My Country, 'Tis of Thee

November 30, 2005
CanalesBy Andrea Canales
(Archive)

As a nation of immigrants, the United States is in no position to vilify players or fans with divided loyalties. As a soccer nation on the upswing, it should not need to plead for them, either.

Rossi
WireImage / Action ImagesGuiseppe Rossi (left) has shined in limited playing time for Manchester United.

When U.S. soccer fans think of Americans on the roster of the fabled club Manchester United, goalkeeper Tim Howard and defender Jonathan Spector probably come to mind. Flying under the radar of most is 18-year-old Giuseppe Rossi, a striker born in New Jersey, whose parents are from Italy.

Rossi was brought up in the soccer hotbed of Clifton, N.J., where his father coached soccer. Rossi played alongside youth national team and Columbus Crew star Danny Szetela. Like many immigrants of the community, the Rossi family used soccer as an important connection to their home country.

One reason many soccer fans cheer for countries outside of the U.S. is because it's hard to find the passion and love for the game in a country where soccer ranks mostly as a recreational activity for children. True fandom for many is reserved for American football, baseball, or even NASCAR.

Rossi's skills afforded him the opportunity to leave the U.S. when he was only 13. He was given the chance to develop his soccer skills on the youth team of Parma. The family uprooted from the U.S. and moved to Italy to assist Rossi in pursuing his dream.

Soon he joined the Azzurri youth national teams as well. Yet youth national team games do not cap-tie a player to one country until the U-20 level, so Rossi remained eligible to play for both countries -- Italy and the U.S.

His dual citizenship didn't mean his loyalty was equally divided. Perhaps influenced by his father, Rossi expressed more than once his dream to play for the senior squad of Italy.

However, cash-strapped Parma sold its young star to Manchester United. Traditionally, only players who are performing in the Italian leagues earn their way to the national team. Though Rossi scored goals for the Red Devils in reserve games in England, he was no longer brought in for the Azzurri camps.

His birth country hadn't given up on him, though. When coach Sigi Schmid was readying his U-20 squad for the world championships in Holland, he contacted Rossi with an invite to join the team. Rossi declined. Though the Americans beat eventual tournament winner Argentina in group play, they bowed out in the quarterfinals to the Italian squad.

It might have seemed then that Rossi made a wise decision to not commit his eligibility to the U.S. On the other hand, Italy hadn't called him in for the tourney, which often showcases young talent and the ability to perform well under pressure. It couldn't bode well for Rossi's national team hopes -- at least with Italy.

Given more of a chance with Manchester United, Rossi continued to impress. He scored in his debut with the team in a match versus Sunderland. Though small, the naturally left-footed striker displays impressive creativity and control of the ball, especially where it matters most: near the goal. He can play either as a withdrawn forward or an attacking midfielder.

The odds may be against Rossi to change the customs of Italy's team selection. Yet his play with the Reds, which garnered effusive praise from teammates Wayne Rooney and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, could provide the incentive for Italian team administrators to be more global-minded in their selection approach.

In a recent interview with the Italian sports magazine Guerin Sportivo, Rossi mentioned that if the U.S. team offered him a spot on its 2006 World Cup squad in Germany, he would have to seriously think about it. It might have been a statement designed to put pressure on Italy to invite him in. It might have also upped the ante for any who wonder what it might take for Rossi to play for his birth country.

The World Cup, the ultimate goal for so many soccer players, could be enough temptation to perhaps sway Rossi from pulling on a blue shirt, and instead giving one with red and white in addition a try.

There's no problem with players passing over their first choice to then play for the U.S. Thomas Dooley, who captained the U.S. for a brief while in 1998 and 1999, once dreamed of finding national team glory with Germany. He didn't even speak English well when he joined the Stars and Stripes, but he served the colors honorably.

Rossi may contrast against Dooley in that he was born in the U.S., yet apparently never wished to represent the U.S. at the national level. That's a small detail, and one that shouldn't be held against him, even by the most fervent U.S. soccer fans. If Rossi's pursuit of happiness centers on playing for the country of his heritage, that's his particular dream.

It might become a question of whether Rossi wants to support Italy from his couch, though. The circumstances right now are such that the U.S. squad has a need for strikers of his type. Italy has considered Rossi superfluous, at least lately, to even its youth teams.

U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who put together a recent list of players for a friendly against Scotland, contacted Manchester United to secure Rossi's availability for the game. Under FIFA regulations, national teams must contact the clubs in advance to indicate the players that eventually may be called in.

"There were 38 players that had release requests sent to their clubs," confirmed national team press officer Michael Kammarman. "Rossi was one of them. Twenty players were called [to play against Scotland], which means 18 were not."

Quite a few of the players on the first list who were eventually not called in, such as Landon Donovan, were actually occupied with the domestic championship of Major League Soccer. Others, such as Pablo Mastroeni, might have been granted time to rest after a long season because Arena was already familiar with what they offer the team.

What U.S. Soccer would not confirm was if Rossi or his club declined the invite, or whether Arena himself decided another striker deserved a look. Sir Alex Ferguson has never been easy to wrest players away from, even for a friendly that might give young talent a chance to show quality in the small window that remains before the World Cup. Rossi himself might have decided to pass, though playing for the United States in a friendly would not cap-tie him.

What is clear is that Arena has the young talent on his radar, perhaps in a much more viable way than Italy does.

Young Rossi has never denigrated the U.S. directly, but his references to the glory of Italian soccer, the passion and tradition of the game, seem to indicate that the U.S. suffers by comparison in those areas. Nicknamed "America" by his Parma teammates, Rossi probably knows well that soccer in the U.S. does not hold the exalted position that it does in Italy.

Yet the "land of opportunity" might offer Rossi his best chance. The United States could be the newest star on the world stage -- well, as much as one can be considered a newcomer after playing in the first World Cup in 1930. If Rossi, his father, or perhaps both, objectively consider the option of a solid American team with strong, athletic defenders and a midfield maestro such as Donovan sending passes forward, it might be seen as an ideal fit.

Arena should not, however, undermine all the players striving for a national team position in the World Cup by guaranteeing one to Rossi in exchange for playing for the U.S. Yet if Rossi is granted and accepts an invitation to the U.S. training camps or friendlies in the USMNT run-up to Germany, he could prove that he belongs there.

U.S. fans who might wail and gnash their teeth in frustration about Rossi would do well to channel that energy to supporting the players that have already committed heart, body and soul to the national team. The recent performances of the team have led to a steady climb in the world rankings, a few spots above Italy. Yet many consider the U.S. undeserving of its rank, though not because of the on-field results. It simply galls some to see a country ranked in the top 10 that places such a low priority on soccer.

Perhaps the time has come for that perception to be proven as outdated as the idea that the United States cannot play the game. It might open a few eyes, and a young American who grew up dreaming of playing for his father's homeland might reconsider.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com