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Joe Scally’s journey to the 2022 World Cup started on Long Island

Margaret Scally knew exactly what was weighing on her teenage son.

Even if Lake Grove’s Joe Scally wouldn’t admit it, his mother felt the tension around him during a recent visit in Germany.

“He was stressed the whole time we were there,” Margaret Scally told Newsday. “I was there for three weeks for him prior to the phone call, and he didn’t let us know, but you could tell he was stressed.”

Margaret departed before the call ever arrived, flying back to New York without resolution. Upon landing, a text from Joe requested her to respond via FaceTime, through which she received the news that’d caused so much anxiety: Joe was selected to represent the United States at the World Cup.

“It was a huge relief, for everyone,” Margaret Scally said.

Joe Scally, 19, is the youngest player on the U.S. men’s national team roster for the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup, which begins Sunday in Qatar.

“Making the World Cup roster is a dream come true to me,” Scally told U.S. Soccer after his selection. “It’s something that I’ve always dreamed of since I started playing soccer. It’s the reason I played soccer.”

United States defender Joe Scally (29) plays during the second half of a friendly soccer match against Morocco, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Cincinnati. 
Credit: AP/Jeff Dean

The United States opens Group B play against Wales on Monday at 2 p.m, and Scally, a defender in his second full season with Borussia Monchengladbach of the Bundesliga, will be there despite just three previous appearances with the senior team. That’s a testament to Scally’s enthusiasm, selflessness and an ability to adapt to challenges on and off the pitch, according to those close to him.

“He’s just determined,” Margaret Scally said. “Whatever negatives come up, he’s turned them into positives in his career.”

Sachem’s soccer (and basketball) star

Joe Scally’s path to sports’ largest stage started in a way familiar to many Long Island athletes — as a 5-year-old excited to play alongside his friends. As many eventually focused elsewhere, Scally kept coming back to the Sachem-area soccer fields with various Long Island Junior Soccer League teams.

“You saw his passion for the sport,” Margaret Scally said. “All his friends switched to lacrosse. He played it, but he was like, ‘eh, it’s OK, but I really like soccer.’”

Joe was eager, Margaret said, but not keen on playing without family nearby. A U-16 national champion in her youth career, Margaret took a direct role in Joe’s development, coaching various club teams as he blossomed on and off the field. Joe also picked up basketball from his father, John, as a winter activity between indoor soccer outings.

Before long, it was clear he stood out among his peers, often playing up an age group. Frank Schmidt, a longtime youth and Sachem varsity soccer coach, immediately was impressed with Scally’s feel for the game.

“His mind worked differently,” Schmidt said. “He just saw things, he was a much more intelligent player for his age group. He became a more well-rounded, more versatile player because he was willing to go where the tactical decision was correct for him, and he was doing this at age 10 and 11, so it was like, ‘no, no, no, that’s not normal.’”

Dan Kravitsky, who worked with Scally toward the end of his travel days, said it was clear he was headed for the next level.

“It’s just something you knew,” Kravitsky said. “It’s easy to say now but back then when we were discussing things with coaches or players or scouts, Joe’s name always came up.”

A young Scally also showed a side any parent or coach wants to see: a willingness to help others.

“Not only was he out there doing what he’s supposed to be doing for himself, he was also a leader amongst his own teammates,” Kravitsky said. “If a guy was down, he’d get him up,”

Between filling in at thin positions and gathering distant miskicked soccer balls after practice, Scally was ready to do things right.

“I remember one time a scout had come to look at Joe and another player and there was a PK and the trainer said, ‘Joe, take it,’” Margaret Scally said. “And Joe went up to him and said, ‘listen, coach, there’s a scout here and I already scored, can we let [the teammate] take the kick?’ He was always trying to help the other kids instead of trying to be the standout.”

Scally starred on every youth team he played for, and scouts with New York City FC’s academy were interested. Joining NYCFC meant Scally, then 13, was ineligible for school soccer, torpedoing his hopes of competing with older brother Drew. It did not stop him from playing basketball, however, and NYCFC allowed him to try out for Sachem North’s varsity squad. He made the team as an eighth-grade point guard alongside senior Drew.

“Honestly, that was one of his happiest school moments,” Margaret said. “He was just so psyched to play on varsity.”

Driving ahead

The journey from Lake Grove to NYCFC’s training facility in Orangeburg isn’t a short trip, but Joe and Margaret Scally grew to enjoy it after Joe signed a professional contract with the MLS club at just 15.

“Looking back now, him and I always say we had the best conversations, the morning drives in and drives home,” Margaret said. “Whether we sang karaoke songs in the car or laughed about the traffic, we did make the best of it.”

Scally earned his pro deal after thriving in NYCFC’s academy, where he played up an age group as the club changed his position from attacking midfield to fullback, which proved to be a strong fit for Scally’s well-rounded skills and size.

“You see him now playing in the Bundesliga, and we saw the academy version of that,” said NYCFC sporting director David Lee. “He has all the attributes of a fantastic outside back so as soon as he moved, he just made such a massive impact there.”

Lee said the club’s final decision to add Scally on a pro contract came after he joined the first team for its 2018 preseason camps.

“It was his enthusiasm and his competitiveness,” Lee said. “It’s quite rare that you get the opportunity when young players come to preseason and they just fit in.”

His pro debut came in a 2018 U.S. Open Cup match, but in three seasons with NYCFC, he made just seven appearances in all competitions, battling a hip injury for much of his second season.

Training with grown men advanced his development, but as he was regularly left out of lineups, Joe often entered the car for that long drive home without great news. Still, he never was too beat up by it all.

“When he’d get in the car, I was always wondering how he was going to be, but he would always say, ‘I’m not on the roster, mom. Whatever.’ And he was good about it,” Margaret said. “He just never got down, I think it built him into who he is today.”

Facing uncertainty

All the while, Joe was seeing game action in another uniform: those of the U.S. youth national teams.

Scally again played above his age at times in U-15 and U-17 play, culminating with a trip to the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Brazil.

Not long after, Europe came calling. That November, NYCFC agreed to transfer Scally to Gladbach on Dec. 31, 2020 — his 18th birthday, when he would be eligible for the visa required for non-EU citizens to play in Europe. An early graduation from Sachem North High School followed in late 2020, and he was soon off to Germany.

For a player with strong family ties, a mid-pandemic move appeared daunting.

“Huge jump, but FaceTime I think saves everybody,” Margaret Scally said. “It was so difficult because we couldn’t go with him. He was there by himself for the first four months. He wasn’t even allowed to have anybody in the hotel room.”

Scally’s new club set him up in the hotel attached to its stadium. In this moment of the COVID-19 era, Scally was the hotel’s only occupant, placed there because dorms for U-19 players were shuttered. Yet the isolation, language barrier and new responsibilities didn’t faze him.

“He didn’t know the language, nothing was open, just even to get food and everything, he just honestly figured everything out. I really don’t know how he did,” Margaret said. “Going from living at home and having everything taken care of to doing laundry and buying food and cooking for himself, all by himself.”

On the field, Scally played with Gladbach’s second team to close the season, then joined the main squad to start the 2021-22 campaign, starting most matches. He tallied his first professional goal in his seventh Bundesliga game, becoming the third-youngest American to score in the German league. 

Joe Scally of Borussia Monchengladbach controls the ball during the...

Joe Scally of Borussia Monchengladbach controls the ball during the Bundesliga match against 1. FC Union Berlin on October 30, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. 
Credit: Getty Images

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter took notice and included Scally on the roster for World Cup qualifiers in November 2021. His first senior team appearance came on June 1, entering as a sub in a friendly vs. Morocco and putting him on Berhalter’s radar for Qatar.

A successful opening to the 2022-23 German season helped Scally’s case and as the roster announcement neared, his fate was a toss-up.

“We just didn’t know. One day you’re thinking he’s performing and starting in one of the top five leagues in Europe, how can you not take him?” Margaret said. “And then another part of you thinks, maybe he’s too young, he doesn’t have enough caps, needs a little more experience with the national team, so honestly it was 50-50.”

Living the dream

The stress relief of the Scally family FaceTime turned into celebration following Joe’s selection last week.

“I’m so grateful to have been a small part of this journey,” Kravitsky said. “When he was with the national team for the friendlies and he didn’t wind up dressing or playing in those games, it was not a deterrent to him, it was a definitely a motivation to him, and I’m sure that caught the coaches’ eyes.”

Lee said he believes the time is right for Scally’s international breakthrough.

“For a player his age playing consistently at the level he is, at a top Bundesliga club, it’s quite rare for players to be doing that, whether you’re German or American,” Lee said. “I’m sure he’s going to be a big part of the national team for the next 8 to 10 years.”

Joe Scally of The United States in action during the...

Joe Scally of The United States in action during the international friendly match between Saudi Arabia and United States at Estadio Nueva Condomina on September 27, 2022 in Murcia, Spain. 
Credit: Getty Images

Scally’s World Cup appearance can boost his career, but also can help grow the game on Long Island, Schmidt said, especially with the competition coming to North America in 2026.

“It’s definitely a motivator for kids to see someone and say, ‘he played on the same fields I did, got stuck in the same LIE traffic I did and went to the same beaches that I did,’” Schmidt said. “A lot of kids have the dream, and here’s a local boy living the dream.”

As the Scally family prepared to join Joe in Qatar, Margaret learned something about Joe and his soccer career: He’s got this.

“He doesn’t want everyone to worry about him, he can do the worrying for himself and figure it out.” Margaret said. “He wants to take full responsibility for himself and if he’s not playing, it’s his own fault. He doesn’t want any excuses, and I think that’s a good characteristic to have.”



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