Giuseppe Rossi has prospered as a player in La Liga, Serie A and Champions League. During his 335 professional appearances, the Clifton, N.J., native has competed with Manchester United, Villareal and Fiorentina, totaling 127 goals in all competitions over the course of 14 seasons.
He has scored seven times in 30 appearances for the Italian national team.
Yet his focus Sunday will clearly be on Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., where Atlanta United will host the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of their Major League Soccer Eastern Conference final.
Since being released from Serie A side Genoa in late May, Rossi, a 31-year-old free agent has called the Red Bulls training facility in Whippany, N.J., his second home.
“This year, since I’ve been a free agent for longer than I expected, I asked if I could train with them just to have the possibility to be on the field with a very good team like the Red Bulls,” Rossi told Pro Soccer USA on the podcast Soccer City. “I can keep fit and keep playing and have fun, which is exactly what I’m having – a lot of fun with those guys. I’m happy they are doing really good. They deserve it. It’s a great group of guys and I’m really pulling for them to take the title back home.”
Rossi was identified as a soccer prodigy at an early age by his father, Fernando, and his journey in the sport has been filled with both joy and heartache.
Stan Lembyrk, who played for Rossi’s father at Clifton High School in New Jersey and is now the boys soccer coach there, remembers scrutinizing an adolescent Rossi.
“From an early age, you could see he was a little bit different,” said Lembryk, a member of the Red Bulls (né Metrostars) during their inaugural season. “He always trained with the high school guys. I remember being over the (Rossi’s) house; as a young kid he watched soccer with a keen eye. Just the focus of watching games on TV, I think that’s a big part of his development.”
Rossi agreed “100 percent.”
“At a young age, when you’re able to watch games you’re able to take in more that way,” Rossi said. “It just makes you got out on the field or in your backyard and try to do the same. I think that’s one of the main factors how my passion grew.”
Rossi often watched a VHS tape of the Dutch triumvirate, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard – the stylish attacking players for the Rossi family’s beloved AC Milan.
“I used to watch that cassette over and over and over,” Rossi said. “Thanks to them, my passion for this sport grew bigger. Every time I’d go in my back yard I used to always pretend I was them.”
But Rossi struggled trying to find friends who shared his appetite for the game.
“It was tough to have pickup games because nobody really wanted to play soccer when I was younger,” Rossi said. “I remember I was on my bike one time and I wanted to play a pickup game in the park with my friends. I’m riding around all over Clifton trying to recruit players. They didn’t want to come play. So after a two-hour search, I go back in my back yard and call over my father and sister and we had a little mini pickup game in the backyard, which was always fun.”
Fernando had a plan. The Italian immigrant retired as a language teacher and boys’ soccer coach at Clifton in 2000 to accompany his then 12-year-old son to Parma, where the striker played for the Crociati’s youth team.
From there, Rossi’s stops included first-team membership with Manchester United, Newcastle United, Villareal, Fiorentina, Levante, Celta Vigo and Genoa.
Rossi tallied 54 times in 136 matches for La Liga’s Villareal between 2007-13.
“Thank god my father was with me,” Giuseppe Rossi said. “Not only when I was 12, but for the entirety.”
However, the 5-foot-8 forward was beset by significant setbacks throughout his career – three ACL tears among the most damaging, along with a doping accusation for which he received a reprimand earlier this year – and the death of his father to pancreatic cancer in 2010. Fernando was 60 years old.
“Things have been taken away from me not because of my playing ability or because of the person I am, just because of circumstances you really can’t control,” said Rossi, who missed the World Cup in both 2010 and 2014. “It’s injuries, which prevented a EURO and a World Cup. The unfortunate passing of my father in 2010 took a lot of time away from my playing. But I was a very important piece of every team of the Italian national team I was a part of.”
I️ momenti difficili fanno parte della vita ma ci alzeremo di nuovo, ne sono convinto… SIAMO l’ITALIA!!! Sono fiero di tifare questi colori e spero di tornare a difendere la nostra maglia in campo al più presto. Non c’è cosa più bella! Sempre #ForzaAzzurri #NeverGiveUp 💙💙💙 pic.twitter.com/cIsbXw3Eld
— GIUSEPPE ROSSI (@GiuseppeRossi22) November 14, 2017
His choice to represent the Azzurri at the international level instead of the United States stimulated venomous public outcries. A Facebook page titled “We hate Giuseppe Rossi” emerged.
“My family, they’re all Italians,” Rossi said. “My parents came here when they were 15 or 16 years old. Obviously, my first language when I was born was Italian. I grew up in a household speaking a lot of Italian. When it came to soccer, I used to watch Milan. I used to watch la Serie A. I used to watch the Italian national team because that’s what I grew up watching – that’s what I grew up falling in love with.”
Rossi wishes his detractors would have taken a more sensitive look at his situation before reacting so vehemently. There was no internal quandary for Rossi – it was a cultural verdict.
“My mind was made up already when I was 2 years old – it wasn’t something I made up when I was 18 years old,” Rossi said. “I just hope people understand that. I know there’s a lot of people that don’t want to understand it. Everything I did was the Italian way – it’s the way I was brought up.”
Rossi celebrates his 32nd birthday on Feb. 1 and is fully fit as he awaits the next stage of his journey. Might there be a pending agreement with the Red Bulls or New York City FC, whose star striker, David Villa, is undecided about returning to the Bronx and turns 37 in December?
— GIUSEPPE ROSSI (@GiuseppeRossi22) October 11, 2018
“These are all possibilities I am keeping open, obviously,” Rossi said. “Coming home and playing home would be something amazing. It would be something amazing because this area in New Jersey is in my blood. I would love to be a part of the soccer culture that is around this area – the New Jersey/New York area – obviously, it takes two to tango, am I right? I would love to sit down to talk.”
For now, Rossi will continue training in his home state on a regular basis through the first week of December and root mightily for the Red Bulls in their quest for the MLS Cup.