HANOVER, N.J. – It isn’t uncommon for New York Red Bulls midfielder Mike Grella to check his phone following an MLS match and find a text from New York City FC forward David Villa, arguably one of the best strikers in the world over the past decade. The text is often simple and straightforward, congratulating Grella on a goal or a good play.
But there was a time two years ago when Grella was hoping for one last shot just to stick around in the pro soccer ranks. That shot was supposed to be with New York City FC.
After a standout four years in the college ranks at Duke, Grella went overseas to start his professional career, landing first at Leeds United in England. Playing time was hard to come by and while loan spells and moves to several other English clubs like Brentford and Bury did give him a taste of game action, things weren't clicking for him.
So Grella came back home in the fall of 2014 to New York. He had already spent time on trial over the previous two years with the Red Bulls, but the sporting director at the time, Andy Roxburgh, didn’t rate him. He was already thinking about getting into coaching or starting a corporate career. But with NYCFC set to join MLS in the spring of 2015, Grella thought that he might be able to latch on with the expansion side.
So that fall, Grella trained alongside some of the players already signed by the new club. Included in this group of eight or so players was the legendary Villa, who was the first player signed by the team.
“Just to watch how he trains – he is one of the best strikers to play the game,” Grella told MLSSoccer.com. “At the time he spoke barely any English so it was hard … He’s such a gentle guy, a nice guy. Treats everyone with respect, really a nice person, which is what struck me the most.
“He’s definitely someone I have huge respect for.”
City opted not to sign Grella, but it wasn't the end of the line for the Glen Cove, New York. native. In January 2015 there was a coaching change at the Red Bulls and Jesse Marsch, who was set for his first preseason as Red Bulls head coach, called on Grella, surprising him by extending him a trial.
Grella ultimately signed on with RBNY and quickly earned a start spot from which he began to rack up the goals and assists – he has six goals and three helpers this season. During that time he stayed in touch with NYCFC's Villa and the two would often text or call one another to talk family and MLS.
“I think he’s just a gentleman. Anyone he meets, he extends his friendship to, his respect to,” Grella said. “It’s important people know how professional and humble [he is].”
But there were no texts after the #NYderby in May, when the Red Bulls walloped NYCFC to the tune of 7-0. This Sunday is the rematch at Yankee Stadium (noon ET on ESPN in USA and TSN4 in Canada; TICKET INFO).
His former training partner Villa isn't the only NYCFC star that Grella knows well. Albeit only from a distance, Grella has closely followed the career of midfielder Andrea Pirlo, taking in numerous Italian national team and Serie A matches with the rest of his Italian-American family on Long Island.
“I’ve watched him growing up a lot and I have a huge respect for the guy. He’s won almost everything in the game so far,” Grella said of Pirlo. “It’s been pretty cool playing against him. But as soon as the whistle blows and the game starts, the three points are up for grabs. It doesn’t matter.”