I have written a great deal more about Mike Magee than I ever anticipated; from afar, catching him maybe eight times a year wearing the Galaxy's sash, he looked sort of ordinary - a washed-up one-time wunderkind, content in this lesser role, filling in the cracks around the feet of titans. Magee's game seemed custom-built to leverage the outsize gifts of his expensive teammates, and I always thought Bruce Arena a cunning rogue to have found himself such a specific supporting piece.
When Magee raised his hand and said, "I'd like to go home to Chicago," the Fire were at their nadir in 2013. I was less jubilant than mildly optimistic. How would he cope without Keane's opportunism and Donovan's directness diverting attention from him, make the game his without that swirling movement to lean on? How would the oddly specific supporting piece wedge himself into a roster that, at that point, was full to bursting with indecision and acrimony?
I was clearly wrong. I had it upside-down. Repeated viewings have shown me the truth. The Galaxy didn't find a supporting piece - Magee made himself one. It's like the twist reveal two-thirds of the way through a thriller: Magee was the genius the whole time!
It's Magee. His is the mind at the center of the motion - Magee, a pro at 16, Magee, the brash kid from the Chicago suburbs by way of Bradenton, New York, Los Angeles and soccer stadia across the country. Mike Magee, shouting about spacing from the first minute wearing the badge; Mike Magee, carrying Patrick Nyarko around after scoring; Mike Magee, grinningly playing two-man games in space with Chris Rolfe; Magee, finishing right foot, left foot, with his head, with his chest, his technique flawless and casual, honed and honed to allow his mind to dwell elsewhere.
Mike Magee, the Most Valuable Player in Major League Soccer.
There's a particular goal that sticks with me when I think about how to think about Magee, and it's the tying goal from the July 27 game in Houston. It's not technical - the actual finish is more a matter of blocking the ball into an empty net - but in the buildup to it, thinking about how into the moment Magee is here, how aware he is of the space around him, it's hard for me to watch without feeling all tingly. It's just a tiny slice of genius. It was his 13th goal of the season, his seventh in a Fire uniform. It rescued a point on the road.
Houston was leading, and it was hot - like, perhaps 20 degrees cooler than the surface of the sun. The Fire squander possession, and Magee is shouting and gesturing about pressing; as this happens, the Dynamo play slowly out of the back to Corey Ashe. Nyarko arrives about the same time as the ball, steps into Ashe, and sprints away. Where's Magee? He's taken a couple of steps toward the right flank, where Nyarko is winning the ball, but he realizes before Ashe does that Nyarko is going to win the ball, so he breaks that off and starts making a back-post run.
Nyarko does what he does: Given a chance, he gets to the endline and rifles in a cross. Thing is, the defenders know this; both centerbacks shift toward the wing, one moving on Nyarko (but too late), one half-marking Magee. Magee immediately recognizes the centerbacks can't see him, and slows, slows his run, staying just even with the deepest one, half an inch from offside, taking a glance to position the goal in his mind.
Then, the killer moment - Nyarko gets deeper than the centerbacks, who are still mentally keeping tabs on Magee at some level, still sort of thinking ‘offside,' and so thinking just narrow the angle on Nyarko. Magee makes no such mistake; I have watched this replay multiple times from a couple of angles, and the very moment the ball is deeper than the defenders, Magee is there with it, now having somehow vanished through a wormhole in the defenders' consciousness and emerged here, unmarked, in the center of the goal. Tap-in, road point: Genius.
Mike might never post numbers like these again. His predatory instincts will remain, but every striker goes through patches like Chris Rolfe hit this year, where the ball is always spinning as you hit it and the easy ones leak a couple inches wide. No matter what happens afterward, though, take nothing away from Magee's majestic 2013. He finished goals every way a human can and lifted a moribund team to the brink of the post-season.
Magee may not ever star for the USA, but given a chance, you can bet he'd make everyone around him better. He's the dream we all dreamed of when MLS got started - the finished article, entirely homegrown. And he's ours now, Chicago; let's enjoy this subtle master while he's at the peak of his powers.