Tracy has a smooth transition to Danish game
Talk about smooth sailing for Marcus Tracy.
He is named college soccer's top player and a few months later is plying his trade in Europe with a recent Champions League entrant. The striker earned his debut against none other than aspiring Premier League giant Manchester City, then scored in his first start.
Tracy's three-year contract with Aalborg, signed in January, made him the latest American, and the latest from Wake Forest University, to suit up in Denmark's top division.
"I can believe it, because it was something I set out to do going from high school to college," Tracy said of his seamless transition, without a hint of cockiness. "It took a lot of hard work to get here. I don't think I'm shocked I got here, but it certainly is exciting, and it's a very special opportunity. I'm trying to cherish every moment of it."
Tracy cherished his first goal against slumping F.C. Midtjylland on March 23, and what a beauty. The lanky 22-year-old beat his marker, cut in on the left side of the box and sent a glancing header off a 40-yard free kick into the far corner. He was mobbed by teammates -- it was the second-half winner in a 3-2 result -- and the home fans, as is custom, chanted his name. U.S. international defender Danny Califf, who played a pivotal role in helping Aalborg win the SAS-Ligaen crown in 2008 before joining Midtjylland, didn't get a chance to stop the goal, sidelined because of a bum leg.
Four days earlier, Tracy entered as a 76th-minute substitute in a scoreless match against Manchester City in the UEFA Cup's round of 16, and he put in a fine performance, looking lively and setting up the opening goal in the 2-0 win. Since this evened the aggregate-goal score, the clubs went to penalty kicks, with Aalborg falling. An unused substitute in two matches in mid-February and early March, Tracy got the call thanks to fallen teammates.
The Newtown, Conn., native ended up in Aalborg, a large city by Danish standards (population of more than 100,000), via his management company's connections. He's part of the Proactive stable, which houses the likes of Fulham's Clint Dempsey, Villarreal's Jozy Altidore and Standard Liege's Oguchi Onyewu. Their people knew Aalborg's people, so to speak.
It didn't hurt that 32-year-old manager Magnus Pehrsson, in his first season at Aalborg, watched Tracy play and recommended him to the top brass. Major League Soccer was turned down, along with other sides in Denmark and a few in Sweden.
Fellow Demon Deacons Jeremiah White (Aarhus) and Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland) feature in Denmark, although Tracy hasn't had a chance to catch up with them or Califf and Aarhus' U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who is on the mend from a serious knee injury.
"Going into a situation where a coach has seen you before and recommends you, that's obviously an advantage for you," said Tracy, armed with a degree in economics prior to his European adventure.
Tracy registered 13 goals and 10 assists in 2008 to become the first Wake Forest player to claim the coveted Hermann Trophy, soccer's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich had an inkling Tracy would do big things following a record-shattering career at Newtown High School -- he even made a replica of the Hermann Trophy and showed it to Tracy during his recruitment pitch.
Tracy also excelled at basketball and ran track in high school.
"Athletically, he's very special," said Vidovich, who led Wake Forest to an inaugural national championship in 2007. "He has a different gear. He has tremendous vertical, his runs are good, he plays for the team, and he makes the team better. He's a tremendous human being.
"We felt that if he wanted to apply himself, he could potentially be one of the top players in the country. But I can tell you, by the end of his freshman year, we didn't know if that was going to happen."
Ah, yes, Tracy's first season in Winston-Salem wasn't so silky.
A pulled right hamstring, coupled with recurrences, limited him to five appearances in 2005, and Vidovich recalls Tracy getting pushed around in a game at the end of the season.
"He got knocked around like a little kid," Vidovich said. "We were nervous about those things."
Doubts emerged in Tracy's mind, too.
"That time was tough," said Tracy, an admirer of Barcelona whiz Lionel Messi and the Argentine's teammate, Thierry Henry. "It showed me the importance of taking care of your body, eating right, sleeping right and stretching. It all became apparent to me in that time period because coming out of high school I wasn't really aware how much it meant. I've been able to take that with me in the pro ranks."
Tracy hasn't encountered problems with teammates who might have been threatened by his arrival. They're all "nice guys" and help develop his game in training, supporting him off the pitch.
Tracy lives alone in an apartment in the center of Aalborg, a block away from a pub. On Tuesday, he made the short trek to watch the drama unfold in the Champions League quarterfinals, at least in Chelsea's high-octane clash against Liverpool.
Nothing smooth to drink, we hope.
Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.