BE LIKE THIERRY: CARLOS MCCRARY’S TICKET TO GERMANY

When it comes to imitating strikers, there are few better choices than Thierry Henry. The blistering pace, gazelle-like strides and clinical finishing have left many a defender and goalie mesmerized over the course of his 20-year career.

Carlos McCrary couldn’t get enough of the former French national team and Arsenal forward. While watching YouTube videos, McCrary’s jaw dropped as the professional striker humiliated defenders, often gliding in from the left side, cutting the ball to his favored right foot and smashing a drive into the side netting.

“I’ve modeled my game after Thierry Henry,” McCrary said in a phone conversation during the extended winter break of the German season. “[When I was young,] people called me Henry because I’d taken people on and then finish inside the far post.”

McCrary, then a fledgling forward for the Concorde Fire, a premier youth team in Atlanta, Ga., didn’t achieve the rapid rise to prominence of his role model, who stepped onto the pitch for FC Monaco at the tender age of 17, but McCrary is making progress, perhaps far greater progress than many could expect, given his winding path to the sixth division of German futbol (the Verbandsliga, for those who enjoy specifics).

You could safely argue, though, that McCrary fulfills the Henry role for 1. FCA Darmstadt, as the American striker has notched nine goals so far in the 2014-15 campaign. Building off a decorated four-year National Premier Soccer League career, McCrary’s momentum could quickly vault him to the upper ranks of the German soccer pyramid

At least initially, McCrary seemed on the fast-track to soccer stardom.

Atlanta, a hotbed of youth soccer, was the setting for McCrary’s teenage years, where the forward flourished for Cobb FC Premier, the ’91 Olympic Development Program and then the Fire, standing out in the same geographic area as MLS striker Jack McInerney (Montreal Impact) and Concorde teammate Chris Duvall (New York Red Bulls).

Unlike most gifted youth strikers, McCrary wasn’t a one-trick pony. He wasn’t just fast; he had breakaway speed to penetrate back-fours. He wasn’t just the ‘athlete’ that latched onto long-balls behind the defense and poked them past keepers; if you watch the highlight video from his senior year of high school, you’ll see him score in a variety of ways – headers, flicks, volleys, zig-zagging dribbling forays and several of those low, side-netting, back-post finishes that strikers visualize as they fall asleep.

Because of his skillset – and talented teammates — McCrary’s youth career is awash with proud memories: first, he led Cobb FC Premier to the U-14 Dallas Cup crown in 2006, and the achievement was far from a cakewalk.

After advancing through a group that included Pachuca (Mexico) and hosts FC Texas, Cobb pulled off a remarkable quarterfinal upset over the Iraq U-14 National Team, which had swept its three opponents in the group stage, outscoring them 16-2. Following that 2-1 shocker, McCrary struck in extra time of the ensuing 2-1 semifinal win over Crewe Alexandra FC (England), and then Cobb blanked MTY San Nicolas (Mexico), 2-0, to win the prestigious youth tournament.

The separation of his parents after McCrary’s sophomore year of high school, however, was a significant moment in his childhood – although Carlos admits the split had a stronger impact on his younger brother, Marcus, just 12 at the time.

“It was really tough for [Marcus] to deal with,” Carlos recalls of the ripple effects of the split, which would eventually uproot his younger brother from their hometown of Austell, Ga. to Wisconsin in 2010 – two years after the divorce.

For Carlos, the immediate adjustment was a move away from South Cobb High School before his senior year, obviously an uncomfortable juncture for any high school student to adjust to a new situation. After all, he had his eye on shattering South Cobb soccer records — his 61 goals over his first three years on varsity had him well-positioned. For family reasons – after the split, his mother found a new job in Roswell, Ga., 40 minutes away from Austell – the eldest son had no choice but to acclimate. Not surprisingly, Carlos’ soccer prowess aided the transition.

Despite the relocation, McCrary’s senior season was littered with accomplishments, perhaps even bigger than the upset of the Iraqi youth national team a few years prior. Remaining in the same Georgia public school classification as South Cobb – 6A – McCrary didn’t miss a beat for Centennial High School.

“Carlos is the most dangerous goal-scorer I have ever coached,” Centennial coach Phil Thomas said in 2010 to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “He has a different gear than everyone else. Whenever the ball is at his feet, he is a threat to score.”

Noteworthy was Carlos’ regular season match-up with Lassiter’s Jordan McCrary — no relation, although the two became close as Concorde Fire club teammates and jokingly referred to each other as cousins. Jordan got the best of Carlos, as the U.S. U-18 international’s high school team shocked Centennial, 1-0.

Although the Knights did not advance past the sectional semifinals, McCrary posted 25 goals in his senior campaign – totaling a whopping 86 goals in his prep career.

In terms of individual awards stemming from his senior year at Centennial, the most prestigious captured by McCrary was a selection to the ESPN Rise 2010 Spring All-America Team, but the plaudits kept coming shortly after the high school season, as his excellence with the Concorde Fire propelled him into the South Conference Best XI, determined by the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Current MLS regulars Harrison Shipp, Soony Saad and Kelyn Rowe joined McCrary in recognition by U.S. Soccer, to give a sense of his peers.

The sky appeared to be the limit for the Georgia high school star who’d signed with an elite Atlantic Coast Conference program.

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Recruited by longtime North Carolina head coach Elmar Bolowich, McCrary made the six-hour jaunt to Chapel Hill to join a program that had come agonizingly close to College Cup glory – bowing out in the 2008 finals before getting struck down in the semis the year after. As a freshman – a time when many Division I newcomers would redshirt — McCrary quickly carved out a place on the stacked roster as a reserve forward.

Despite his gifts, North Carolina already boasted formidable attackers – returning All-ACC first teamer Billy Schuler up front, supported by offensive-minded midfield maestros Kirk Urso, Enzo Martinez and Michael Farfan. When Schuler suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the season, opportunity knocked for McCrary, but the freshman fought for minutes with speedy junior Alex Dixon and sophomore Martin Murphy. McCrary closed the campaign with four starts and 15 appearances.

While McCrary’s lone goal of the season – a game-winner against Atlantic Coast Conferece foe Virginia Tech – was meaningful, he rarely saw the pitch in big matches, like the College Cup semifinal loss to Louisville, when Dixon and Farfan were preferred up front.

Like many outstanding high school soccer players learn when they land at a premier college, McCrary found that playing time, something he’d taken for granted with South Cobb, Centennial and even Concorde, would be a constant challenge.

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The first step to cracking the Tar Heels’ lineup was to stay sharp and improve during the summer. McCrary could have spent the offseason at school, but he was eager to spend time in Madison, Wisc., where his brother had moved to live with their father, who’d settled after working with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Making matters a little more complicated was the surprise departure of Bolowich, who left UNC after 22 years to take over the reins at Creighton in February 2011. George Somoano replaced Bolowich at the Heels’ helm in April, just a few weeks before the summer season commenced. North Carolina spent most of the spring season without a head coach.

Fortunately, Bolowich had reached out to the head coach of the National Premier Soccer League’s Madison 56ers, Jim Launder, before departing, and the UNC head coach quickly listed off a few players whom he’d send to the Midwest, including McCrary.

“I thought he meant Jordan McCrary,” Launder admitted, “so I was prepared for a left back.”

In May, Launder quickly learned that he’d made the wrong assumption.

But the veteran coach, who was integral in the youth development of U.S. international Tony Sanneh, led Wisconsin to its only NCAA Championship (1995), spent three seasons as an assistant with Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew and coached the 56ers since 2005, wasn’t flummoxed.

“When I learned he was a striker, I asked who his favorite player was,” Launder recalled. “[McCrary] mentioned Thierry Henry, and I quickly saw real similarities between them, at least in how they liked to play. I thought, ‘How can we make this work?’”

A coach who would rather tweak his system to fit his players rather than demand his pupils fit into an existing scheme, Launder put McCrary in a position to succeed – and the early rapport between fellow striker Anthony Santaga and McCrary gave Launder a wealth of attacking options.

“They’d come in early [to training] and stay late,” said Launder of Santaga and McCrary. “Carlos always trained extra – sometimes he’d bring his brother to serve him balls.”

Surprised at McCrary’s lack of playing time at UNC, the veteran NPSL head coach featured his new attacker in a few different roles.

“Sometimes we’d play two up top (with Santaga and McCrary), and other times we’d use [McCrary] on the left so he could cut inside to his right foot, like Henry,” Launder explained. “It was a more natural situation for him.”

Over 12 matches, McCrary scored five times, good for second on the squad, while helping the 56ers to third place in the NPSL Midwest Region Great Lakes Central Conference. Would the fruitful summer in Madison translate to more minutes with the Heels?

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Despite Bolowich’s departure, McCrary opted to stick around Chapel Hill for his sophomore year under new gaffer Carlos Somoano.

In a sense, McCrary was a freshman all over again: he was forced to impress a coach who had not recruited him, to prove that he deserved minutes over a hungry host of forwards.

McCrary was a role player again in his second year, making 19 appearances – no starts – and sitting out seven matches entirely. It was hard to fault him or Somoano, however, as a wildly talented midfield and forward unit of Schuler, Martinez, Urso, Ben Speas and Mikey Lopez started virtually every match.

Should McCrary have been preferred to less-heralded recruit Rob Lovejoy, who started all 26 matches as a speed threat up top? While some of McCrary’s supporters thought so, Lovejoy tallied in the first three matches of the season, solidifying his place in the XI.

When he was given the chance, McCrary produced – especially in meaningful matches. As North Carolina surged into the ACC Tournament after winning the conference regular season title, McCrary tallied a solo effort in the quarterfinals to punctuate an easy 4-0 win over North Carolina State before opening the scoring in the ACC title game on a bouncing back-post header against Boston College (1:18 of this video). UNC won, 3-1, and bounded back to the NCAA Tournament – with McCrary flying high.

These key goals didn’t mean the sophomore would suddenly crack Somoano’s starting lineup, however; they just meant that McCrary was fulfilling his role as off-the-bench sniper. In the NCAA Tournament, McCrary spelled starter Lovejoy for 15 minutes in the first round and 12 minutes in the second round – and didn’t register a shot on goal – so Somoano changed his mind and called upon redshirt sophomore Josh Rice, who had two inches and 15 pounds on McCrary, as Lovejoy’s substitute in the quarterfinals against St. Mary’s and the semis against UCLA.

Life as a striker, even at the college level, is a “what have you done for me lately” endeavor, and on a team as blessed with talent as the Tar Heels, there were always alternatives champing at the bit.

Whatever Somoano’s rationale was, it was working, as the Tar Heels protected leads and surged into the national championship game against UNC Charlotte. Scoreless into the early second half, Somoano picked McCrary to give star striker Schuler a breather, and just a few minutes later, the Tar Heels jumped in fronton this wundergoal by Speas.

Despite Charlotte’s 14 shots on goal in the second half, UNC withstood the 49ers’ pressure and were crowned national champions in Somoano’s first season.

While jubilant after securing UNC’s second-ever national title – and its first since 2001 – McCrary had a decision to make. He’d spent two years at Chapel Hill and, despite four goals to his name, his personal future still looked dim. Lovejoy and others would return – and star transfer Andy Craven was set to begin his UNC career.

With a national title in the rearview mirror, McCrary sat out the spring season because he knew he would transfer away from the program, with plans to follow the coach who recruited him out of high school, Elmar Bolowich.

“I wanted to be seen,” McCrary explained of his decision to leave UNC for Creighton. “UNC had success, but I didn’t think I was moving forward. I wanted to play in a new environment.”

All seven UNC players who ended the year with more points than McCrary’s seven all were either drafted by or made appearances with Major League Soccer clubs in the coming years.

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Back under Launder with the Madison 56ers, McCrary returned to a comfortable climate, seeking to build upon his five goals the previous season. In the NPSL, he knew his dynamic change of pace and fitness were weapons integral to his team’s attack. Still, after inconsistent playing time as a sophomore, McCrary needed to rebuild his confidence.

“Confidence is extremely important,” said McCrary, who admitted that it was easy to become dejected sitting on the bench during his college career. “If you don’t have mental toughness, you’ll have problems. You just have to move forward.”

“Goal-scorers lose their confidence,” Launder added, “guys go into slumps. Part of [helping McCrary get through it] was encouraging him, the other part was continuing to develop him as a player.”

“If someone doesn’t help them take a step at this level, they’re never going to make it [to a higher level].”

The focus of development was fairly simple, as Launder identified a few holes in McCrary’s game.

“We worked on his first touch and how to go at players with speed,” Launder remembers. “He had this habit of slowing up and letting defenders catch up to him once he got past them.”

McCrary soaked in the advice and applied it on the pitch – and then some. The striker struck for 15 goals in 12 games during the NPSL regular season, and did so humbly.

“He scored 15 goals for Madison and never made himself out to be a big star,” Launder reflected. “He was one of the rare players that was successful but also was just another guy at training.

This attitude earned the respect of his teammates – he drew closer with Carl Schneider, Jack Keeling and especially goalie Ryan Onwukwe, all key pieces in Madison’s Midwest Region Central Conference championship.

The pinnacle of the season was yet to come, as Madison advanced to the Midwest Regional final at AFC Cleveland, which boasted Ohio State attacker Michael Matlock, Akron speedster Tommy Schmitt and formidable striker Vinny Bell.

Despite the strong foe, McCrary stood above the rest, channeling his inner-Henry while scoring both goals in Madison’s 2-1 win.

The fashion in which McCrary struck still sticks in Launder’s mind, however.

“He scored the first one (30th minute) by cutting onto his right foot from the left side – like Henry,” Launder explained. “But for his second (48th minute), he cut back against the grain toward the end-line onto his left foot, something we’d been encouraging him to do.”

Although the 56ers were shut out by eventual NPSL champion FC Sonic in the league semifinals in San Diego, McCrary had made an impression – with 17 goals on the season, he was named NPSL Player of the Year.

“I really enjoyed playing in Cleveland,” McCrary told the league website after the season. “They had a really good squad, and it was exciting. It definitely helped me for the college season in terms of getting touches on the ball, because I didn’t practice at all in the spring because I knew I was transferring.”

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Expectations were high – both for No. 3-ranked Creighton, which reached the College Cup in 2012, and newcomer McCrary.

Collegesportsmadness.com included McCrary on the Missouri Valley Conference Preseason second team, before he even donned a white and blue kit.

Now an upperclassman, McCrary was given off-the-pitch perspective on Aug. 5, as his former North Carolina teammate, Kirk Urso, passed away suddenly from a heart defect, prompting this Twitter tribute.

On the field, he hit the ground running; the change of scenery and reuniting with Bolowich initially was fruitful. As a reserve in Creighton’s preseason tilt against Maryland, McCrary wound up playing more minutes (62) than starter Sean Kim and smacked home an Andrew Ribeiro cross in the 3-3 draw.

In the season-opening win over Northern Illinois, McCrary corralled a pass in the middle of the pitch before slicing to his left and depositing past the keeper.

He wouldn’t score again the rest of the season.

With Bolowich’s preference of one striker due to a rather unbalanced roster favoring midfielders and defenders, McCrary needed to learn how to play as the lone forward – with North Carolina and in the NPSL, he was accustomed to being part of a two-striker tandem.

“[Like North Carolina,] there were a lot of good players at Creighton, too, and the style of play didn’t really fit for me,” McCrary reflected.

With Kim lasting 100 minutes and finding the net against No. 7 Akron – and the sparkling start by M/F Timo Pitter, a true freshman who immediately featured in the lineup — McCrary was the odd man out again, earning a total of 30 minutes over the span of three games, including a dreary 3-1 homecoming loss to St. Louis.

The remainder of the regular season was much of the same – McCrary played more than 20 minutes in just one match. He didn’t crack the lineup in any of Creighton’s four NCAA Tournament games, where the Blue Jays eventually lost in the College Cup semifinals to Indiana. Although it was the third time in his collegiate career that his club had advanced to the College Cup, McCrary’s own career had sputtered.

The annual trek back to Madison wasn’t as fruitful as the previous summer, either – McCrary retained his starting spot and notched seven goals, but he wasn’t putting away chances at the rate that earned him 2012 league honors. To make matters worse, his 56ers finished third in the Great Lakes Conference Central Division, which limited his national exposure.

Then, the joy for Carlos McCrary was the emergence of his younger brother, who’d stopped playing high school soccer – a new U.S. Soccer Development Academy initiative in 2012 – in order to train with FC Milwaukee, where he led the U-16 team in scoring.

“I’m really proud of him,” said McCrary of his lone sibling, who’d even take a further step the following year by joining FC Wisconsin. “I’ve tried to be as supportive as possible, tried to be a good big brother.”

Carlos’ role in Marcus’ maturation as a person and a soccer player helped offset some of his own frustrations on the pitch, as former teammates – including those he’d grown up with in Georgia – were getting drafted into Major League Soccer (Kelyn Rowe, Matt Hedges and Enzo Martinez in 2012).

You can’t be Thierry Henry from the bench

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Like his junior year, Carlos McCrary’s senior campaign began brightly, as he scored the lone goal in Creighton’s annual intrasquad Blue vs. White scrimmage, then produced the only marker by dribbling around the keeper in a 1-0 preseason win over No. 7 Notre Dame.

McCrary earned a place in the starting XI for the final exhibition, but was held off the score sheet and began the season as a reserve. The Blue Jays were loaded – the midfield, in particular – and Bolowich wanted to get as many of them on the field as possible. That left room for one starting striker out of seniors McCrary and Kim, junior Zabarle Kollie and true freshman Marvin Iskra.

An assist in a 44-minute appearance against Columbia – a cross that led to Ricardo Perez’s insurance goal in the 87th minute – bolstered McCrary’s cause for more minutes, and the Blue Jays bounced up to No. 1 in the NCAA men’s soccer poll.

Things fell apart again for McCrary, who was resigned to short cameos as Bolowich became enamored with Iskra. The senior never exceeded 13 minutes in the 10 games following his helper vs. Columbia. Creighton was struggling to put the ball in the net, too, as the Blue Jays lost four of five games – scoring just twice in that stretch – and plummeted to No. 22 in the nation.

“I had a hard time adjusting to playing as the one striker up top,” McCrary admitted, looking back on his career under Bolowich. “I had a hard time holding the ball [as a target] and also defensively, where sometimes it was just you trying to pressure against their four defenders.”

Creighton soccer blog White and Blue Review echoed McCrary’s own assessment, passing along this evaluation midway through his senior campaign: “I’ve continued to champion that Creighton has no better pure finisher on its roster than McCrary. He has a true striker’s mentality and is potent as any in the penalty box, his issue seems to be his inability to maintain the constant pressuring that Creighton requires from its lone striker.”

Finally, in the 5-1 drubbing of Big East bottom-feeder DePaul, McCrary served up Myles Englis from the left side in the 38th minute. Injuries and yellow-card suspensions opened up for minutes for McCrary in the regular season finale and the Big East Tournament first round, but the senior striker failed to even attempt a shot in 67 minutes combined.

The Blue Jays eked into the NCAA Tournament, but McCrary’s college career ended abruptly after a 2-1 upset loss to Seattle University in the first round. If it was any consolation, McCrary started the match, played a season-high 45 minutes and assisted on Creighton’s lone goal.

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McCrary wasn’t ready to quit on his dream, and spending his spring semester of his senior year in Spain provided a window of opportunity. A Spanish major at Creighton, McCrary completed his studies abroad — and wound up with a trial with third-division club CD Chodo, then a training stint with Club Deportivo Valladares, one of over 100 fourth division clubs in the country. Moving from Roswell to North Carolina to Madison to Omaha over a course of five years made acclimating to Spain a breeze.

After returning to the U.S. and graduating from Creighton, McCrary returned with a bang to the Madison 56ers, scoring twice in the first 20 minutes against helpless Eau Claire Aris FC in his season debut.

Even better was Carlos’ first chance to play competitively with his younger brother, who’d been invited to spend the summer with the 56ers after signing with Ohio State University in February.

“[Carlos’] little brother is even faster than he is,” said Launder, with a chuckle.

The 2014 NPSL campaign wasn’t outstanding for the 56ers – the squad finished 4-3-3 and mustered just 17 goals over the 10 matches. At the conclusion of the season – after two consecutive losses to the Minnesota United FC Reserves – McCrary had to make a decision about his future: would he go back to Spain, track down a striker-needy club in the U.S. or pursue other options?

Fortunately, the decision proved simple. McCrary’s close friend and 56ers goalie, Ryan Onwukwe, had a contact in Germany, where he was invited to go play with 1. FCA Darmstadt, a sixth division club. The ‘keeper also received word that the team needed a striker, and knowing McCrary’s uncertainty, suggested the Creighton alum come along.

“I knew Carlos would have a chance to do well there because of his speed,” said Launder, who has pointed several former players to German clubs, “and he’d cope with the technical side.”

The pair promptly faced one of the harsh realities of playing overseas – both of their work permits were delayed, briefly leaving them in limbo, although the German club mysteriously pushed McCrary’s through because 1. FCA Darmstadt needed a goal-scorer – and their current captain was a goalie.

Adapting to a diet of bratwurst, schnitzel and doner kebabs (and
presumably healthier foods, too) – as well as learning German on the fly (though many coaches and players speak English) — has been a process, but it’s been made easier by where McCrary’s career has already taken him.

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Finally, McCrary has found a team that uses him in his preferred role – up front, taking on defenders and running in behind back-fours. At least from a goal-scoring standpoint, Darmstadt has been rewarded for its faith in him – McCrary scored his team-high ninth goal in the team’s first match after the winter break – and his success may soon propel him up the German soccer pyramid.

In fact, SV Darmstadt 98 is a 2. Bundesliga club (German second division) – a fully professional club with a 19,000-seat stadium — also located in McCrary’s city. If he continues to excel, perhaps the neighbors will notice.

The memories of limited playing time at North Carolina and Creighton – two NCAA superpowers – have faded some, while bright memories like the NCAA title and the successes of former teammates – and a prodigious little brother — endure.

It’s almost certainly a coincidence that McCrary’s mini-breakout overseas corresponded with Thierry Henry’s retirement from soccer. The dazzling Frenchman will never be forgotten – certainly not by McCrary, who now has the chance of a lifetime.

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