[AMERICANS ABROAD]One year into his pro career, Marcus Tracy spent early training with the U.S. national team before being sidelined with tendinitis. Whether or not he suits up for the USA this year or next, if ever, he's on a fast track. He says it wasn't until about four years ago, during his sophomore year at Wake Forest, that he really got serious about soccer and playing pro someday.
"I wasn't one of those people who dreamed about being a pro athlete," says Tracy, 23, who grew up in Newtown, Conn., and scored 100 goals in high school to win NSCAA All-American honors. "I always played a lot of sports. I played basketball and soccer all through high school and ran track my senior year in high school. I always did those things because they were fun and I was pretty good at them. In college, I started to think that maybe this could be a career."
He had played just five games his first year in the college game. A pulled right hamstring followed by recurrences sidelined him much of the time, and he also struggled to withstand the pounding meted out by defenders to burly but raw strikers. During that sophomore season he scored six goals in 22 games despite nagging injuries.
A year later, he and the Deacs won the 2007 Division I title, and the following season he captured the 2008 MAC Hermann Trophy as the nation's outstanding player. Less than a month after finishing his senior season, he was bound for Danish club Aalborg.
"I made up my mind pretty early that coming out of college I wanted to try my luck overseas," says Tracy, who scored 30 goals and registered 23 assists in 77 collegiate matches. "That's the best time to try it, to get out there when I'm young. That's what clubs want: to get you when you're young so they can try and develop you. It would be a lot harder for me four or five years down the road to make the jump to Europe unless you did exceptionally well in MLS."
Former Demon Deacon Michael Parkhurst did exactly that, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 and the 2007 Defender of the Year Award en route to signing with another Danish club, FC Nordsjaelland , as a free agent a year ago. Tracy -- solidly built for speed at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds -- feels the learning curve for attackers is steeper, and wanted to get started right away absorbing the subtleties and nuances as well as the basics.
"For the forwards and the midfielders it's always good to learn the small things," says Tracy, who scored two goals in 15 matches in his first Danish season. "I can't really speak for defenders because I never played defense, but in the attack there's a lot of small things you can pick up from coaches and guys with experience who've played in Europe at a higher level. That's something that attracted me as well.
"I don't think I spoke to any players because at the time I didn't know anyone who was over there. Parkhurst went there about the same time I went there." Tracy debuted as a sub last March in a UEFA Cup match against Manchester City, and celebrated his first start a few days later with a goal against FC Midtjylland.
He was in and out of the lineup until the end of the season, and added a second goal. He has a pretty clear idea of what needs to improve once he returns to Denmark to prepare for his second pro season, and he's pleased with the performances he's given during national-team sessions as he moves along that learning curve.
"I can't really go into detail without showing you out on the field, but just paying attention to those small details you notice when you watch players like [Fernando] Torres, [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic and [Samuel] Eto'o. You watch them play, and there's so much thinking and positioning and tactical awareness going on with those guys, you don't even notice it or realize it until you're put in the same positions and you need to think about some of those things."
Tracy says the learning process doesn't stop once he leaves the training field. There are mentors, and opportunities to watch them, all the time. "It's not that I didn't know these things or I wasn't taught well at the club level or in college but as the level of the defenders increases your level has to increase," he says. "You pick up things in training and also just being able to watch more European soccer regularly over there on TV has helped me a lot.
"We have five or six strikers over there, but I just need to continue working on my finishing, my runs, my positioning, the first touch, turning with the ball, all those things have to be improved. Every day in training is a battle and for me, I just tell myself that if I'm playing at my absolute highest level, I'll have a good shot at playing time."