a pickup game. So I'm happy about the strides that it's making.”
The freedom that players like Rossi have to select their soccer destiny is a dyed-in-the-wool challenge for US Soccer and its teams, and probably always will be. It's a big part of what makes the game here different, and difficult, and beloved, and beautiful.
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