MetroStars turn to youth
Had he taken a different path, Mike Magee could be finishing up his spring season and buckling down for finals at a place like Indiana University. Or, better yet, he could be going to school on the sacred grounds of South Bend as a part of the Fighting Irish tradition that he was so taken by when growing up in football-loving Illinois.
"I was always a Notre Dame fan," said the MetroStars striker. "When I got a letter from them, it was about the best thing that ever happened to me."
College wasn't meant to be for Magee. While he certainly wouldn't balk at getting up and going to class surrounded by thousands of women his age on a daily basis and experiencing the college lifestyle now and then, the decision to turn pro in 2002 seems like ages ago for the 20-year-old.
Even though he'd only be a sophomore in college -- think about that for a moment when you look at this year's rookie class in Major League Soccer -- Magee has already achieved veteran status on the MetroStars. The roster has changed so much in three years that there are more players around him who have joined the team in the past two years than leftovers from when he was a 17-year-old first-round selection in the winter of 2003.
"It's pretty amazing actually," said Magee shortly before his team's training session Wednesday afternoon at Giants Stadium. "I am only 20, but I do get that feeling like I have a little bit of a load on my back. I've been here a little bit longer than the other guys. There are even a couple of guys younger than me."
Having a quartet of teenagers -- Michael Bradley, Eddie Gaven, Abbe Ibrahim, and Tim Ward -- behind him has been a constant reminder to Magee that he's no longer the plucky kid on the team. In light of that, he has put more expectations on himself for the 2005 campaign.
"It definitely has its ups and downs," he said. "Sometimes you think you're putting that pressure on yourself. You think to yourself, 'OK, I'm still young,' but the coaches are saying, You've been in the league three years, and you've got to step it up. There's a little of thought process involved in it. But at the end of the day, it's only going to push me forward."
Magee makes the point that his team isn't as young as it once was. He looks around and sees World Cup veterans in their thirties such as Jeff Agoos and former French international Youri Djorkaeff. Goalkeeper Jonny Walker turned 30 last fall, and Amado Guevara turns 29 in less than a month. This is no longer the youngest team in MLS, which certainly gives the group a lot less of a feeling of a side that is rebuilding than one that simply needs to start putting up or shutting up.
"We had a lot of excuses the last couple of years about our lack of leadership and how everyone was too young," said Magee of a team that has failed to make it past the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons. "Those same young guys have now been here, and they know how it goes and what it takes to put in the everyday work. We can't make excuses anymore, and just say that we are rookies. We've been in this league for three years now."
It doesn't take much to read between the lines and see that Magee is talking as much about himself and Gaven, a fellow 2003 first-round selection, as anyone. Both players have now earned their stripes and have been major contributors to Bob Bradley's side for three seasons despite their youth. Gaven has been more of a regular call-up to the U.S. National Team as he's blossomed over the past 12 months, but Magee also has caught Bruce Arena's eye, earning a couple of invitations to the team's training camp during this past offseason.
Now that they've made everyone forget the date on their birth certificates, it's time for both Magee and Gaven to take things to the next level and be leaders for a side that basically had to part with Eddie Pope in favor of Agoos because it needed a strong personality in the back.
For Magee, that task should be easier in '05, since the week-in and week-out drama of whether he'd get a chance to play or not appears to be behind him. Of the gaggle of strikers brought in last spring to compete for starting positions, only Sergio Galvan Rey remains. Gone are Fabian Taylor and Cornell Glen, whose presence forced Bradley to utilize Magee as one of his attacking midfielders during the second half of the season to get him on the field.
After leading the side in games played as a rookie (29) and opening a lot of eyes around the league with seven goals and two assists, Magee went through the trials and tribulations of having to battle for a starting spot throughout most of his second season.
"Anytime when you're playing a position and they bring in a bunch of guys who play your position, it's an eye-opener," he said. "Obviously, if I'm scoring 20 goals a year, they're not bringing in other forwards. They're going to look at other positions. I know that I always need to watch my back and always need to improve. I can't take days off, especially at this young age.
"If I'm equal with another guy who is 30, he's going to start. So I need to push myself and make a statement every single day I play. I can't take a game off. Or a practice off."
He's recovered enough from his slight MCL sprain in his knee that hampered him during the preseason and limited him to 23 minutes in the team's opening day 0-0 tie with Real Salt Lake to be ready to go this Saturday for a home match with defending Western Conference champion Kansas City, and his spot seems to be safe. Djorkaeff is still sidelined by a hamstring, and Gaven is out at least three weeks with a fractured ring finger, which makes it more likely that he'll be in the midfield for the next few weeks. But Magee said he'll probably play in both positions throughout the year.
"My whole life, I've played both," he said. "I think Bob is confident that I can play either. I'm just ready to get onto the field and get as much playing time I can, whether it's up top, in the midfield or both."
Wherever he lines up, Magee is someone the MetroStars are going to need to produce this season. Without an abundance of talent, without depth and with an injury bug that also has bitten Walker, Bradley's side isn't expected to be one of the top teams in the East this year.
"We're definitely underdogs -- at least that's what everyone keeps saying," he said. "But in this locker room that feeling isn't here. We're all guys who stick up for each other. We're close-knit. We're all good friends on the field and off the field. We don't listen to what the media is saying about how we're not going to make the playoffs or how we're too young or any of those comments. We believe in ourselves, and I really believe we can show that this year."
Since the side is coming off a bye week and its only match was played in hurricane-like conditions April 2, the MetroStars can finally start their quest to prove people wrong this season and contending in the Eastern Conference.
If it is to happen -- and that's a Jeff Parke-sized "if" -- Magee will have to be one of the catalysts, even though he could have been an underclassmen in Bloomington or South Bend.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.