Joe Scally’s Gladbach ascent has U.S. defender on the World Cup radar, and rightly so

You may have seen how Borussia Mönchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer made a Bundesliga record 19 saves in last week’s 1-1 draw against six-time UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich. You may even have wondered at the improbability of the baby-faced right-back who helped keep Sadio Mane and Alphonso Davies off the scoreboard.

Who knows, you might even have asked yourself: who is he?

– LIVE Stream: Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Mainz, Sunday, 11:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+ (US)

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the US men’s national team, the Moenchengladbach defender, whose proverbial trophy is overflowing, is not a household name in the US like he was in Germany, where he quickly blossomed. Correct: Mönchengladbach’s 19-year-old right-back from the starting XI in one of the best leagues in the world is American. Meet Joe Scally.

At 15, the Lake Grove, New York, player was the second youngest-ever American professional soccer player, behind Freddy Adu. That both Adu and Scally have been repeatedly eclipsed since then is a testament to just how far America has come in developing young talent, and it also shows the different paths that fate can take.

At 19, Adu was loaned out so many times by Benfica that his passport had stamps from all over the world. In the meantime, Scally has not only established himself as a beginning Bundesliga defender, but also regularly competes against the best players in the world. Over the past two seasons, Scally has been one of just 10 Bundesliga defenders to have mastered 2,200 minutes, 30 games and at least a 47% tackle rate. He is also the youngest of them all.

For those watching a world away in Long Island, it comes as no surprise; Scally always stood out.

“The ball was always around him,” says Frank Schmidt. “He was like a magnet.”

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Schmidt is a Long Island football legend, one of the most successful coaches in Suffolk County history (at both the youth and high school levels). But by the time he got a call from Joe’s mother, Margaret Scally, who coached his youth team, the Sachem Destroyers, he had made the decision to retire, although he still coached youth teams here and there. “I could choose and choose [but] I had to get to know the team first,” Schmidt recalls. “I said I’ll do a training session first to see if I like the guys or not.”

It quickly became clear that the Scallys had something. “[Joe] was just different,” says Schmidt. “I said, ‘Let’s see where this leads.'”

The local legend of Joe Scally’s talent is less whispered lore and more comet streak. Schmidt only coached him from the age of 10 until just before his 13th birthday; At the time, he was a product of the New York City FC Academy, but Schmidt’s thoughts on Scally have the awe and weight of spectacle.

Tactics, technique and strategy were subtleties of the beautiful game that escaped other 10-year-olds; Scally picked them up with ease. Schmidt recalls a trick corner that involved cunning, determination and a bit of acting skill on top of that that he struggled to introduce. Allegedly, there was a pseudo-debate, a teammate’s nutmeg, and an advanced off-ball run that some college teams can’t pull off.

“We practiced that maybe four or five times,” remembers Schmidt. “First time we’ve done that in a game? Joe scored and he looks at me and smiles. He makes things like that easy.”

As Scally grew – literally and metaphorically – Schmidt began to push the boundaries of his budding talent. In a 7-on-7 tournament, Schmidt challenged Scally on a whim to shoot from midfield at kick-off. “It’s a field of 60, 70 yards, so the center field is 35 or 40 yards,” he says. “He didn’t want to do it. He was embarrassed; he didn’t want to show anyone. I look at him like, you must be joking – just do it!”

Scally gave in. Seconds later the bar was still rattling. “Didn’t hit it, right at the top of the bar,” Schmidt smiles incredulously to this day. “Unbelievable.”

At 15, Scally was defending David Villa in NYCFC joint practices. Margaret would send Schmidt photos of her unlicensed son tagging Spain’s top scorer and world champion of all time. Schmidt would only be amazed.

“He’s 15 and he’s right there, he’s right there,” he says. “He doesn’t come off as a kid, he doesn’t make a fool of himself out there.”

Schmidt credits Scally’s basketball skills as key to his rise. In fact, there was a local battle over which sport could claim it. “[At Sachem North]a pretty good basketball team, they had him in 8th grade at varsity — they wanted him,” says Schmidt.

But a calling is a calling. Scally traces his vision, movement, footwork and tactical awareness – by any measure his elite – to his ball-handling pedigree. In fact, it was these qualities that prompted his coaches at NYCFC to move him from center midfield to right-back a year earlier. His talent and willingness to adapt were pluses in the eyes of the coaches, but they’re also probably why he immediately attracted interest from Europe.

“[Scally] is a very modern outer back that can cover the entire outside [flank]’ then NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna told ESPN in 2019. ‘He’s a right-back who creates and has a lot of assists.’

In March 2018, Scally became only the second player to graduate from the NYCFC academy. And before Scally broke into NYCFC and MLS in a big way, Mönchengladbach offered $2m (rising to $7m with fees) for his services, with the defender joining the German club midway through the 2020/21 season.

Escaping (somehow definitively and swiftly) without a European passport, almost unthinkable in the scheme of global football just a few years ago, Scally thrived almost immediately. Exactly a year ago to the day, he made his Bundesliga debut against FC Bayern Munich. He scored his first Bundesliga goal against Wolfsburg last October and made his debut for the US men against Morocco in June. Shortly before his debut, then Academy Director Roland Virkus said of Scally: “He really went from 0 to 100. I’ve never seen a young player go into challenges as hard as he does without being angry about it.”

– O’Hanlon: Does USMNT have a sudden goaltender problem? (E+)

This “0 to 100” is seemingly a Scally business card; Presented by Tuttosport and voted on by sportswriters, the nearly 20-year history of the Golden Boy Award reads like a Who’s Who of global football over the past two decades. Presented to a young footballer aged 21 or younger playing in Europe, it is considered the unofficial accolade of the prince of football. Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Paul Pogba, Raheem Sterling, Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Pedri have all won. Only one defender, Matthijs de Ligt, has ever won this award.

In June, following his 2021/22 season, Scally was nominated for the award along with compatriots Yunus Musah (Valencia), Malik Tillman (Rangers, on loan from Bayern Munich) and friend and youthmate Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund). .

With Qatar less than three months away and Scally’s ceiling seemingly limitless, not to mention a growing need for back-line talent following Miles Robinson’s Achilles tendon rupture, could the World Cup really be on the horizon?

“It’s everyone’s dream to play in a World Cup and this one camp I’ve been to with all the guys [it] I just felt like I belonged, this is where I belong, this is where I can play,” Scally told ESPN in February. “The main goal is the World Cup and I’m ready to help the team do that. It’s amazing when you put the jersey on and you have the crest on your chest. It’s a different feeling.”

– Jordan Morris of USMNT: How treating diabetes helped me recover from two cruciate ligament tears

Schmidt, for the record, doesn’t think his emotions could handle it. “I would probably start crying,” he laughs. “He’s always been so humble and balanced, but he believes in himself and is confident.

“When he was 11 we probably had a squad of 16 players; Kids 15 and 16 aren’t really playing, but they’re there, you know? We told the kids to team up for exercises… and Joe would always pick the weakest kid. Joe would put that ball on the kid’s foot every time… and, let me tell you, that ball didn’t come back the same way. And he was always smiling and laughing anyway – super down to earth. So, yeah, I’ll cheer for this boy who starts in front of 60,000 in a Bundesliga game.

Part of Scally’s inclination is talent, of course. The other part (effort) was always in the genes.

“One day I’m going to train and [Joe’s mother and coach] Margaret is out there in jeans and flip-flops, serving the kids balls in the box,” says Schmidt. “One thing at a time, just no problem, right [on them]. She was a damn good player. I could have used them for them [Long Island] Rough Riders!” Joe Scally’s Gladbach ascent has U.S. defender on the World Cup radar, and rightly so

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