Playoffs in Profile: Carroll pays his dues for the Union

Playoffs in Profile: Brian Carroll

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CHESTER, Pa. – As Brian Carroll starts to recall one of his most vivid memories, it almost feels as if he’s about to reveal some sort of dark secret.

“I haven’t talked about this a whole lot,” the 30-year-old Philadelphia Union midfielder says, “but I never won a state championship in high school. And my brother Jeff won two and my other brother Pat won three. So they had me on titles.”

One of the most successful players in Major League Soccer pauses, talks a little more about his two soccer-playing brothers, and then finishes the story with a smile.

“It wasn’t until I was playing professionally that I sort of caught up in the title race in the household.”

When the Philadelphia Union host the Houston Dynamo in an Eastern Conference Semifinal game Sunday at PPL Park (5 pm ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes), Carroll will be making his ninth straight MLS Cup playoff appearance – one for every year he’s been in the league. And should the Union make a deep run, Carroll has a chance to win his third championship, with his third different team.

The defensive midfielder previously captured MLS Cups with D.C. United in 2004 and the Columbus Crew in 2008.

Just how much has Carroll’s postseason experience meant to the Union in the midfielder’s first year in Philly?

“That’s why we got him,” Union manager Peter Nowak says with a knowing grin. “Because he never misses the playoffs.”

That’s one reason. They also got him because they think he’s one of the most professional, durable, intelligent, overlooked and underappreciated players in the league.

‘I’ll always be thankful to Peter’

Perhaps better than most, Carroll knows how fragile a professional soccer career can be. All he needs to do is look to his brothers Jeff and Pat – the ones who collected all those state championships trophy at West Springfield High School years ago.

The ones Brian kicked the ball around with in the neighborhood while growing up in Springfield, Va. The ones who followed in their older brother Brian’s footsteps to play for D.C. United.

But as remarkable and exhilarating as it was for all three Carroll brothers to suit up for their hometown club, it was just as short-lived. Jeff played three seasons for D.C. United from 2006-08, making three appearances. Pat, the youngest, joined Jeff for the 2008 season in D.C. and appeared in four games. Afterwards, both played for the Real Maryland Monarchs of the USL Premier Development League in 2009. They are now both out of soccer.

Years earlier, Brian also struggled to find playing time with D.C. United, failing to make a single league appearance through the duration his rookie season in 2003. And even though he was a heralded prospect who earned All-American honors at Wake Forest as well as international caps for US youth national teams, the eldest Carroll brother was admittedly nervous about his inauspicious MLS start.

Then the club hired Nowak, who plugged Carroll into his starting lineup and watched as the heady midfielder helped lead D.C. to the 2004 championship.

“Sometimes it’s not easy to establish yourself in a league or in a professional environment,” Carroll says. “So I feel fortunate to have been given the opportunity to play. And for that, I’ll always be thankful to Peter for giving me that chance in my second year, because my rookie year I didn’t get a chance. And who knows what would have happened if I didn’t get a chance?”

Thankfully, Carroll doesn’t have to think about that possibility. With Nowak’s support and guidance helping him, he emerged as a stalwart in the midfield for United, starting 30 or more games in both the 2005 and 2006 seasons.

With Nowak gone in 2007, Carroll lost his starting role and was picked up by the San Jose Earthquakes in that year’s Expansion Draft. Days later, he was traded to Columbus, where he again showed what kind of value he has, garnering 83 starts over the next three seasons and helping guide the Crew to the 2008 MLS Cup.

When Nowak learned Carroll would be left exposed for the 2010 Expansion Draft, the Union manager swooped in to reunite with his former pupil, trading a second-round draft pick and allocation money to bring the midfielder to Philly (and then quickly protecting him from expansion teams Portland and Vancouver).

Playing for his third MLS team has produced similar results for Carroll, who started 30 games this season to help the second-year Union earn their first playoff berth.

“Everyone is looking for guys like that,” Nowak says. “We were fortunate to do this deal before he was exposed by Columbus. You can see Brian is a guy that needs to play. He missed a couple of games during the regular season but the more he plays, the better he gets.”

Nowak then begins to explain how it seems Carroll has gotten better with age, like a fine wine, but cuts the analogy short.

“I’m not saying wine,” Nowak says, “because he’s still a young man.”

‘One of the most underrated guys in the league’

Widely regarded as one of the best college soccer coaches in the nation, Jay Vidovich has racked up numerous victories, championships and personal awards over the last 18 years at Wake Forest.

One of the reasons all of that was possible, he says, is because of Brian Carroll.

“He was very influential in taking us from a decent program to a very good program,” Vidovich says. “Even as a freshman, he just had this level of professionalism.”

Still, in Carroll’s freshman season at Wake Forest in 2000, the Deamon Deacons did not make the NCAA tournament, which is the last time Carroll failed to make the postseason at any level. Two years later, though, Carroll was an All-American and Wake Forest made school history by winning every game in the regular season.

“He always had self-belief and inner confidence,” Vidovich says. “If you look at Brian, he’s not an athletic specimen. You won’t ever say he’s the fastest guy on the field. For his position, some people say he doesn’t win enough tackles. But it’s how he reads the game. He doesn’t need to make tackles when he intercepts the ball.”

Although he wins wherever he goes, Carroll faced similar critiques when he came out of college after his junior season and began his professional career. Even now, as he’s firmly established as a pro, some might say that he’s overlooked, considering he’s never made the MLS All-Star Game and was nearly exposed in two different expansion drafts.

“I think he’s probably one of the most underrated guys in the league, and he has been for a long time,” Union teammate Danny Califf says. “With the job he’s done, there are a lot of guys in the league that get a lot more credit for doing less.”

In some ways, it’s understandable why Carroll doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. Those with an untrained eye might not notice all the little things he does on the soccer field – like positioning himself to stop counter-attacks, making the right reads and passes, hustling up and down the field, linking the backline to the attack, and more.

Luckily, his teammates recognize that without him they probably wouldn’t be charging into the playoffs, with one of the league’s stingiest defenses in tow.

“People who play with him will tell you how good of a player he is,” Union midfielder Justin Mapp says. “He’s just someone you want on your team each and every game, in the middle of the field. He’s a quiet guy so maybe he doesn’t get as much recognition outside the locker room as he should. But we know what kind of quality he has.”

For his part, Carroll says he doesn’t mind if other players get more attention than him, and if he’s labeled as being underrated, well, that’s fine with him too. And one more thing: he’s not quite as quiet and reserved as it may seem.

“I’m certainly not the most outgoing but, as I get to know people, I become more and more open and up front and fun,” says Carroll, who’s affectionately called B.C. by his teammates. “I’m just a good overall dude that isn’t the most hilarious guy in the room but certainly not the dullest either.”

‘There’s no better feeling than winning the Cup’

Like many MLS players, there was a time when Carroll aspired to play in Europe. And he very nearly got there, going on trial with the German club Alemannia Aachen and France’s Olympique de Marseille between the 2006 and 2007 MLS seasons. But after returning home for the holidays that year, he ended up deciding with his wife Katie that it wasn’t the right time for him, negotiating a new contract with D.C. United.

“And now I’m 30,” Carroll says. “And not too many 30-year-olds are making their debut in Europe.”

The veteran midfielder says this, not with any regret or longing, but more with a sense of pragmatism. He also realizes his days of playing for the US national team – he’s been capped eight times since 2005 – are likely over as well.

“Obviously it would have been great to have the experience,” he says of playing overseas. “But I don’t look back or dwell on it. It didn’t shape up for me that way and I’ve enjoyed my career here in MLS with all the teams I’ve played for.”

Besides, when he does look back at what might have been, he thinks more about all eight of his previous trips to the MLS playoffs, rather than his two European trials. Carroll called the 2004 championship-winning season a “magical run” and the ’08 campaign with Columbus a “spectacular year from start to finish,” but the pain of falling short of a title the other six seasons he’s been in the league drives him to achieve even more than he already has.

“There’s no better feeling than winning the Cup and raising the trophy and taking pictures with it and drinking out of it,” Carroll says. “And then there’s no greater disappointment in sports than not attaining that goal.”

The disappointment was even more magnified last season when Carroll missed a penalty kick in a shootout to give the eventual MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids a win over the Crew in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Carroll tries to joke about it as much as possible, telling people things like, “You know, I’ve only ever missed one but it looks like I probably won’t be taking any more.” But he still often thinks about the shot that sailed high. The PK that got away.

“It reignites the fire in your belly to go out and make amends for it,” says Carroll, who’s started all 18 playoff games in which he’s appeared. “Even though I’m not on the team it happened with, I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure we get back to that point or beyond.”

In many ways, Carroll already has made amends, helping the Union grow from a mistake-riddled expansion team to a sturdy playoff club in just one season. And even though he’s made the playoffs every year he’s been in the league, the feeling certainly doesn’t get old.

He may even have a chance to close in on the MLS record for most consecutive playoff appearances, which is currently held by the recently retired Dema Kovalenko (12), with Colorado’s Brian Mullan (11) on his tail.

Perhaps then, Carroll will begin to get the kind of recognition he deserves – not that it would really matter to him.

“He’s happy to sit back and be in the playoffs and win championships,” Califf says. “And let everyone else talk about the other guys that don’t.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.