Conor Casey’s career has come full circle. Recruited out of Denver to play for the University of Portland, Casey moved on to Germany, where a six-year stint was marred by major knee injuries.
Following a short stay in Toronto, the former U.S. Olympian landed in Colorado, for which he scored 11 goals last year and is among the MLS leaders this season.
Starting with Paul Caligiuri's move to Hamburg after the 1986 World Cup, the track record of American players trying their luck in Germany is a checkered one.
The cases of World Cup veterans Steve Cherundolo, a regular starter and co-captain of Hannover, and Kasey Keller (two seasons with Borussia Moenchengladbach) are rare rather than the rule. Clint Mathis and Eric Wynalda fizzled out after bright starts, Taylor Twellman never played a first-team game, Landon Donovan tried it on three occasions, Jovan Kirovski couldn't stick. Though several — including Brent Goulet and Joe Enochs — flourished in the lower divisions, it's far more common for stays in the top tier to be rather short and/or moderately successful at best.
With no pro experience, Conor Casey joined German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund in December 2000, just a few years after it won the Champions League title. The spring after Casey's arrival, it would capture the Meisterschale as Bundesliga champion. Yet by that time, disillusionment had already set in.
Dortmund had sent Casey to play with its reserve team in the Regionalliga Nord, a regional league two tiers below the Bundesliga. Though he scored two goals in 10 games he found the competition insufficient to hone his abilities and foresaw bleak prospects ahead.
"That happened quickly, from the original excitement of going over there and just being 19 with all those guys," recalls Casey of never getting a first-team game. "It doesn't matter where you are, you want to play. When you're not getting games it's hard to improve. I was happy with the decision and it actually worked out pretty well, because I got loaned out about eight months and finally got some playing time."
A loan to Hannover, which had signed Cherundolo in 1999, coincided with the team's successful push for promotion after playing lower-division soccer for more than a decade. Casey netted seven goals in 19 games as Hannover won the Bundesliga 2 (Second Division) championship of 2001-02.
"It was an awesome year," recalls Casey. "Then I had some injury issues." Those injury issues include tearing the ACLs in both knees on different occasions, and though he says the knees "feel great," complications limited him to 17 MLS games and two goals in 2007, and his condition mandates careful monitoring by the Rapids medical staff and head coach Gary Smith.
"With Conor staying healthy — and I don't want to tempt fate with that — we'll see certainly a more clinical player," says Smith, "as with any player that can stream together a number of games and feel confident and comfortable with themselves and their match play. I think you'll see him not only hit the target more but convert more of those chances."
OLYMPIC CONTROVERSY. Casey got his chance in Germany thanks in part to the late Clive
Charles, head coach 2000 U.S. Olympic team that reached the semifinals amidst a storm of criticism directed at Charles, who preferred to pair Casey — a rugged figure at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds
— with the smaller, quicker Josh Wolff, and often left Donovan on the bench.
"I think everyone was aware of it but it didn't really change anything and the team did as well as any team has done at the Olympics," says Casey. "We both came out of it well. Landon was a very young player at the time, only 18. A lot of people questioned it and were pushing for him, but in the end the team showed that Clive knew the team pretty well."
Casey failed to score a goal, yet showed enough during the tournament to attract the interest of Borussia Dortmund, which he joined in December 2000, after scoring 23 goals in his sophomore year at the University of Portland. He thus followed a path to Germany carved out by former Pilot Cherundolo, who had also been sent on his way by Charles when the coach deemed him properly prepared.
"When he recruited me, I told him that I definitely wanted to play pro as soon as I could, that was my goal," said Casey of Charles, who died of cancer in 2003. "He said he'd get me ready for that, and when he thought I was ready he'd help me, and that's exactly what he did."
Donovan's three-month stay with Bayern Munich earlier this year marked his third unsuccessful attempt to make it in Germany, dating back to a two-year assignment with Bayer Leverkusen reserves from 1999 to 2001. Four years ago, he tried it again at Leverkusen, but lasted only a few months and came back to MLS as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Still six months short of his 20th birthday, Casey joined Borussia on a four-year contract. He went to Germany with much less fanfare than did Donovan but knows well what he encountered. "He's a great player, there's no question about it," says Casey. "He dealt with the same thing; not getting minutes and not getting 90 minutes for a long time.
"It's not easy at those big clubs, there's a lot of good players and you have to wait for your chance, and when you get that chance hope that you do really, really well. I understand it, I went through it."
American fans may remember the sight of Kirovski, in a suit and tie, celebrating Dortmund's victory against Juventus at the 1996-97 Champions League final in Munich. He'd signed with Dortmund the previous year, following several productive seasons with the reserves of Manchester United, which under the regulations in force at the time was unable to secure a work permit for him. He lasted another year and left Dortmund in 1998 having scored one goal in 20 Bundesliga games and with a handful of appearances in European play. After brief stints in Portugal and England, he signed with MLS in 2004.
GERMAN LESSONS. Casey managed just four games and one goal in his
first (2002-03) Bundesliga campaign for Hannover, went back to Bundesliga 2 to play for Karlsruhe and after scoring 14 goals in 30 games, then headed to FSV Mainz when it paid a club-record 300,000
euros (approximately $360,000) for him. It was not money well-spent. He scored just two goals in 38 matches.
"At Mainz, I had three years of battling injuries and really not getting much playing time," he says of his final stop in Germany, during which he suffered his first ACL tear playing for the U.S. in the 2005 Gold Cup. In an ironic twist, given the history of the two players, Donovan replaced him, and scored two goals in a 4-1 defeat of Cuba.
"I was over there for six years and probably for only two of them I was starting and getting 90 minutes most of the time," he says. "That's huge for a player so you can get into that rhythm and whatnot. Obviously, the training's great, but for a forward the game is to play 90 minutes, get chances and score goals. That's the only thing that's going to build your confidence."
When Mainz terminated his contract in February 2007, Toronto sat atop the allocation list, and as a U.S. national team player — nine caps dating back to his debut in October 2004 against Poland — he was subject to that process. The toll of training and playing on FieldTurf soon prompted yet another change of venue, perhaps for psychological as well as physical reasons. That Cuba game in which he'd suffered the ACL tear occurred at Qwest Field in Seattle on a FieldTurf surface.
Ex-Rapids head coach Fernando Clavijo acquired him in a trade with TFC. Once Smith had replaced Clavijo for the final 11 games of the 2008 season, Casey regained a starting spot and scored eight goals, including a hat trick against New York. Colorado fell just short of a playoff spot when RSL managed a 1-1 tie with a 90th minute goal in the season finale.
"The end of last season, you can really point to Conor as being the catalyst with his goals to push us towards the last game of the season where it was all or nothing," says Smith. "That was a real nice run of form for Conor, a real nice run of games for him. Maybe it instilled a bit more belief in him."
What Smith believes Casey is capable of doing with the Rapids is strengthening and refining his forward partnership with the quick, tricky Jamaican Omar Cummings, scorer of six goals last year. In early April, they dismantled the Galaxy in a 3-2 victory: Casey hit a hat trick — including a goal 17 seconds after kickoff, the second-fastest strike in league history — with two of the goals set up by Cummings.
"Conor has a lot of good qualities for a big guy," says Smith of the 27-year-old who was born in New Hampshire but grew up in Denver. "If you look at the modern game, players are getting bigger, quicker, stronger, more athletic, and he possesses a lot of those qualities in a big frame.
"That target guy with good techniques, awareness to bring other players into the game, the fact that he's got a little turn of pace and can cover ground means he brings an awful lot to the table for the team."
(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)