Joe Scally’s Gladbach ascent has U.S. defender on the World Cup radar, and rightly so

Perhaps you saw Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer produce a Bundesliga record 19 saves in last week’s 1-1 draw against six-time UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich. You might have even marveled at the improbability of the baby-faced right-back who helped keep Sadio Mane and Alphonso Davies off the scoreboard.

Who knows, you may have even asked: Who’s that?

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For anyone not versed on the intricacies of the U.S. men’s national team pool, the Monchengladbach defender whose proverbial cup runneth over isn’t a household name stateside like it is in Germany, where he quickly bloomed. That’s right: Monchengladbach’s 19-year-old starting right-back, in one of the world’s best leagues, is American. Meet Joe Scally.

When the player from Lake Grove, New York, was 15, he became the second-youngest professional American soccer player ever, behind Freddy Adu. That both Adu and Scally have been repeatedly eclipsed since is a testament to how far the U.S. has come in its development of youth talent, and it also shows the diverging paths fate can allow.

At 19, Adu was being loaned out of Benfica so frequently that his passport racked up stamps from around the globe. Meanwhile, Scally is not only solidified as a starting Bundesliga defender, but is routinely going toe-to-toe with the world’s best players. Over the past two seasons, Scally is one of only 10 Bundesliga defenders who’ve managed 2,200 minutes, 30 matches and at least a 47% tackling percentage. He’s also the youngest of all of them.

For those watching a world away in Long Island, it’s no surprise; Scally always stood out.

“The ball was always around him,” says Frank Schmidt. “He was like a magnet.”

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Schmidt is a soccer legend out on Long Island, one of the winningest coaches in Suffolk County history (at both youth and high school levels). But when he got a call from Joe’s mother Margaret Scally, who was coaching his youth team, the Sachem Destroyers, he’d settled into retirement, though he still trained youth teams here and there. “I could pick and choose, [but] I had to meet the team first,” Schmidt recalls. “I said I’d do a training session first, see if I’m going to like these kids or not.”

It was quickly apparent that the Scallys had something. “[Joe] was just different,” says Schmidt. “I said, ‘Let’s see where this goes.'”

Local legend of Joe Scally’s talent is less whispered lore and more comet streak. Schmidt only coached him from 10 until just before his 13th birthday; by then, he was a New York City FC academy product, but Schmidt’s musings about Scally have the reverence and weight of spectacle.

Tactics, technique and strategy were intricacies of the beautiful game that eluded other 10-year-olds; Scally picked them up with ease. Schmidt remembers a trick corner that he was agonizing over whether to introduce, one involving cunning, decisiveness and, to top it off, a bit of a knack for acting. Purportedly, there was pseudo-debate, the nutmegging of a teammate and an advanced off-ball run that some college teams fail to execute.

“We practiced it maybe four or five times,” Schmidt remembers. “First time we did it in a game? Joe scored and he looks over at me, smiling. He just does things like that.”

As Scally grew — literally and metaphorically — Schmidt started testing the boundaries of his budding talent. In a 7-on-7 tournament, on a whim, Schmidt dared Scally to shoot from midfield on the kickoff. “It’s a 60-, 70-yard field, so midfield is 35 or 40 yards,” he says. “He didn’t want to do it. He was embarrassed; he didn’t want to show anyone up. I’m looking at him, like, you’ve gotta be kidding — just do it!”

Scally relented. Seconds later, the crossbar was still rattling. “Didn’t score; top of the crossbar,” Schmidt chuckles in disbelief even now. “Incredible.”

By 15, Scally was defending David Villa in NYCFC joint practices. Margaret would send Schmidt photos of her not-yet-driver’s-licensed son marking up Spain‘s all-time leading scorer and World Cup champion. Schmidt would just marvel.

“He’s 15 and he’s right there, he’s right there,” he says. “He’s not coming across as a kid, he’s not embarrassing himself out there.”

Schmidt hails Scally’s basketball prowess as the key to his ascendance. In fact, locally, there was a battle over what sport might claim him. “[At Sachem North], a fairly good basketball team, they had him on varsity as an eighth grader — they wanted him,” Schmidt says. “He was a point guard and his head was always on a swivel.”

But a calling is a calling. Scally attributes his vision, movement, footwork and tactical awareness — by all metrics, his are elite — to his pedigree as a ball handler. It was those qualities, in fact, that prompted his coaches at NYCFC to move him from center-mid to right-back a year earlier. His aptitude and willingness to adapt were plusses in the eyes of coaches, but they’re also likely the reason he drew interest from Europe immediately.

“[Scally] is a very modern outside back who can cover the whole outside [flank],” then-NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna told ESPN in 2019. “He’s a right-back who creates and has a lot of assists.”

In March of 2018, Scally was only the second player to graduate from NYCFC’s academy. And before Scally broke into NYCFC and MLS in a major way, Monchengladbach offered $2 million (rising to $7m with fees) for his services, with the defender joining the German club halfway through the 2020-21 season.

Scally (somehow both finally and swiftly) absconded without a European passport, which was nearly unthinkable just years earlier in the scheme of global football, and thrived nearly immediately. Almost a year ago to the day, he made his Bundesliga debut against Bayern Munich. Last October, he scored against Wolfsburg for his first Bundesliga goal, and in June debuted for the U.S. men against Morocco. Just before his debut, then academy director Roland Virkus said of Scally, “He’s really gone from 0 to 100. I have never seen a young player that goes into challenges as hard as he does while not being nasty.”

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That “0 to 100” is seemingly a Scally calling card; the nearly 20-year history of the Golden Boy Award, presented by Tuttosport and voted on by sports journalists, reads like a who’s who of global football’s last two decades. It’s presented to a young footballer, 21 or younger, who’s playing in Europe, and it’s considered an unofficial knighting of soccer’s prince-in-waiting. Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Paul Pogba, Raheem Sterling, Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Pedri have all won. Only one defender, Matthijs de Ligt, has ever won the award.

In June, following his 2021-22 season, Scally was shortlisted for the award with fellow Americans Yunus Musah (Valencia), Malik Tillman (Rangers, on loan from Bayern Munich) and his friend and fellow NYCFC youth product Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund).

With Qatar less than three months away and Scally’s ceiling seemingly boundless, not to mention a growing need for talent on the back line following Miles Robinson‘s Achilles tear, could making the World Cup really be in sight?

“It’s everyone’s dream to play in a World Cup and that one camp when I was around all the guys, [it] just felt like I fit in, this is where I belong, this is where I can play,” Scally told ESPN in February. “The main goal is the World Cup, and any way I can help the team I’m willing to do that. It’s amazing when you put on the jersey and have the crest on your chest. It’s a different feeling.”

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Schmidt, for the record, doesn’t think his emotions could handle that. “I’d probably start crying,” he laughs. “He’s just always been so modest and balanced, but he believes in himself and he’s confident.

“When he was 11, we probably had a 16-player roster; kids 15 and 16, they don’t really play, but they’re there, you know? We’d tell the kids to partner up for drills… and Joe would always take the weakest kid. Joe would put that ball on the kid’s foot every single time … and, let me tell you, that ball wouldn’t come back the same way. And he’s always smiling and laughing, regardless — super down-to-earth. So, yeah, I’m gonna root for that kid who’s starting in front of 60,000 in a Bundesliga game.”

Part of Scally’s proclivity is, of course, talent. The other part (effort) was always in the genes.

“One day, I go out to practice and [Joe’s mother and coach] Margaret is out there in jeans and flip flops servicing balls into the box to the kids,” Schmidt says. “One after another, just no problem, right [on them]. She was a darn good player. John Fitzgerald [head coach of the Long Island Lady Rough Riders 1997 W-League National Championship team] said I could have used her on the team!”

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