U.S. Abroad: Decision Time for Rossi

The name of American-born Giuseppe Rossi has arisen once again as U.S. head coach Bob Bradley scours the globe for players to restock his player pool. Rossi's career is steaming along as he scores goals for Spanish club Villarreal and the Italian under-21 team, for which he may play next year in the Olympic Games.

One way or another, the strange saga of New Jersey native Giuseppe Rossi ever playing for the United States will soon be put to rest.

And maybe the American fans and journalists pleading on Web sites and in blogs for him to change allegiances and questioning his loyalty will give up the chase and salute his remarkable accomplishments. He's already scored more goals in European first-division soccer than any other U.S. player except Brian McBride and no one has come close to his feats at such a young age.

In February, Rossi turns 21, the age at which FIFA forbids a player eligible to play for more than one country to switch national teams. A player competing at that age in any official FIFA competition is thus bound to that country except for special circumstances, such as the breakup of a nation or political upheaval that necessitates refugee status.

This rule is why Freddy Adu, despite representing the United States at FIFA U-17 and U-20 world championships as well as the full national team in friendlies, is not yet barred from playing for Ghana, his country of birth. A player under age 21 who can document a suitable link to another country and meet its citizenship requirements can petition FIFA to represent that country in soccer competitions.

Rossi, born in Clifton, N.J., holds dual American and Italian citizenship and has lived in Europe since age 13. The Italian federation passed him over when picking its team for the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup, which beat the U.S. in the round of 16, and Italy didn't qualify for the U-20 competition held in Canada last summer.

He's a regular member of the Italian team that is playing qualifiers for the 2009 U-21 European Championship and despite being contacted several times by U.S. Soccer has never answered the call.

The mention of Rossi provokes terse replies from U.S. head coach Bob Bradley and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who have yet to give up on him. A half-hearted attempt by former head coach Bruce Arena, who according to sources insisted Rossi had to declare his desire to play for the U.S. before being selected, ran aground.

There's little reason to believe Rossi will change teams. The day before the U.S. national team beat Switzerland, 1-0, in Basel, Rossi scored for Italy in a 2-2 tie with Greece in Athens in a U-21 qualifier. He scored for Italy against France in a U-21 friendly last August, and also played in June when Italy edged Portugal on penalties to qualify for the 2008 Olympic soccer tournament. (Many European countries use the Olympic tournament as part of their U-21 programs.)

His goal against France came with a left-footed volley, which he described thusly on uefa.com: "I was pleased with my goal because the ball was high but I managed to get good contact anyway and keep the shot low." He boomed a shot from outside the box for his goal against Greece.

If he plays for Italy at the Olympic Games soccer tournament, which is an official FIFA competition, next summer at age 21, he will be bound to Italy. Period.

MOVE TO EUROPE. Rossi left the U.S. at age 13 with his father to live in Parma and since then has moved up the ranks at Manchester United, which sent him on loan to Parma and Newcastle before selling him to Spanish club Villarreal last August for 6 million pounds ($12 million), which is more than double the price ever paid for any American player.

Despite his youth, Rossi's 15 goals in European first-division league play - one for Man United, nine with Parma on loan last season, and five for Villarreal as of mid-October - are more than and other American except McBride (29).

Manchester United retains a first-refusal to buy him back, and Manager Alex Ferguson has spoken of him in glowing terms. Rossi has excelled in tough surroundings despite a modest frame (5-foot-9, 158 pounds) through quickness, guile, and what every striker needs: a nose for goal.

In 19 games at Parma last year, Rossi scored nine goals to spark a successful fight against relegation after laboring at Newcastle in the first half of the 2006-07 season. Newcastle, ironically, had been linked last summer to Danny Szetela, a childhood friend of Rossi in Clifton who also ended up in Spain, at Racing Santander.

"I know I will definitely be a Newcastle player until January, but we will look at it again before then and discuss whether I will stay for the whole season," said Rossi to the Manchester United Web site. "It was decided that it would help me and Newcastle if I was to go there on loan and this was the best solution for me. I will have more opportunities to play with Newcastle.

"No Italian clubs came in for me, but I preferred to stay in England anyway because I am settled and I know the style of football. I like being in England."

Yet he really liked being back in Italy with Parma, which was mired near the bottom when he arrived in January. He scored both goals in a 2-0 defeat of Fiorentina, and two more in a 4-1 rout of Messina as Parma fought its way up the table to finish in 12th place.

Rossi had signed with Manchester United in 2004 after failing to make the first team at Parma, which thought the youngster a promising prospect yet had to sell assets in the aftermath of a financial meltdown at its parent company, Parmalat. It sold Rossi to United for 200,000 pounds (about $370,000 at the time).

He played 14 league and cup matches in three seasons and scored four goals for United, which had bought another precocious youngster, Wayne Rooney, that same summer as well as Louis Saha and Alan Smith, and already had Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Ruud van Nistelrooy on its books. (Also on the books was another young American, Kenny Cooper.)

Rossi was living in a very crowded house and welcomed the chance to move out, at least temporarily.

The Newcastle move didn't kick-start his career, either; he scored against Portsmouth in a League Cup match, but of his 11 Premier League appearances he started only three and failed to score for then-manager Glenn Roeder.

"Giuseppe will come back to us because he is just not getting enough football at Newcastle," said Ferguson when the loan was terminated. "The understanding we had with them was that he would play more games. Every manager is subject to their own opinions on players, so I don't want to say too much about that. But we could have done with him here, so he might as well come back to us."

Rossi did come back to United after lighting it up at Parma. Agent Andrea Pastroella had publicly set a high price for his services and no Italian club, several of which expressed interest, bid as high as Villarreal, which had lost Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan to Atletico Madrid.

TENUOUS TIES. Though his mother still lives in New Jersey, and he came to the United States in 2006 to play for Man. United in the Dallas Cup, he has never stated a desire to pull on a U.S. jersey.

As coach of the U.S. under-20 team two years ago, Crew head coach Sigi Schmid extended an invitation to Rossi but was rebuffed. Rossi's name was on a preliminary list of 38 players selected to play against Scotland for a November 2005, friendly. The federation won't clarify whether he refused the invite or simply wasn't one of the 20 players picked for the final squad, losing out to the likes of Fire striker Chris Rolfe, or wayward Red Bull attacker Santino Quaranta, for example.

"Giuseppe is not the first one to kick a ball in that family," says Seton Hall head coach Manny Schellscheidt, who has lived and coached in New Jersey the past four decades. "He is one of four children. His father was a coach, and there's a soccer tradition in his family. I played against his dad when he played for the old ethnic clubs in the 60s."

Rossi has been praised by Italian U-21 coach Pierluigi Casiraghi, and says of his team, "I think this U-21 team has great potential, there are plenty of players with great talent."

The same must be said of this player, whether or not he ever plays for this country.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)

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