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In the end, Mike Magee’s journey home was more about redefining the concept than it was about the address.
His feelings for Chicago and his yearning for family were shaped by a childhood cut somewhat short. At 16 he was in Bradenton, Fla. training with the U.S. U-17 national team and at 18 he was a pro in New York. After six seasons with the Red Bulls and another four-plus with the LA Galaxy, Magee had spent nearly half his life removed from what he still considered his roots. In the spring of 2013 he approved a trade that sent him, finally, to the Chicago Fire. Magee wanted to bring his longtime girlfriend Kristen, who’s also from the area, and their daughter, Keira, home. He was so excited that he made his own travel arrangements and upon arrival in Chicago, he scored a goal in each of his first four games.
“I’ve tried to keep my life private and [LA] didn’t trade me without asking me. There were just certain things going on that I won’t get into that kind of meant the timing was right for me to get home,” Magee told SI.com. “It wasn’t a choice to leave the Galaxy but at that time, it was right for me.”
Doing right by his family also gave Magee the chance to help reverse the Fire’s fortunes. He’d grown up cheering for a champion, but the club had fallen on tougher times when he arrived three years ago. The (re)union started off well. Chicago finished 2013 out of the playoffs but was 12-6-5 after the trade. Magee was named MLS MVP and earned an invitation to the U.S. national team’s January camp. It was a World Cup year.
But in what may have been a sign of unlucky things to come, he missed out on the chance to win his first senior cap because of a stomach ailment. Hip surgery and other injuries then limited Magee to 17 MLS starts in ’14 and only three last year. Apart from this Ferris Bueller homage, which mostly was about not playing soccer, Magee’s time with the Fire wound up being rather forgettable.
His contract expired in December and Chicago, under new GM Nelson Rodriguez and new coach Veljko Paunović, was rebuilding. Magee and Kristen welcomed a son, Michael, in 2015. With a growing family to provide for and a career hanging in the balance, home suddenly became about more than where he grew up. It was about where he felt comfortable and where there was a foundation in place. It was about where he felt he could make a difference day-to-day.
There was only one place that fit the bill.
“Me and Bruce Arena, we had a great relationship for a long time. The minute the coaches were allowed to contact the [free agent] players—I think it was noon Eastern—I was on an airplane and I’d received a text from him at the exact minute and when you see that, it was all I needed to see,” Magee recalled. “I wanted to take my time and make sure I was healthy. I told him that night that I didn’t want to sign and then have injury issues. I hadn’t run. We kept in touch, obviously, and I worked on my fitness and tested my body just to make sure I wasn’t telling the team I fell in love with when I first came here and had such a great stint with and all of a sudden I come back and I’m a burden. It would have ruined everything I’d accomplished here.”
Magee signed with the Galaxy in mid-January during an offseason that featured several more notable arrivals at StubHub Center. After falling to the Seattle Sounders in last year’s knockout round—LA’s earliest playoff exit in seven years—Arena retooled for a run at the 2016 title. Established European internationals Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong and Jelle Van Damme signed on along with MLS veterans Dan Kennedy and Jeff Larentowicz. Throw in the 2015 acquisitions of Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos and the Galaxy have a far different collection of stars than the team Magee left three years ago. But to the 31-year-old, what remained familiar was more important.
“It’s similar. Obviously there’s new characters, but it’s no secret that Bruce constructs these great teams that basically just flat-out win. What kind of goes under the radar is making sure that the locker room is full of good people. For him that’s incredibly important. If you don’t treat people right, you’re not going to be around,” Magee said. “I know what it did for my career playing with Landon, Robbie and David—what it did for me on a daily basis. Now to be back with guys on the same level, it’s a blessing.”
It’s a blessing because each and every day, Magee gets to go home.
“As far as a place where I felt like him, it’s on a soccer field and on a daily basis and in the locker room, that is 100% with the Galaxy,” he said. “When I walk in here every single morning into the StubHub Center, it’s with a smile. I’m ready to work and laugh and have some banter. It feels 100% like home … they demand more out of you than any other club I’ve ever played with, but, if you give that to them and they get that out of you, you get rewarded properly.”
Magee went from feeling uncertain about his fitness and form in January to coming on as a halftime substitute in the MLS season opener against D.C. United and blowing the game open. It was as if he was simultaneously healed and energized by the StubHub Center turf.
LA tied the match in the 54th minute when Magee’s corner kick found the head of first-year defender Daniel Steres. Magee’s first goal since August 2014 came 10 minutes later on a delicate settle and chip over United goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra. In the 82nd, Magee drew a foul that resulted in a successful Robbie Keane penalty kick and in the 87th, he capped off his player-of-the-week masterpiece with a headed goal.
“It felt great more than anything because I know how much I’ve been through over the last couple of years, but I wouldn’t say it’s a breakthrough moment. It’s one game. I’m no dummy,” Magee said. “It’s just rewarding, proving to myself and maybe some other people that maybe I’m not done.”
Magee and his teammates were shut down during a visit to the Colorado Rapids but returned to life Saturday against the rival San Jose Earthquakes. Starting for the second straight game as Dos Santos recovered from a knock to his left leg, Magee led LA with four shots and assisted on Gyasi Zardes’s 56th-minute opener. Six minutes later, Magee made the run that forced San Jose’s Kip Colvey into a wayward clearance on which Zardes pounced.
LA eventually won, 3-1, and heads into the international break 2-1-0 and in second place in the Western Conference. Magee has been involved, on some level, in six of the Galaxy’s seven goals. Only three MLS players this season have more than his two goals and two assists, and each has played at least 70 more minutes.
“That is the reason why we wanted to bring Mike back here,” Arena said after the D.C. game. “We think he is a great player that can score goals and we've been very careful with him in preseason and we will continue to be in the beginning of the season and kind of be smart about his minutes and make sure he is completely healthy and have him ready to have a great year.”
Magee, of course, will have time to recover over the next week. That ill-fated national team camp in early 2014 appears to have been his last chance to earn that elusive cap. Among the 21 American players who have been a finalist for an MLS MVP award, he’s the only one who’s never appeared for the senior national team. And no MLS player regardless of origin has scored more career regular season goals without representing his country at the highest level.
He’ll take some solace in a lengthy and productive career, his two MLS Cup titles and what now feels like a permanent place at a club and in a city where he feels he truly belongs. Magee has measured the distance from his old house in Manhattan Beach to the new one. It’s exactly 13 blocks. He said than when he pops into Starbucks or Simmzy’s, his spot for a sandwich, he’s still recognized.
“They ask me where I’ve been,” Magee said.
“For me, it’s heaven on earth,” he said of his new home. “I’ll always be biased toward Chicago, but as far as quality of life when you have a family, there’s nothing like Manhattan Beach. When you have kids in the winter in Chicago, you definitely start to get a little mad at the city life sometimes.”
And when he and Kristen need to feel closer to their roots, the roots will come to them.
“My dad’s probably the happiest one,” Magee said. “When I came back to Chicago I think [my parents] loved it but it doesn’t take a genius to realize how special this club is, and it’s a good hint that they were elated that I was coming back [to LA] because they knew how it was best for my health, my happiness, my family. And it gives them an excuse to visit. They’re over the moon.”