Home at last after some 13 years away, Mike Magee is reveling in time spent with family -- for the most part.
“I was in a three-on-three charity soccer tournament and played with two of my cousins who never played soccer before. It was in Wheaton [Ill.] for Jack Kicks Cancer,” Magee recalled.
“I had no intention of even winning a game, but it was 3-2 and if we won, we advanced. So, 3-2, we’re losing, and I shoot it. And the fourth kid [from the opposing team] jumps on and says, 'Sub!' There’s like 10 seconds left, and he just saves it and the game ends," he said. "And there’s no ref. It was bull****. I’m looking over and my Dad sees me and he looks at me and says, ‘Walk the f*** off the field right now,’ and I look at him and say, ‘You’re right,’ because I was about to lose it.”
Magee’s experience at that mid-June event conveys four things you should know about the 29-year-old Chicago Fire forward, who’s making a strong case for this season’s MLS MVP award. At his core, he draws strength from his family. When he makes the mature choice, he benefits. He is desperate to win -- at everything. And finally, at this point in his career, the easiest way to stop him may be to cheat.
“If we play a small-sided game, he’s the guy who’s always trying to win the game. Put him on the worst team and he’ll bring that team to a new level and they’ll win, even against better guys,” said Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich, who’s known Magee since his days as a youth player in suburban Chicago.
“Even when he was young, he stood out. He was a good player technically, but he was also a very smart player. And he could score. We don’t have many guys like that in the country. … He’s a unique person. He’s got a bit of a character about him, and I think he’s matured over time as well.”
Maturity: It’s the filter through which Magee’s career should be evaluated. There never was any question he was gifted. It was evident when he left home at 16 to live and train with the U.S. under-17 national team in Bradenton, Fla., and when MetroStars coach Bob Bradley selected Magee with the fourth overall pick in 2003. It was obvious when he tallied seven goals and two assists during his rookie year.
But consistent professional success is about more than skill. It requires a level of focus and discipline that many never attain. It can be especially challenging for a privileged, talented teenager cloistered in Bradenton and then thrust into the New York spotlight. It took Magee time to come into his own. Multiple position changes and injuries, including a serious blow to his knee in 2006, delayed the process.
By the time he was dealt to the L.A. Galaxy in early 2009, his career was at a crossroads. Traded for a second-round draft pick, Magee was entering his seventh MLS season and still was only 24 years old. But that move would help forge the player, and the person, Magee is today -- an All-Star, a folk hero, a team leader, a family man and a versatile Golden Boot threat.
There were two catalysts. One was a locker room featuring the likes of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and coach Bruce Arena – champions who demanded dedication and diligence. The second was the 2010 birth of his daughter, Keira.
“I think the biggest thing I took from L.A., I was watching guys like David [Beckham] in particular, on those days when other guys were taking off, he’s the one who you’d see be first in every sprint or the first one in on every tackle,” Magee told SI.com.
“It’s so contagious and I started realizing it, and slowly throughout the years in L.A. it became more and more clear to me that on days I don’t want to train, I need to train the hardest. Because there’s going to be a point when you don’t want to play. You’ll be in Houston in 95-degree weather. Maybe somebody on the Fire – I’m obviously not saying I’m David Beckham – but maybe somebody’s going to be watching me on a day the guys are tired or for whatever reason it’s not meant to be a good training. I just want them to know that this is more important.”
While Magee learned to be a good pro, his daughter grounded him. For the first in his life, it wasn’t all about him. And when it stopped being all about him, when Magee put himself at the service of his teammates and child, success followed.
“Everyone gives you a heads up and you know what’s going to happen, but you never really know. She’s beautiful and she definitely, definitely made me a much better person in all aspects,” Magee said. “I’m not going to say I was selfish or unselfish before. I just didn’t care. There were no consequences to my actions. I was a man and I was secure and now all of a sudden everything you do is going to affect her life and then all of a sudden, it’s like, maybe I should double think this or maybe I should take this more seriously or maybe this isn’t as important. It becomes so obvious.”
By 2011, Magee had the hang of it. Injury free and at his shifty, smart and clinical best, he scored 10 goals for L.A. in all competitions, including three during the Galaxy’s successful MLS Cup run. He spent most of his time in wide midfield, a spot further from goal than he preferred. But it was where his club needed him. That June, he earned his first league player of the week award after a spontaneous and successful spell in net. L.A.’s two active goalkeepers departed with an injury and a red card and Magee held off San Jose for more than a half, making four saves.
In 2012 he scored nine more goals, including another three in the postseason. He was clutch. And he was a champion once again.
But individual honors remained scarce. Heading into the 2013 campaign, that player of the week award was pretty much it. He hasn’t represented his country since an appearance with the U-20 national team 10 years ago. Magee is, by far, the leading all-time goal scorer among uncapped, U.S.-eligible players. He has 54 career MLS regular season goals (62 including playoffs). The second man on the list, San Jose’s Steven Lenhart, is way back at 32 (33 including playoffs).
Asked if he wanted to hear those statistics, Magee declined.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me at all. Of course, I want a call-up,” he said. “But I’m not going to say it drives me because I’m so motivated by other things.”
On a typical day, whether at practice or a charity three-on-three tournament, that thing is victory.
“Watch me play ping-pong or Monopoly, you’ll realize I just want to win,” he said.
But in May, while on a tear that saw him score six goals in his first 10 games, victory became secondary. An opportunity to return to Chicago emerged when Robbie Rogers decided to end his brief retirement if he could play for his hometown Galaxy. The Fire held his rights.
“L.A. was pretty unique,” Magee said. “A lot of guys in this league have played a long time and not had that success and that environment. To leave that was definitely tough. But when you know what’s right for your three-year-old daughter, there’s no question. It got to a point where I knew I needed to get my daughter to Chicago. That’s what’s best for her.”
Magee’s girlfriend and Keira’s mother, Kristen Pizzolato, also is from Chicago. She missed home. Magee’s parents, his sister and her children and an extended family were there. They’d been apart for a long time.
“I’ve been so blessed in my life,” he said. “But if I didn’t get home sooner rather than later, I was robbing my daughter of something special.”
Magee was so excited to get home that after the Galaxy and Fire executed the May 24 trade, he made his own travel arrangements to Chicago. He then scored a goal in each of his first four games for the Fire.
Selflessness was rewarded again. Matkovich sees the connection.
“When he was young he had things he had to fight through and he’s just matured. Not that he wasn’t a good person before, but that maturity has led to success on the field,” the coach said. “He’s been around it. He’s a winner. He breathes it. It’s just the way he is. We’re happy to have him here. I wish we had more guys like him.”
Chicago was 2-7-1 before the trade. Since Magee first took the field in Fire red they are 10-5-5 and remain in the playoff hunt following Friday’s 3-0 win at D.C. United. Magee has scored 12 times in 19 matches for the club. With 18 goals in all, he trails only Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio (19) for the MLS lead. Magee is in the thick of the MVP race.
If he wins, it would be his second honor of a season that wasn’t supposed to be about him. In July, Magee was named an MLS All-Star for the first time in his 11-year career. He was voted in by fans.
“He is a guy that is definitely under the radar and was on a team, even in New York as well because these are big markets, where you wind up in the shadows of the Beckhams and the [Robbie] Keanes,” said Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, who directed the All-Star team this summer. “He has the ability to play many positions and do them all well and has an innate ability to do what the game requires.”
Vermes was not alone in suggesting that Magee’s versatility might work against him when it comes to national team call-ups or individual recognition.
“Sometimes it’s how you fit in someone’s mind into a certain system, and if you don’t have that kind of place sometimes it’s difficult for someone to say, ‘Let me take a chance on him’,” Vermes said.
When Magee arrived in K.C. for the All-Star game, Vermes made it a point to approach the player during lunch and tell him that he belonged.
“I appreciated the things he had to say,” Magee said later, speaking to SI.com at the All-Stars’ downtown hotel. “But there is certainly zero lack of confidence with myself. Whether it comes through in what I say, I don’t know. I don’t know how it comes across. I’m just clarifying that I’m not sitting here thinking that I don’t belong here or anything like that. And even if I didn’t make this team, it wouldn’t have altered my thoughts at all.”
That’s because his goals have evolved.
Magee spoke with pride about the times when the Galaxy held a lead and he felt “content” to just play the ball to Donovan or Beckham and let them engineer the counterattack.
“A couple of MLS Cups will make you feel better about any dirty work you ever do,” he said.
Magee expressed excitement about his role with the Fire, where players now look to him to set an example. And he happily credited his daughter, and the responsibility that came with her, for leading him to a place where those things made him happy.
“If you look back to the day she was born and what I’ve done since then, I think my entire career has been her lifetime,” he said.