Commentary

U.S. U-23 hopeful Pelosi's change of scenery works out perfectly

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

He was born on the opening day of the 1994 World Cup tournament, so from day one Marc Pelosi’s fate was intertwined with soccer.

As a young player with the Northern California club De Anza Force, he impressed his coaches right away with his tenacity and spirit. “A competitor,” recalls director of coaching Jeff Baicher, a former All-American at the University of Santa Clara who played in the first five seasons of MLS before retiring in 2000. He first saw Pelosi at age 9.

“He wants to compete in everything he does, whether it’s a five-v-two or a possession exercise or whatever, even when he was little, he wanted to compete against everyone and everything. That’s the first thing you see about him.”

For the past six weeks, Pelosi has seeing time with the San Jose Earthquakes, who signed him from the league allocation list in mid-July. Liverpool had released him the previous month, ending an odyssey of bright promise and bitter disappointment of nearly four years. But a call to the U.S. training camp in January, some good displays for the U.S. U-23s at the Toulon Tournament in June, and a contract with the Quakes in mid-July has revived his career.

After going the full 90 minutes in his second MLS start on Friday and anchoring central midfield in a 1-0 defeat of the Galaxy, Pelosi left to join the U-23s in England, where they play the host country Thursday and Qatar next week.

“The injury he had was pretty significant and I think it just took him a lot longer to get back his form, where he was prior to the injury,” says Baicher. “It’s tough on a young man that age. If he never got injured, would it have turned out different for him? You just don’t know.”

Since he captained the U.S. at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico, Pelosi’s fortunes had at first escalated by signing with Liverpool, then plummeted sharply when a severe leg fracture and subsequent minor injuries edged him lower and lower on the depth chart. He played for the Liverpool U-18s and U-21s but never for the first team, and in the aftermath of the 2014-15 season when the team’s coaches pondered their options for him and several other players, he considered his choices as well.

“I was starting to feel like I’d been there too long trying to step up into the first team” says Pelosi, 21, who had left Bellarmine Prep after his freshman year to join the U.S. Soccer residency program in Bradenton, Fla. “Coming back from the injury, I just needed a change of scenery. This was the perfect change for me, and I feel really happy and comfortable, so I just want to keep going.”

To sign with Liverpool he forsook interest from several MLS teams as well as Everton and Leeds United, and relinquished a full-ride scholarship from UCLA. He quickly found out that signing with a high-profile English club came at a cost; even when he was healthy, the club resisted requests for him to be released.

“A lot of times at Liverpool they didn’t let me go for the U-20s and even the U-23s a few times,” said Pelosi in the Quakes’ locker room Friday. “They let us go a little more over here in MLS.”

The Galaxy game matched him in central midfield against former Liverpool teammate and club icon Steven Gerrard, who departed for MLS after playing an astonishing 708 games and scoring 185 goals (all competitions). San Jose held the upper hand for much of the match as Pelosi and another recent arrival, Panamanian midfielder Anibal Godoy, blunted the Galaxy’s attempts to get at the Quakes’ back line.

“I trained with him a lot at Liverpool and you just play against him like it’s another player,” said Pelosi, who had played six games (five as a sub) before replacing U-23 teammate Fatai Alashe, who was injured, in the starting lineup. “Everyone knows he’s a world-class player but I think we did well together, me and Anibal and Chris [Wondolowski] was helping us out a lot, shutting down the midfield. It was a fun game to play in.”

Pelosi got good reviews from Quakes head coach Dominic Kinnear, who from his playing days in MLS and the national team knows something about taking care of business in the middle of the field. He had brought Pelosi on as a sub for Alashe in a convincing 2-0 defeat of D.C. United in the Quakes’ previous game and decided to go with what seemed to be working.

“We did it in D.C., so we did it here, and it worked out pretty good,” Kinnear said. “I thought he had a good game. He works hard on both sides of the ball, he’s got a good soccer brain, he’s confident. He’s not afraid. He intercepted some passes tonight and got stuck in pretty good a couple of times, and he’s confident on the ball. I think he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he keeps impressing us every time he steps out there.”

He won’t be out there Saturday to face Philadelphia and neither will Godoy, who has been called up by Panama, as have Cordell Cato (Trinidad & Tobago) and Sanna Nyassi (Gambia). Kinnear’s not quite sure what he can do in midfield even if Alashe is healthy (he wasn’t called for the U-23 games). “I’m only looking at Plan B right now,” said Kinnear, without elaborating.

Pelosi is anxious to get back on the field for his country. Liverpool’s reluctance to release him and the broken leg, which ruled out any chance to play in the 2013 U-20 World Cup, have sharpened his appreciation for being summoned. The camp in England is the final proving ground for a spot on the U.S. team selected for Olympic qualifying in October, and then perhaps further national team opportunities as well as a possible ticket to Rio de Janeiro.

“I know all of them pretty much,” says Pelosi of young men he’s known since they were teenagers. “Of course, I’d love to stay here to play Philly and help the team, but I love playing for my country as well.”

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