Posted October 05, 2013

Back home and grounded by family, Mike Magee is finally fulfilling his potential

Mike Magee (left). (Paul Frederiksen/USA TODAY Sports)

Mike Magee (left) is looking for an MVP candidate so far this season. (Paul Frederiksen/USA TODAY Sports)

By 2011, Magee had the hang of it. Injury free and at his shifty, smart and clinical best, he scored 10 goals for L.A. in all competitions, including three during the Galaxy’s successful MLS Cup run. He spent most of his time in wide midfield, a spot further from goal than he preferred. But it was where his club needed him. That June, he earned his first league player of the week award after a spontaneous and successful spell in net. L.A.’s two active goalkeepers departed with an injury and a red card and Magee held off San Jose for more than a half, making four saves.

In 2012 he scored nine more goals, including another three in the postseason. He was clutch. And he was a champion once again.

But individual honors remained scarce. Heading into the 2013 campaign, that player of the week award was pretty much it. He hasn’t represented his country since an appearance with the U-20 national team 10 years ago. Magee is, by far, the leading all-time goal scorer among uncapped, U.S.-eligible players. He has 54 career MLS regular season goals (62 including playoffs). The second man on the list, San Jose’s Steven Lenhart, is way back at 32 (33 including playoffs).

Asked if he wanted to hear those statistics, Magee declined.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me at all. Of course, I want a call-up,” he said. “But I’m not going to say it drives me because I’m so motivated by other things.”

On a typical day, whether at practice or a charity three-on-three tournament, that thing is victory.

“Watch me play ping-pong or Monopoly, you’ll realize I just want to win,” he said.

But in May, while on a tear that saw him score six goals in his first 10 games, victory became secondary. An opportunity to return to Chicago emerged when Robbie Rogers decided to end his brief retirement if he could play for his hometown Galaxy. The Fire held his rights.

“L.A. was pretty unique,” Magee said. “A lot of guys in this league have played a long time and not had that success and that environment. To leave that was definitely tough. But when you know what’s right for your three-year-old daughter, there’s no question. It got to a point where I knew I needed to get my daughter to Chicago. That’s what’s best for her.”

Magee’s girlfriend and Keira’s mother, Kristen Pizzolato, also is from Chicago. She missed home. Magee’s parents, his sister and her children and an extended family were there. They’d been apart for a long time.

“I’ve been so blessed in my life,” he said. “But if I didn’t get home sooner rather than later, I was robbing my daughter of something special.”

Magee was so excited to get home that after the Galaxy and Fire executed the May 24 trade, he made his own travel arrangements to Chicago. He then scored a goal in each of his first four games for the Fire.

Selflessness was rewarded again. Matkovich sees the connection.

“When he was young he had things he had to fight through and he’s just matured. Not that he wasn’t a good person before, but that maturity has led to success on the field,” the coach said. “He’s been around it. He’s a winner. He breathes it. It’s just the way he is. We’re happy to have him here. I wish we had more guys like him.”

Chicago was 2-7-1 before the trade. Since Magee first took the field in Fire red they are 10-5-5 and remain in the playoff hunt following Friday’s 3-0 win at D.C. United. Magee has scored 12 times in 19 matches for the club. With 18 goals in all, he trails only Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio (19) for the MLS lead. Magee is in the thick of the MVP race.

If he wins, it would be his second honor of a season that wasn’t supposed to be about him. In July, Magee was named an MLS All-Star for the first time in his 11-year career. He was voted in by fans.

“He is a guy that is definitely under the radar and was on a team, even in New York as well because these are big markets, where you wind up in the shadows of the Beckhams and the [Robbie] Keanes,” said Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, who directed the All-Star team this summer. “He has the ability to play many positions and do them all well and has an innate ability to do what the game requires.”

Vermes was not alone in suggesting that Magee’s versatility might work against him when it comes to national team call-ups or individual recognition.

“Sometimes it’s how you fit in someone’s mind into a certain system, and if you don’t have that kind of place sometimes it’s difficult for someone to say, ‘Let me take a chance on him’,” Vermes said.

When Magee arrived in K.C. for the All-Star game, Vermes made it a point to approach the player during lunch and tell him that he belonged.

“I appreciated the things he had to say,” Magee said later, speaking to at the All-Stars’ downtown hotel. “But there is certainly zero lack of confidence with myself. Whether it comes through in what I say, I don’t know. I don’t know how it comes across. I’m just clarifying that I’m not sitting here thinking that I don’t belong here or anything like that. And even if I didn’t make this team, it wouldn’t have altered my thoughts at all.”

That’s because his goals have evolved.

Magee spoke with pride about the times when the Galaxy held a lead and he felt “content” to just play the ball to Donovan or Beckham and let them engineer the counterattack.

“A couple of MLS Cups will make you feel better about any dirty work you ever do,” he said.

Magee expressed excitement about his role with the Fire, where players now look to him to set an example. And he happily credited his daughter, and the responsibility that came with her, for leading him to a place where those things made him happy.

“If you look back to the day she was born and what I’ve done since then, I think my entire career has been her lifetime,” he said.

“I think no matter what, I’ve go the personality where I’ll always want more. That’s a good thing for me post-career as well. Whether I’m a barista or I park cars or if I run a company, I’ll make an amazing coffee. My dad would slap me if I didn’t appreciate all those things but always want more.”

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That is not true, he started showing it in L.A.