By NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — When Mike Magee left Chicago at 15 to train at U.S. Soccer’s academy in Florida, he figured he’d only be away from home for a few years.
But two years soon became five, as he traded his address in Florida for one in New York. As five years became 10, he found himself in Los Angeles, playing for the Galaxy. The pull from home was still strong, but Magee and his girlfriend were building their own West Coast version with their little girl. They had friends, and he’d become a key part of the Galaxy, scoring six goals in the playoffs as Los Angeles won the last two MLS Cups.
“Things were so good in L.A. that I didn’t feel like I’d ever leave there for soccer reasons. And then I think the longer it went on …,” he said.
“I always knew it would be a little better for my daughter if we were in Chicago. A little more help and she could be around more family,” Magee added. “Then one day it just kind of clicked that I needed to get back home.”
The opportunity presented itself in the form of history.
The Chicago Fire owned the rights to Robbie Rogers, who was contemplating a return to Major League Soccer after announcing he’s gay. It would be a monumental move, making Rogers the first openly gay male to play in a U.S. professional league, and Rogers wanted to play in his hometown of Los Angeles so he could have the support of his close-knit family and friends.
After trying — unsuccessfully — to convince Rogers to play in Chicago, the Fire agreed to send him to the Galaxy on May 25. But they wanted something big in return: Magee, who was the Galaxy’s leading scorer with six goals.
“When we had the opportunity to look at their roster, see who we wanted, we felt he was the perfect fit for us,” said Fire assistant coach Mike Matkovich, who has known — and coached Magee — since Magee’s days on youth teams.
“We needed a guy up front to score goals,” Matkovich said. “Not only that, he’s a local guy, which is huge for us. So we were very excited to bring him back here.”
Though the Galaxy used Magee as a midfielder — they have two pretty good forwards in Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane — his natural position has always been striker.
“From a very young age, he was very good in front of the goal and had a knack to score,” Matkovich said. “You’re either born with or not, and he’s one that has it.”
Magee wasted little time proving that, scoring in his Fire debut. And the six games after that. In just 10 games with Chicago, he has eight goals. His total of 11 goals in MLS games with both Los Angeles and Chicago are one off the league lead, and earlier this month he was named to his first All-Star team.
Best of all for the Fire, Magee’s arrival coincided with a season-best, nine-game unbeaten streak. The points were desperately needed for a team still three spots out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s no secret things were good in L.A. and this team had a rough start to the season, but I’m not scared of a challenge,” Magee said. “I also see the guys they have in the locker room, and the coaching staff I’ve known for a long time. I know this club is moving in the right direction, so that made it that much easier.”
While Magee’s impact on the field is invaluable, his impact off of it is just as important.
He spent the last few years watching and learning from some of the best players in the world — Donovan, Keane, David Beckham — and that gives him instant credibility in a new locker room. When Magee called out the Fire for not showing enough intensity and hunger in the 2-1 loss to Sporting KC on July 7 that snapped Chicago’s unbeaten streak, it wasn’t empty criticism.
“They could take what I say and know it’s coming from some pretty good experiences, as opposed to just talking to talk,” Magee said.
Added Matkovich, “His ability to make the guys around him better is probably the biggest attribute we’ve seen since he’s come here.”
The only thing more seamless than Magee’s adjustment to his new team has been the reunions with his family and friends.
He no longer has to get long-distance recaps of the family get-togethers that were the cornerstones of his childhood. His 3-year-old daughter Keira is growing up surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles, just like her parents did. And unlike in Los Angeles, when Magee and girlfriend Kristen Pizzolato had to coordinate schedules simply to run errands, there are now dozens of family members eager to shoo them out the door.
“It’s been amazing. I’ve only been here six weeks and I feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time,” Magee said. “It’s still surreal. I feel like I’m going to have to go back to L.A. any day now.”
He won’t. At long last, he’s finally home.