In this edition of his weekly column, ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae sits down for a special one-one-one conversation with Borussia Monchengladbach defender and United States men’s national team prospect Joe Scally.
It’s a rare treat for a commentator to be able to get to know the players we cover regularly that bit better. I wanted to share what I found out about the 19-year-old from Lake Grove, New York, and there’s no better way to do that than to publish a written transcription of our enjoyable conversation last week. This was of course before the 6-0 defeat Gladbach suffered at the hands of Borussia Dortmund at the weekend.
We covered everything from his arrival in Monchengladbach, to a high-profile Bundesliga debut against the very best, to what Joe has learned working with pros like Stefan Lainer and Ramy Bensebaini, as well as the turmoil in Gladbach when a club legend walked away recently. We also spoke about the USMNT and his hunger to be a regular part of the setup, with a place at the World Cup beckoning for the USA.
I hope you enjoy this chat.
(Editor’s Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Rae: Joe, let’s go back in time two years. At that point, what did you know about Gladbach?
Scally: A couple of years ago, I didn’t really know much about Monchengladbach. They were in the Champions League, which I always watched when I was younger, so I knew the name, but not much about the club and basically how great it is as I know now.
Rae: Max Eberl, the highly respected former Gladbach sporting director who recently left the club, told the story of your discovery by scouting director Steffen Korell, and how they then had, in his words, a “fantasy” of bringing you over from the USA as soon as they could. Were you aware?
Scally: I know they first contacted me maybe three or four years ago, when I was 16 — still a long time before I was 18 and could eventually move over to Germany and to Europe. It’s crazy that he said it’s a fantasy and everything, and to hear that from Steffen and Max is amazing… that just makes me so happy.
Rae: When you arrived in January 2021 at the age of 18, Gladbach didn’t rush you, instead giving you time to adapt. Do you appreciate that approach?
Scally: Yes, of course. I think the plans they’ve laid out for me so far have been amazing. To come here, to get used to German soccer, play with the second team right away and train with the first team, there was no better way to get started. The first half of the season has gone great, the second half also. It’s been amazing.
Rae: Let’s go back to the start of the season, Gladbach vs. Bayern Munich. As a commentator, I was doing my homework for our coverage and reading up on you. Coach Adi Hutter said he really liked what he’d seen from you in training and wouldn’t be afraid to throw you in — and you were thrown in at left-back rather than the right-back position you’d been playing. Give us your memories of that special occasion; was it a baptism of fire?
Scally: Yes, like you said, I was going in at left-back against the best team arguably in the world. I watched them growing up, everyone knows them, so just thinking about everything the day before, the nerves were kicking in. But then you see the players — Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Leroy Sane, basically everyone you’ve grown up watching — it’s weird, but it kind of settles you down. You’ve been watching these guys every single week and you know everything they’re going to do.
The nerves were so high, but on the field it all just went away. Lewandowski right in front of me. It was amazing.
Rae: And there was an incident involving you and Robert Lewandowski quite early on. Do you recall it?
Scally: Yes, yes (laughing)! He was dribbling at me on a counterattack, the ball just got a little off his foot and I went in for the tackle and he stepped on my foot — the fans began chanting my name. It was crazy.
Rae: Yes, the Gladbach fans took to you quickly. With injuries to Lainer and Bensebaini, it was clear you were going to be playing more in the Hinrunde than anyone expected. Probably more than you yourself expected?
Scally: Yes, no one expected me to come in and play every single game in the first half of the season, and I’m very grateful I got to play all those games. Of course injuries are very unfortunate, but to go out and play how I played, I’m very happy and thought it was a great first half of the season.
Rae: Looking at your role since the winter break, you’ve been coming off the bench. Lainer has been fit again for a while, and with him and Bensebaini, I’m sure you learn a lot working with such pros, but there is also an internal competition with them. Walk us through how you think about that.
Scally: Everyone wants to start [for the first team], but these are senior guys, so for example when I’m training on the right, [Lainer] will always help me, giving me little tips either on the defensive side or the attacking side. He’s a veteran, a great player. Same with [Bensebaini] on the left if I’m training there. He’ll tell me little things like since I’m right-footed, I can cut in, making it much easier. So even though it’s all competition, we are a team and we all help each other.
Rae: Max Eberl’s departure dominated the news recently. How hard was it for everyone to play through that period, especially with results suffering?
Scally: He’s a legend at the club. I’ve only been here for one year, so I don’t know as much about him as the senior players, but everything they say about him is great, he was so highly regarded here and he’ll always be remembered. It was a very difficult period, but we knew we had to stick together and get the win against Augsburg. We all talked about it, we knew it was going to happen. Now we can hopefully move forward with a new sporting director and get back on the right track.
Rae: In a few words, describe your coach, Adi Hutter. A mixture of Austrian charm with a tough side when needed?
Scally: I agree with you! He’s a very calm coach, which you can see on TV, but you can see he’s also very emotional. When things go wrong, he’s always there to help you get back on the right track. If you make a bad touch in the game, he’s not going to go and scream at you and bring your confidence down, he’ll be more like, “Get ready for the next one.” At training he’ll get on you and say, “Come on, pick up your touch.” Like you say, he’s charming, with an Austrian charm, but at the same time he’s tough on you.
Rae: Let’s talk about the U.S. national team. You were called up in November, but didn’t get to play. You weren’t called up in January. How much would it mean to you to play for your country in this pivotal year, with the World Cup this winter?
Scally: It’s everyone’s dream to play in a World Cup and that one camp when I was around all the guys, the coaches, everything, it just felt like I fit in, this is where I belong, this is where I can play. So of course I’m looking at this next camp hoping to get in, but the main goal is the World Cup, and any way I can help the team, I’m wiling to do that. And yes, to play for the U.S., it’s amazing when you put on the jersey and have the crest on your chest. It’s a different feeling.
Rae: Has there been a lot of communication between you and U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who played in Germany himself?
Scally: Yeah, I mean, not much. Before I went to the first camp back in November, there was a lot of communication and during the camp. Then actually not much, so we’ll see what happens.
Rae: How difficult was it being a spectator from afar in January, having now had a taste of it?
Scally: I watched most of the games with Giovanni Reyna. He was at my house because we were both not at the camp. We just want the team to win, to go far and qualify for the World Cup, because that’s the goal and the U.S. deserves to be at the World Cup. I was just cheering them on because I was with most of them at the last camp. I’m friends with most of the guys now and just wanted them to win.
Rae: I hear your mother was a pretty good player. Did she pass her football talents to you?
Scally: (Laughs) Yes, she used to play, she was good. I guess you could say I get most of it from my mom because my dad played basketball.
Rae: What is their routine on weekends? I imagine they follow you on TV?
Scally: Yes, they watch it every morning on ESPN+. My dad is now starting to understand soccer because he was mostly basketball his whole life, so he’s now starting to get the hang of it, which is good. And yes, they always watch on ESPN whether its’s at 9:30, 11:30: they’re always there.
Rae: You mentioned your friendship with Giovanni Reyna. Whose German is better?
Scally: His German is better than mine. Every time we go out to eat, he’s the one ordering and asking the questions. My German’s not so good, but it’s funny and crazy to think we were both in New York, playing together on youth teams, and now we’re just an hour away from each other in Germany, which is great.
Scally: Yes, its great to see everyone from the U.S. achieving their dreams. I think basically that’s now four players from our U17 World Cup team here, which has been great to see. I played against George two weeks ago, Pepi the next week. It’s great to see all these guys in Germany living our dreams.
Rae: What is it about the German way that strikes a chord?
Scally: The young American players who have come to Germany have been given playing time and chances. It all started with Christian Pulisic when he led the pathway at Dortmund. Now you can move on to bigger clubs and achieve your dreams. The pathway through Germany has been great so far for American players, so I just hope more and more keep coming.
Rae: Finally, what is your target for the rest of the season with Gladbach?
Scally: I just want to keep getting more minutes and playing time and gaining more experience through the players and coaches, and of course we want to make the Europa League, get back in Europe.
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