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USMNT ambitions, learning from Vieira, and downtime with Reyna – Joe Scally exclusive

It is a good job Joe Scally is used to dealing with high expectations.

The defender became the second-youngest professional in Major League Soccer when he was only 15 and, ever since, he has been no stranger to being flung in at the deep end.

At Borussia Monchengladbach, the right-footer’s full debut came against Bayern Munich as a left-back.

This season, he is adjusting to the dual demands of being an attacking full-back capable of keeping up with international team-mates like Sergino Dest — who has contributed five assists and counting so far for PSV Eindhoven — while helping his club keep clean sheets as a right-sided centre-back.

Football can be complicated, so when it all comes together, as it did for Scally in one simple, unadulterated moment in October, you can forgive him his reaction.

Benched for two games after a defeat against RB Leipzig the previous month, he came on against Mainz with Monchengladbach trailing 2-1 to the Bundesliga’s bottom club. It looked like being their fourth consecutive loss, with disquiet mounting among the vast majority of the 51,000 fans present at Stadion Borussia-Park.

That was until Scally pushed forward and hit a thunderous strike to save the day.

Scally pummels his equaliser in from distance against Mainz (Christian Verheyen/Borussia Moenchengladbach via Getty Images)

“It was a special goal,” recalls Scally, who celebrated by putting his fingers to his lips as the home fans went wild. “I had been starting every game and then there’d been a few beforehand when I hadn’t. I read some things with people saying all this stuff about me not having a good season.

“So just to score this goal to show them I still have this attacking spirit was important. I have tried to do it in training since and I’m like: ‘How did I get it to dip perfectly?’.

“It was one of those moments when you’re not thinking. In the next few weeks, I got an assist (in a 4-0 win against Wolfsburg), too.”

The 21-year-old has remained a first-team regular in the period since, adjusting to life under Gerardo Seoane, his fourth manager in three seasons at Monchengladbach.

The days of filling in as an emergency left-back are behind him, but Scally learned a lot from his Bundesliga baptism of fire in that 1-1 draw with Bayern back in August 2021.

“I had actually played left-back the game before in the cup against Kaiserslautern when we were expected to win,” he explains. “But the next week our normal starting left-back was still injured, so I knew (it was coming). I was nervous the whole week.

“But when the whistle goes and you’re not thinking of anything, it is easier. That game was crazy. I had a moment when (Robert) Lewandowski was dribbling at me. I got the ball and he stepped on my foot and I was thinking: ‘Sh*t, this is Lewandowski’. You never think you’ll be playing against him.

Scally, on Bundesliga debut, challenges Lewandowski (Federico Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images)

“It’s weird because sometimes playing on the wrong side isn’t too bad: you can go inside on your right foot and you see the whole field a bit easier. The pitch can open up. With the ball, you can be quite confident.

“The defending is the main difference because you’re used to your feet always facing one way. Then, suddenly, you’re facing the other. It’s that positioning that takes a bit of getting used to.”

Scally is thoughtful and relaxed company — very different from the combative, fiery presence on the field; a youngster who has been toughened up by playing against men since his mid-teens.

He is also relishing the challenge of his differing responsibilities under Seoane.

“I only started playing (at right-sided centre-back in a defensive three) this season,” he says. “It’s different because the shaping is different and you’re not that last man in the back line on the right side, always checking your shoulder. You have more people around you and more help.

“But it’s something I need to get used to. I like bombing forward and that’s limited when you’re playing centre-back, even if it opens up different sides to my game.

“When you can play multiple positions, more teams like you and you get more playing time.”

Scally takes instruction from Seoane (Christian Verheyen/Borussia Moenchengladbach via Getty Images)

Game time is something he is looking forward to with the USMNT, too, even if he admits the competition at right-back, where Dest has become first choice, is tough.

Does the feeling that he needs to showcase similar flair to the PSV player, who is on loan from Barcelona, explain his desire to score and assist more?

“He’s probably the most attacking full-back we have,” he says. “The modern-day full-back has to do both — attack and defence — and I’m still young, so I have things to learn. If you look at my first season (at Monchengladbach) I was playing right wing-back and it was very attacking.

“Then, second year, it was more defensive and now it’s both; trying to recognise the right moment to get forward because it’s not every time. It’s about knowing when you might get caught out and have to sit and save your energy for the next time you bomb forward.

“That’s something I’m trying this year — picking my moments. It’s reading the situation before it happens, so if the ball is on the left side, I have to hold because you can’t have both full-backs bombing on. But when you see that ball is switching, it’s about that feeling: ‘OK, now I can go and catch them out of position’.”

Scally enjoyed the ultimate experience in international football when he was part of the USMNT squad at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Although he did not get on to the pitch during the tournament, it left him desperate for more involvement at this summer’s Copa America before the focus turns to a World Cup on home soil.

“I still remember when I got the call (about his Qatar 2022 selection),” he says. “I was alone in my apartment. My mom and dad had been over to Germany visiting, but they’d flown back that day so they were in the air and I couldn’t call them. My brother and sister were at home, though, so I had someone to share it with.

“Being over there was special and a different type of feeling. It’s hard to explain, but going to the stadium and seeing the American flags, singing the national anthem… Then, even on your off days, watching every single game from the game room in our hotel.

Scally, No 26, joins Tim Weah, Shaq Moore and Josh Sargent ahead of the group game against Wales (Maja Hitij – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

“If you can hold your own against teams like England, then you know one day you can do something special. With the group of guys we have — we were one of the youngest teams in Qatar — that experience will be really helpful. Given the next one is actually in the U.S., the team will have a lot of confidence.

“We had a really good half against Germany (in a friendly) two months ago. We were tied 1-1 and then made some changes and it didn’t work for us in the end, but we showed up.

“We’re all excited about the Copa America this summer. We have such a big opportunity before the World Cup to send a statement to the fans.”

Scally has learned plenty over the past couple of years but, even from his formative spell at New York City FC, he has had top mentors: none more so than former manager Patrick Vieira.

The Arsenal and France legend was a big influence on Scally’s early career, signing him as a teenager before handing him his MLS debut. “I like his engine going forward and I like his strong personality,” was Vieira’s verdict.

The admiration was mutual.

“I’ve had seven different coaches in my career and, every year I’ve been in Europe, I’ve had a different coach,” Scally says. “But Vieira had a different respect from the players because he was the best. Every player in our team, even our best, was still not better than him.

“He knew the feeling of being a player. In training, if someone was having a bad session, he would know if there was something else behind it just because he’d been there. He intuitively knew our feelings and he was a good tactician, too.

“When he came, we all watched YouTube clips in pre-season and were like: ‘We could never do the things he did’. He would join in training sometimes and he was still the best.”

Scally, in New York City colours, tracks Gustavo Bou of New England Revolution in September 2020 (Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

Scally grew up enjoying basketball and soccer, but his talent was quickly recognised in the latter. An early growth spurt helped his progress into the NYCFC senior ranks.

“At 15, you’re still a kid but I was ready. Physically I was grown up already. I was tall. That definitely helped and was a big reason why I was ready to play. You’re still learning at that age, but I was able to train and keep up with them.

“At the time it wasn’t normal to be that young (he was second youngest only to Freddy Adu in breaking into MLS), but now it’s becoming more normal. I’m not even in the top 10 youngest any more. They might sign now and then play in the academy for two more years but, for me, it was signing at 15 and straight into the first team.”

He was spotted by Monchengladbach scouts playing for U.S. youth sides at a Nike Friendlies tournament in Florida, alongside players who have gone on to become close friends, particularly Giovanni Reyna.

The pair have a special bond and Scally will miss him following the Borussia Dortmund midfielder’s loan move to Nottingham Forest.

“He lives 45 minutes away from my apartment in Dusseldorf,” he says. “We talk every day. I’ve started streaming on Twitch and, last night, it was me, Gio, Brendan and Paxten (the Aaronson brothers who play for Union Berlin and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively) playing Xbox.

“We were playing Fortnite. That’s mainly what the viewers like to watch, so we have a two versus two. It’s always me and Paxten versus Gio and Brenden, whether it’s Mario Kart or Fortnite.”

Scally and Brenden Aaronson ahead of Gladbach’s game against Union in December (Christian Verheyen/Borussia Moenchengladbach via Getty Images)

Does he feel frustrated on Reyna’s behalf at his lack of game time this season? “He’s my friend, so of course I think he should play,” he says. “I don’t want to get into any complex things, but when he plays for the national team he does good.

“Even when you see him get on as sub he shows his ability, so I agree, the more game time the better.”

The only area he does not necessarily want Reyna to thrive is on the golf course, where their rivalry has occupied another major part of his downtime.

“We hope we’re playing for our clubs on Saturdays, so then on Sunday or Monday we can play together,” he says. “At the moment I’m playing off an 18 (handicap), but when I’m playing every day in the off-season, it’s between eight and 12.

“We’re both pretty even. It’s a fun match-up as I win one time and him the next, or we’ll even play a scramble and try to see what we can shoot together.”

Reyna and Scally confront each other on the pitch, as well as on the golf course (Christian Verheyen/Borussia Moenchengladbach via Getty Images)

Scally is loving life at Monchengladbach, especially playing at their impressive home stadium. “In warm-ups, you glance up and it’s like: ‘Holy crap, this is awesome’,” he says. “But then when the game starts, you switch off until maybe a goal happens and the place erupts.

“Even when the coach is talking, most of the time you can’t hear him.”

Eventually, though, he would like to follow Reyna’s path to the Premier League. “From a language and cultural side it’s probably most similar to the U.S.,” he says. “Right now it’s a level above every other league, so it’s the place I’d like to play one day at the right time.”

As a sports fan, Scally is not a glory hunter. The Brooklyn Nets are his basketball side — “They’re not doing too well and my NFL team is the Giants, who have been bad this year, too” — but, in English football, the team he watches most closely, in part owing to his NYCFC roots, is their parent club Manchester City.

But for now, as he prepares to face Bayern Munich once again on Saturday, his sights are firmly on contributing in every way for Monchengladbach.

“My aim this season is to keep being stable defensively,” he says. “I’d also like maybe two more assists and another goal to beat my record from the first season.

“I think I can achieve it.”

(Top photo: Christian Verheyen/Borussia Moenchengladbach via Getty Images)

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