CARSON, Calif. – Mike Magee’s “better late than never” tour is continuing this week just south of Los Angeles at StubHub Center, where his success with the L.A. Galaxy played a role in catapulting an underappreciated MLS lifer to World Cup contention.
Now a member of the Chicago Fire – and a league MVP – Magee is on the cusp of a long-awaited first senior U.S. national team appearance. He’s 29 years old and has been a pro since 2003. He was as an Under-17 and U-20 international. He’s won two league titles and has scored more than twice as many goals as any other uncapped, U.S.-eligible MLS player.
But for a long time, recognition proved elusive. Injuries, maturity and position changes all played a role, and the Galaxy’s star power could make it difficult to get noticed. Magee persevered, established a reputation as a clutch performer and then finally broke through in 2013. He helped engineer a trade back to his hometown Chicago Fire, earned his first MLS All-Star nod and easily won the MVP award after tallying 21 goals and four assists.
Now, here in Southern California, comes the opportunity for which he’s been striving. And to top it off, it’s a World Cup year. Perhaps no player in coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s January camp -- which included a dozen days in São Paulo, Brazil and which will conclude with Saturday’s friendly vs. South Korea -- has more to gain. Magee may be an international unknown, but there’s a competition brewing for the fourth forward spot on the World Cup roster. His first impression could go a very long way.
Magee told SI.com here this week that he’s had no problem moving on from prior snubs and that he's eager to insert himself into the mix.
“I’ve never had any bitterness in that regard. Somebody not calling me in, that’s his choice. I’m just happy to be here,” he said. “Of course I’m trying to make the World Cup team and obviously I realize you gotta get a cap first to make that team. So I’m trying to be great every day.”
In July, on the eve of his first All-Star Game appearance, Magee told SI.com in Kansas City that he longed for a national team shot but that he’d found other ways to motivate himself day to day.
“My entire life, I just wanted to win. I know it’s so cliché and 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. You wonder for 10 seconds why you didn’t make the Gold Cup team, you do all these things, but one thing that literally drives me is just winning. I hate to lose so much.”
That competitive streak likely will appeal to Klinsmann, who says frequently that games at soccer’s highest level often come down to "who really wants it more." The coach looks for leaders, givers and those eager to challenge themselves and set an example. Forwards must finish as well, obviously. But this year in Chicago, Magee demonstrated he could do it all. The Fire won at a Supporters Shield pace once he arrived. Former Chicago assistant coach Mike Matkovich, who knew Magee as a youth player, said, “Put him on the worst team [in a training exercise] and he’ll bring that team to a new level and they’ll win, even against better guys.”
As much as Magee yearns to impress this month, he knows he’ll be evaluated based on his ability to meet Klinsmann’s expectations and integrate with the rest of the group. Many of his fellow campers had a multi-year head start. Magee must catch up.
“First and foremost, I want to be these guys’ teammates. We want to do something special together. Having said that, there’s only so many spots. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to come out here and do stepovers or not pass somebody the ball," Magee said. "[Klinsmann] demands a lot, which is great and what you kind of expect. I’m not going to say he demands perfection, but he demands you’re the best pro you can be, that you’re sharp, you train hard, are a good teammate. It’s been really good so far.”
Good, but not great. Magee has high expectations for someone who’s never played a minute of senior international soccer. He’s always believed he was good enough. “There is certainly zero lack of confidence with myself,” he said this summer when asked if he felt he deserved the All-Star invitation. He still feels the same way.