Mike Grella's career was considered over in 2014. He had been released by the Carolina RailHawks of the second division North American Soccer League, and was pursuing a career outside of soccer. If continued along that path, Grella would have become a cautionary tale about the uncertainty of talented American players pursuing a career in Europe.
All of that changed when Grella went on trial with the New York Red Bulls before the 2015 season. After a strong preseason, he signed with the team and had a career year, putting up nine goals and seven assists. It was unclear what Grella's role would be with the team, but he quickly thrived in the Red Bulls' gegenpress system and became an essential part of the starting lineup en route to winning the 2015 Supporters' Shield.
This season, Grella was expected to lose his spot in the starting lineup to Designated Player Gonzalo Veron. He would become a tertiary scoring option off the bench as the team relied on the striker pairing of Veron and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
After a preseason in which that partnership thrived, the Red Bulls stalled due to injuries and attacking inefficiency. Yet again, Grella changed the narrative and proved he is indispensable, helping to lead the club back to the top of the Eastern Conference after a putrid start to the season.
Last night's performance against the Seattle Sounders was a reminder of the spark he brings to the team. New York was struggling against the Sounders, their defense was being overrun, and Wright-Phillips was misfiring. However, Grella, as he has done so many times over the past two seasons, was able to provide some magic, scoring two goals against the run of play.
His first goal was a composed finished off a fortuitous rebound. The second demonstrated what has made him so successful: tireless effort on defense to chase down a misplayed pass and pure finishing ability on a sublime chip.
After the match, Grella attributed his good fortune in MLS to manager Jesse Marsch.
"[Marsch's confidence] is huge," Grella told reporters Sunday night. "He's been responsible for a huge part of my success. Jesse and the whole entire coaching staff, the family, give me a lot of confidence to go out on the field and play the way. I feel comfortable, I feel free out on the field and I'm very happy."
Marsch, who recognized Grella's ability despite unsuccessful trials with New York City FC and the New York Cosmos, refused to take credit for his player's success.
"I don't want to take credit for Mike, because I think Mike's just gotten himself going as the season has gone on and he's gotten sharper and sharper and more confident," Marsch said after the win. "The thing with Mike is always getting the balance right of when to play simple and when to do special things, and clearly, when he gets that balance right, he's very difficult to deal with... Right now, he's sharp; he's been really good. All of our attacking guys have been really sharp."
Grella has been incredibly sharp in 2016, with six goals and three assists. His importance to the squad cannot be overstated: the Red Bulls have won every match in which he's scored.
According to Sacha Kljestan, there's still room for Grella to improve.
"Mike has proved to be a very good goal scorer," Kljestan said after the match. "There were moments last season where he was the best player in training, he would score these amazing goals, and then we would get in the game and he didn't finish off plays. Jesse challenged him to finish off these beautiful plays. He's done that second half of last season and this season."
If this isn't Mike Grella at his best, then the sky is the limit. He's still only 29-years old and American soccer is filled with players who reach their potential later than those around the world.
Perhaps a trip to the All-Star Game or a national team call up is in his future. After seeing the career revival Grella's pulled off with the Red Bulls, it's hard to bet against either happening.