Sunday, October 24, 2010

Taking Charlton to Pound Town

Last Sunday, a trip to the Imagination Stage in Bethesda resulted in a pleasant afternoon watching their current rendition of Bunnicula. This year's version of the play effortlessly blends elements intended to maintain the interest of adults in the audience with a fast paced storyline that never loses the interest of the (very) young barely filling in their seats. Because so much of the live entertainment intended for children is insipid in nature, the quality of the production was greatly appreciated and stoked our daughter's interest and enthusiasm for going to a children's event at the Studio Theatre yesterday morning.

By the time it was over and our daughter was comfortably ensconced in Logan Circle, Charlton had just started the remarkable feat of blowing a three goal lead at Carlisle. Reduced to getting irregular updates on the collapse from Charlton Life, I started thinking about the last time that we got to see Mike Grella, who seemed to be playing a seminal part in forcing Charlton's disintegration. Back in September of 2008, Grella visited Ludwig as part of a ranked Duke team that posed a serious challenge to the eventual national champions.

Grella was destined to be a Blue Devil. Cocksure and the opposite of charismatic, Grella looks like he could have walked off the screen as one of the legions of villains in a Lethal Weapon movie. On that September night, in front of a charged audience of over 6,000 in College Park, the Terps held Grella in check, winning the match on a set play headed home by Omar Gonzalez.

After the season, Grella turned down the opportunity to play for Toronto FC in the MLS and headed to Europe to try his fortune. A number of Americans that pay attention to the sport, I think, wrote him off for the decision even after an impressive trial with Leeds United netted him a contract at Elland Road, because he was toiling in the third division of English soccer. This would have been a ridiculous conclusion to draw considering LUFC's illustrious history and, even conceding the current hard times for the club, any team that beat Manchester United at Old Trafford to advance in the FA Cup offers more than anything an MLS team could come up with.

The fact that Grella has not been able to secure a regular berth with Leeds in the Npower Championship and the criticism he drew for refusing to join fourth-division Bradford City on loan to get playing time this season did not bode well, but early returns from his limited run alongside former USMNT golden child Frank Simek at Carlisle seem to be promising.

There was a lot of talent on the field for that September game and I think that it might be fair to at least raise the argument that Grella's career shows the most promise of anyone who participated in the game. Most of this sentiment reveals profound pessimism about the ability of USSF and MLS to build the career of U.S. soccer players.

Darrius Barnes played all 90 minutes for Duke and is now a regular starter in the New England Revolution's back four. Maryland's defensive back four has also done pretty well in country -- Omar Gonzalez and AJ Delagarza have impressed for the Galaxy; Rodney Wallace is a key part of DC United and was sorely missed this season; and Rich Costanzo has acquitted himself well with the now-defunct Thunder and the Rochester Rhinos in the U.S. second division. Jeremy Hall seems to have returned to health and is back in the starting lineup alongside some tremendous teammates with Red Bulls; Graham Zusi is an important contributor for the KC Wizards; and Drew Yates got paid to play professionally for FC Tampa Bay last season.

In fact, of the players on the field that day, the only other student athlete that went to Europe to play was, I think, Graham Dugoni, who last month headed to Norway to play in the second division for Mjondalen (and has seen only limited playing time).

Of these players, who is the most likely to be playing at the highest levels in Europe? At the moment, I think it is fair to say that the answer is Mike Grella. He still has to perform and show that he can play at a much higher level, but it seems far more likely that Grella will be tapped up from his current spot than any of the others, no matter how well they are doing in the MLS. Maybe that's wrong, but Grella showed yesterday that he has the ability, and if he can translate his skills into performance, he has put himself in the best position to take advantage of it.

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