KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The first touch is immaculate, the ball massaged into position for the next pass without any wasted motion. A defender closes the space, but Oriol "Uri" Rosell shows no signs of panic, an instinctive deke opening up a lane to keep the ball moving.
He doesn’t think in the moment. He can’t. He’s a chess player, his next move determined one or two passes prior.
For all the international admiration surrounding tiki-taka – the immensely popular but nearly inimitable playing style that Rosell was immersed in for six years with Barcelona – it couldn’t fully prepare him for what awaited in sweltering Kansas City last summer.
Gone was that brief moment to think, to survey the field, to pick the next ball – la pausa, as Rosell explains in Spanish. Sporting’s players were big. They were fast. They were determined to close down the ball with an urgency that didn’t exist in Spain.
“When I was here my first time, I said, ‘Wow.’ It was difficult and different because all the time it is [go, go, go, go],” Rosell says. “In Barcelona, you have more time. If the team is tired, no problem. Touch, touch, touch and then you recuperate. Here it is quicker and more physical.”
And Rosell isn’t exactly built for midfield battles. Not yet anyway. At 20 years old and listed at 6 feet and 168 pounds, the frame is certainly there but his build is still slight, almost boyish. Sporting KC have him on a weight-training regimen to add practical strength, but there’s still a ways to go.
Fortunately, he won’t have to be a destroyer, as assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin puts it. Rosell is Sporting KC’s metronome –he’s also an amateur drummer in his free time – and he keeps the side in rhythm, swinging the ball from side to side and back and forth almost effortlessly
Sporting have been known the past two seasons for a hectic, high-pressure style of play that values athleticism and fitness. But with both Roger Espinoza (Wigan Athletic) and Júlio César (Toronto FC) no longer in the fold, Rosell will be expected to bring la pausa to the game when the situation calls for it.
“We try to build the play and touch the ball – have the pause to the game,” Rosell says. “Here, not all the teams have the touches.”
But Sporting do, especially with their Catalan import circulating the ball as the anchor in head coach Peter Vermes’ three-man midfield. For now, Rosell is running with the first team, a position he’ll likely man when Kansas City open the season in Philadelphia at PPL Park on March 2.
“At the moment,” Vermes says, “it’s his position to lose.”
It came about like so many other deals before it. Someone passed word through the proper channels and one of Sporting’s contacts sent the message on to the staff in Kansas City.
There were players in Barcelona’s famed development system intrigued by a move to Major League Soccer, and more specifically, Sporting Kansas City and their 4-3-3 system.
Vermes’ reply? Send film. If he and his assistants liked what they saw, they’d extend a trial offer so the hopefuls – talented but unknown commodities in the States – could back up what the staff saw on tape.
“Obviously,” Vermes says, “we weren’t talking about Iniesta and Xavi.”
Following the conclusion of Barcelona’s season in May, Rosell and John Neeskens – the son of Barça legend Johan, who wasn’t fit at the time but may return again this summer for another shot – flew nearly 5,000 miles from Catalonia to middle America for a 10-day trial.
Rosell had made his Barcelona B debut as a 19-year-old in January, making six appearances in total. But he wasn’t satisfied by the opportunities coming his way after spending six seasons – the final two in residency at the world-renowned La Masia – with the club he still calls “his team for life.”
He’d been moved back to his “natural position” at defensive midfielder after spending the past few years as a center back, training with the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Piqué and the rest of Barça’s once-in-a-lifetime squad.
“When you’re training, you’re not thinking, ‘That’s Messi,’” Rosell says. “You’re doing whatever you can to stay in rhythm. You try to block out that it’s Lionel Messi or Andrés Iniesta playing alongside you. You have to focus on the game, focus on the ball.”
He still had one more year on his contract with Barcelona, but Rosell wasn’t like the rest of his teammates. Simply training with the best team in the world wasn’t enough.
Perhaps it’s because he’s the son of two high school teachers, or maybe he was simply more mature than a typical 19-year-old. Either way, Rosell saw an opportunity with SKC to be an integral part of a team, to learn English, and to continue his education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
And as each day passed, Vermes and his staff were more impressed by his attributes – the ability to keep possession, a familiarity with their system and a hunger to fit into the group. They didn’t waste any time. The financials were right, Rosell’s contract was terminated early and on Aug. 2 he was unveiled holding a Sporting blue jersey with his nickname "Uri" on the back, the rare Barcelona youngster eager to move stateside.
“It’s not common for a player his age coming from the club he’s come from to actually have a desire to come to America and, specifically, Major League Soccer,” Zavagnin says. “The tide is slowly turning. We were very fortunate that all the pieces came together.”
Rosell considers himself fortunate as well. He may have left the club his peers play for in their dreams, but in Kansas City, he’s made a new life. One with everything the admittedly “simple man” could want.
“The truth is that I believed in the project. We weren’t talking about going to another team,” Rosell says. “The project was ambitious, and I could go to school and study. I could be part of the future of this team and the possession style they wanted to play.”
“You can always come back home,” he adds. “Now is the time to play, for the future.”
Puig-reig, Rosell’s hometown, is a sleepy Catalan municipality home to a little more than 4,000 people, tucked in the hills about an hour outside of Barcelona where la pausa is part of day-to-day life.
This is where Rosell lived until school and soccer took him south to the bustling streets of Barcelona, and to La Masia. Sitting at a high-topped table outside Sporting KC’s hotel in Orlando, where the team is competing in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic, he doesn’t seem especially nostalgic describing his life in the Catalan capital compared to the United States.
“It’s just a different mentality,” he says, “coming from Europe, from Spain and from Catalonia, especially.”
Kansas City is calmer, more family oriented. He found an apartment in the Westport district of the city, known for 20-something artists and a vibrant music and restaurant scene, where he lives with his girlfriend, Aina Santasusana, who he’s known since childhood but only began dating two years ago.
They take walks on the Plaza or go for drives in Rosell’s Volkswagen, something he says he couldn’t do on the hectic, pedestrian-packed streets of Barcelona. He loves the carnivorous culture in Kansas City – “Oklahoma Joe’s is a must-go” – and they’ve already been to see Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jason Mraz, as well as the Gold Medal-winning US gymnastic team at Santasusana’s request.
She also shares his focus on education, enrolling in English classes at UMKC after arriving last season. Rosell is still waiting to enroll. He must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) before he can begin at the Henry W. Bloch School of Management to study business.
His English is conversational, although he still lacks confidence and the vocabulary to truly express himself, and he flip-flops between his adopted and native tongue with a translator there to bridge the gaps. He was quiet, reserved and shy when he arrived in Kansas City, but he’s opening up quickly thanks to English lessons twice a week.
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“Four months ago, we couldn’t talk,” he says, adding that he sometimes studies on the plane and he and Vermes still communicate in Spanish. “I still make a lot of mistakes, but I’m learning.”
Along with Santasusana, Spanish-speaking teammates like Paulo Nagamura, who will likely line up next to him in the midfield, have helped him transition to a new culture and a new way of life. Nagamura has a similar background – he came to MLS from Arsenal when it became clear chances would be scarce – and calls Rosell “a good kid with all the tools to be a great player.”
Would those tools have been enough to earn him a living playing the game in Spain? Almost certainly, though perhaps not with Barcelona’s first team, and many of his friends, teammates and coaches were quick to point that out when Kansas City came calling.
But he proved his worth last season, despite playing only 127 regular-season minutes, with a game-winning goal against Toronto FC and a standout performance against Houston in the playoffs. For now at least, he’s a starter on one of the league’s best teams, the man who’ll bring la pausa to a side accustomed to a breakneck pace.
“Some people in my life might have questioned why I was leaving Barça, the best team in the world, for Kansas,” Rosell says. “But Barça isn’t everything. This was the best thing for my career.”