HANOVER, N.J. – There was a time this past fall when Mike Grella was thinking about retiring from the sport of soccer at just 28-years-old. He was without a team and seemingly without options at a time when his family was growing. Choices had to be made, income had to be earned.
The sport he loved, the sport that had taken him from Long Island to Europe, appeared ready to bid goodbye to the goal scorer.
It was beginning to look like Grella's name would no longer be on the back of a soccer jersey but would next be seen on the business card of an insurance salesman. No teams in MLS had interest in him and the European connections just didn't offer anything promising. Then he somehow got linked with David Villa, a Spanish international and one of the best goal scorers in Europe over the last five years and his playing career got a breath of new life. Turns out that Grella, now with the New York Red Bulls, isn't ready to sell insurance. At least not yet.
The story began last fall when Grella got connected with New York City FC, the expansion side that calls Yankee Stadium its home. Villa was the club's first signing and was training at an indoor facility in Connecticut. Head coach Jason Kreis got the two players together for some training at the facility and a bond was formed.
“When your wife is pregnant and you want to stay in America and you can't find much and you got to Europe but not for much money, it's a scary place to be," Grella told Metro. "You're reading a lot of books and trying to get knowledge and speaking to people and trying to learn as much as you can.
“It was things like banking, insurance, real estate, coaching – I wanted to know what would fit my characteristics the best if it wasn't playing anymore.”
The workouts were regular and included Villa's own personal trainer, from fitness to ball work and conditioning. Grella had spent the past summer in the NASL with the Carolina Railhawks after four years in Europe and after some time with Villa, he began to think less about insurance and banking and more about continuing his playing days.
He hails from Nassau County where he was a Parade Magazine High School All-American and would go onto an All-American career at Duke. Appearances with the U-18 and U-20 national team would follow.
In Europe he bounced around a bit, always showing promise and when he got on the field he was often impressive. His journey eventually would bring him back to MLS and he trialed with the team in the summer of 2013 but was never signed to a contract.
But being with Villa this past fall into December helped elevate his game. He watched the Spanish international, who has appeared 97 times for his country, and Grella saw his work ethic and desire to improve. It was clear to him that Villa was a model professional and he cites his time with the former Barcelona and Athletico Madrid striker as influential in his early play this season.
Once in awhile, Grella says, Villa will text him to stay in touch and check in on his progress.
He had an opportunity to go down to preseason camp with New York City FC as Kreis had expressed an interest in seeing him again. The team had other forwards on their roster but Grella had done enough with the team to warrant another look. Yet it wasn't the right option in Grella's mind.
“At the time, Kreis decided not to sign me – they invited me to preseason and my thought was they had seen enough of me to make a decision. He was a great guy and very honest with me, I can't say that enough,” Grella said.
“I spoke with the Red Bulls the next day and they invited me in. I came in and hit the ground running. I like the mentality here. It was great. I felt at home.”
In fact, Grella scored several goals in preseason and was arguably the team's top attacking player.
And that has led to Grella quickly becoming a part of this squad. He's made two appearances and one start while missing the home opener three weeks ago with an injury. Back and fit, he was a second half substitute two weeks ago in a 2-1 win at the Columbus Crew.
He scored the winning goal in the second half on a gutsy chip from distance. It was goal No. 1,000 in franchise history, dating back to when this was a club named the NY/NJ MetroStars in 1996.
Grella said he “didn't know it was the thousandth goal until I got confirmation after” - and that it wasn't till an interview postgame that he was told he had scored the goal.
The goal was the product of what head coach Jesse Marsch is trying to implement with this team as a turnover in the final-third was caused by a high line of pressure. The ball falls to Grella who made Columbus pay for their mistake.
“It was a great feeling but we were focused more on the game and getting three points,” Grella said.
Not too bad for a local kid who, six months ago, was thinking about selling insurance. Now he is anything but a liability for his new team.