Goal.com’s newest feature, Emigrated, takes a long look at young American Marcus Tracy and his unconventional road to stardom.
By Adam Rotberg
Marcus Tracy has never made the conventional choice. Being a standout high school athlete who chose to play soccer over basketball is a clear deviation from the norm for an American teenager. Four years later, he chose to return to Wake Forest for his senior season, rather than opting to join the MLS SuperDraft, where he would have been a likely 1st round pick.
So this past winter, when Marcus Tracy chose to forgo being the likely overall number one pick in the 2009 SuperDraft to sign a contract with Danish club Aalborg, it was in line with his history of making the choice he felt was right for himself, and having a vision of how his professional career would evolve.
"Coming to Europe was something I set out to do from my later days in high school through college, and, with my age, I thought that coming now was the best opportunity for me," said the 22-year-old, who signed with Aalborg in January. "I didn't feel that going to the MLS would give me the best opportunity to [come play in Europe] later down the road. When I first came here, the sporting director and coach actually thought it would take me a little bit longer to adjust to life and football [in Denmark], but it went a little quicker than expected."
Tracy credited the same mental toughness and focus which guided him to Europe in the first place with helping him to adjust to the Danish game. While he did note that there was a transitional period, he felt he was able to adapt rather quickly.
"Things weren't going so well in the beginning as I had to adjust to the speed and different tactical and technical demands of the game here, but I kept grinding it out, fully believing that I would be an impact player here, and I've emerged a lot faster than was expected of me."
Tracy adjusted quickly enough that he was able to make his first appearance just over two months after signing. On March 19, in the second leg of the UEFA Cup Round of 16 tie with Manchester City, he came on as a 77th minute substitution in an effort to spark a comeback.
"That was an incredible experience . . . being on the sideline, and even standing there before I subbed in, it was sort of surreal to watch [Shaun] Wright-Phillips or Robinho just run by and think that just four months ago I was playing against UNC in the College Cup and I'm about to go in and play against some of these world-class players."
Despite a furious comeback to tie the game on aggregate in the final eight minutes, Aalborg eventually bowed out 4-3 on penalties. The former Wake Forrest standout followed that outing up with a game-winning goal in the 68th minute of his Danish Superliga debut, just four days later against FC Midtjylland. Unfortunately, he was held out of the following game due to a hamstring issue, which resurfaced in late April and has him out of action the mid-May. His focus had to shift towards "getting over the [hamstring injury] and being a little more consistent."
Tracy returned to training on May 15 and made the starting lineup against SonderjyskE on May 24, coming off in the 79th minute as he was still not quite fully fit. With the final game of the season coming this Sunday, he hopes to finish strong and cement his starting role moving into next season.
Earlier this month the 22-year-old called out the importance of the Danish Cup Final against FC Copenhagen. Although he wasn't included in the squad, which went on to lose a 1-0 decision, Aalborg was able to secure qualification into the inaugural UEFA Europa League, the new version of the UEFA Cup, with the second place finish.
Finishing this season strong remains at the front of Tracy’s mind, but he concedes that he is looking forward to next season and expanding his role with Aalborg.
"[I want] to try to become a regular and more of an impact player next season." By making a difference in the chances he has received this season, he established a base for which to build upon as he approaches his first full season in Europe. Tracy also recognized that becoming a regular fixture in Aalborg’s squad and appearing in as many games as possible would go a long way in helping him further his European football career. "If I do well here, I can have an opportunity to move up to a bigger league, with bigger teams, and better players."
Tracy remains unsure of where he would end up, but he knows he must control what he can in order to make it as far as possible.
"I will continue to work hard and try to improve, that's what I have done all my life and it has gotten me to this point so I am just going to stay on that track and hopefully opportunities will come in the future."
As he continues to improve and harbor greater European goals, he is as quick as anyone to praise Barcelona and the quality of soccer they are currently playing. He singled out their attacking prowess as the most admirable part of their game; mentioning the Andres Iniesta and Xavi combination in the middle of the field and the ability of Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry to create from the wings.
"I admire Lionel Messi the most of any footballer in the world. He is very shifty and has incredible speed, quickness, ball control, and creativity and I think he is a very honest player as well. He works hard and plays through the challenges and everything else that comes with being a player of his caliber."
When it comes to his own game, the youngster isn't quite as generous, noting, "My strengths as a player are my speed, running at players, air game, and physical strength."
Tracy is the first to concede that he can improve. "I still want to and have a lot to improve upon and I plan on doing that to take my game to an even higher level. I think every single aspect of my game can be improved. That's clear because I'm not playing at the absolute highest level right now."
To say that Tracy's path to professional football was unconventional would be an understatement. Very few NCAA standouts, even Hermann Trophy winners such as Tracy, are able to make a smooth transition to the top tier in a European league. However, despite his success at Wake and thus far in Denmark he has garnered no national team consideration at any level. He credits the lack of attention to being a two-sport athlete throughout high school and not committing to soccer until later in his career. Tracy excelled at basketball as well as soccer at Newtown HS, in Newtown, Connecticut, even garnering all-state basketball honors as a senior.
"I think not committing to ODP, sometimes [not playing] in the winter for my club team, and I think my overall indecisiveness on which sport I wanted to go with, kept me out of the ODP pool and the youth national teams."
He exhibits no regrets about enjoying the ability to play both sports for as long as possible, maintaining that the decision has helped him as a soccer player. "I think being able to mix traits mutually from both sports gave me a different style, creativity and confidence that has allowed me to excel and brought me a long way."
He understands the lack of senior national team consideration and holds no grudges, "No mention, no call ups, but that's pretty much expected. I haven't done much at the youth or professional level and it's going to take some time to prove myself." This is not to say that adding a national team call up is low on his list of priorities either, "Of course, it would be an incredible honor to be able to represent your country through football, but none of that is really in my control. I can only try to control my performance and image as a footballer, and only that will see me get a chance sometime in the future."
With the potential Tracy has exhibited throughout his career and the quick transition to a role abroad, which is a move so many Americans have struggled with, one can only hope that he will receive a call up at some point.
While drooling over potential is a very American reaction, the athleticism contained in a front line combination of Jozy Altidore and Marcus Tracy would be as much as any national team could hope to trot out. If the two young strikers can improve their technical abilities and become truly world class, the U.S. could have one of the most athletic front lines in the world for years to come.
Adam Rotberg is a new contributor to Goal.com’s extensive coverage of Americans Abroad. The full transcript of his interviews with Marcus Tracy can be found on his blog.