There aren’t many young Scottish players making their professional debut in front of a raucous, sell-out crowd these days. Calum Mallace could become a rare exception Saturday.
Mallace, from Torphichen in West Lothian, will be in Vancouver this weekend as his Montreal Impact team takes its Major League Soccer bow at the Whitecaps’ BC Place Stadium.
“It’s going to be a lot different from college,” Mallace told The Soccer Observer during last week’s Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic tournament in Kissimmee, Fla. “But I don’t let the nerves get to me, so if I get the chance to play hopefully I’ll play well.”
The Impact tied Mallace to a contract last week after initially selecting the 22-year-old with the first pick of the second round, 20th overall, in January’s MLS SuperDraft. The young Scot earned his place on Montreal’s 28-man roster after impressing Head Coach Jesse Marsch and his coaching staff during the team’s pre-season preparations.
Mallace moved to the United States when he was nine. His father, Jim, accepted a transfer with his employer, Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M Co., that was supposed to be for “two or three years,” but the family ended up settling in the area.
“I’ve been happy with their decision,” Mallace said, though it wasn’t always that way.
Mallace began playing the game with Zeneca Boys Club in Grangemouth, about 25 miles west of Edinburgh, but left Scotland before he was old enough to hit the radar of the country’s professional teams.
“I had a couple of friends that went to play with Rangers and Celtic’s youth teams the next year, so I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get the chance to do that at the time,” Mallace said. His time would come.
An impressive high school career in Minnesota saw Mallace offered a soccer scholarship at Milwaukee’s Marquette University in neighboring Wisconsin – Marsch’s home state.
“I know the coaches at Marquette and they spoke very highly, more than anything, about Calum’s character,” Marsch told The Soccer Observer. “They talked about him being a warrior and a kid who is just so competitive that he won’t allow himself to fail.
“Those are good things to hear and qualities that I value a lot.”
Drafting Mallace wasn’t a guaranteed option for Marsch. The dynamic midfielder was one of 52 college seniors chosen to attend the MLS Player Combine in January – where players participate in a number of games in front of MLS coaches and scouts.
“He had an impact on every game he played in just by the ground he covered and the plays he made,” Marsch said. “So we were very surprised that he was still around at the beginning of the second round.
“We were thinking the (Los Angeles) Galaxy might take him with the last pick of the first round, but they didn’t and we were pretty excited.”
The pre-season has seen Mallace operating at right-back, splitting time with former Whitecap Jeb Brovsky. Marsch said he needed to fill the role during one of Montreal’s earlier pre-season games in Mexico, and Mallace “did a great job” getting up and down the sideline and competing in one-on-one duels with and without the ball.
“He has a lot of qualities that are good for that spot,” Marsch said. “He’s still learning the pure defensive part of it, but he’s done very well for us.
“We’re not done looking at him in midfield but for right now it’s been a good fit for him.”
Adapting to a defensive role is just another hurdle for Mallace to negotiate on top of stepping up to the professional level from college and being part of an expansion team playing its first season in MLS.
Previous experience playing right-back for Chicago Fire’s developmental team has helped him, along with support from his coach.
“Jesse’s been extremely encouraging and helpful, telling me to get wide and whip the ball in if I have the chance to go forward,” Mallace said. “As long as I get back.”
Scotland’s national team has a recent history of missing out on talented young players. Spartak Moscow winger Aiden McGeady and Wigan Athletic midfielder James McCarthy chose to represent the Republic of Ireland over the country where they were born and bred, and U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden also qualified for Scotland having been born in Aberdeen. Mallace became a dual citizen of the U.S. last year, but says his heart is fully with Scotland.
“If I got that call from (Scotland national team coach) Craig Levein at some point in my career I would be absolutely thrilled,” Mallace said.
“I’d love to play for Scotland. I think I’d be doing everyone, myself and my family, proud.”
Mallace’s immediate thoughts though are focused on rewarding the passionate fans in Montreal who’ve been following him on Twitter since the SuperDraft.
“They’ve all been unbelievably welcoming and helped me get settled in a new city and new country,” Mallace said. “They’re great fans and we want to give them a good season this year.
“We’ve got some very experienced players from the MLS, guys like Davy Arnaud that are huge for us, and that’s definitely what you need in an expansion team.
“I’m extremely excited and I think we’re going to do well.”