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Diego Rossi’s path to Europe still paved with LAFC success

LAFC forward Diego Rossi attempts a shot during the second half of an MLS soccer match July 13, 2020.
LAFC forward Diego Rossi attempts a shot during a game in the MLS Is Back tournament in Florida in July.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Diego Rossi is moving. Only he’s not going as far as he had hoped.

When Rossi left Uruguay to sign with LAFC, then an MLS expansion club, it was supposed to be the first step on the path to a major soccer club in Europe. Three years later, he’s still here.

So this month, he and his wife, Vivian, are relocating to a place a little closer to the office, which in Rossi’s case is Banc of California Stadium, not England. If you think that’s left him bitter, then you don’t know Diego Rossi.

“More than anything, I want to improve and help the team to continue improving as well,” he said in Spanish. “I don’t think so much about individual things.

“But obviously it is an objective that I’ve had since I was a kid.”

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The U.S. men’s soccer team managed to get the job done in a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in its CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament opener.

An objective that arguably grew closer during a seesaw 2020 season in which Rossi became the youngest scoring leader in MLS history while leading his team to the playoffs, only to miss the postseason after testing positive for COVID-19. Yet in both the good times and bad, Rossi has refused to call attention to himself, preferring to be anonymous rather than acknowledged.

“What we love about Diego and our players is that they care more about team success than individual success,” said LAFC general manager John Thorrington, who signed Rossi. “Any great team has a bunch of guys who give up their selfish ambition for the service of the team and the team’s goals. Diego is certainly one of those guys.”

For LAFC, Rossi’s selflessness might be a more important weapon than his powerful right foot, which has helped him score 42 goals in three seasons.

When Rossi learned that MLS limited the number of international players a team could carry, he got a green card to make the roster more flexible. When captain Carlos Vela, the league’s leading scorer in 2019, decided not to play in last summer’s MLS Is Back tournament, Rossi not only took the armband, but he also led the tournament with six goals.

And when Vela tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in his first game back, Rossi kept scoring, finishing the regular season with a league-high 14 goals, making him and Vela the first teammates to lead MLS in goals in consecutive seasons.

Rossi, 23, deflects praise the same way good goalkeepers deflect shots. So when he clinched the Golden Boot last season, he thanked his teammates.

That humbleness ultimately could hurt Rossi in his quest to follow former teammate Brian Rodríguez to Europe. Rodríguez, who played beside Rossi on LAFC’s front line and with him on Uruguay’s national team, performed well enough that Almería, in Spain’s second division, acquired him on loan this winter. Because to truly appreciate Rossi’s contributions, you have to look at more than the box scores.

So Vela, who played 12 seasons in Europe, said one of his aims this year will be to raise Rossi’s profile in the hopes of attracting a European suitor.

“Diego and I have a great relationship,” Vela said. “He’s young, so I feel like I have to show the way. My mind is like, Diego has to go to Europe.

“I’m trying to teach him a lot of things. ‘You’re doing well, you’re a good player. But come on, you can be better and you have to go to Europe and show there you are good.’ ”

Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget is one of 3 players called up by the men’s national team ahead of friendlies with Jamaica and Northern Ireland.

Thorrington, who started his professional career in England, believes Rossi might already be good enough.

“As a talent evaluator, if the indirect question is, ‘Is Diego good enough to play at the top level in Europe?’ My answer to that is absolutely,” he said.

Rossi says with Vela’s return he’s only too happy to return his role as the loyal sidekick, even if that means fewer shots and fewer goals.

“Each one is going to shoot when he has the chance,” said Rossi, who has started a franchise-record 82 games for LAFC. “We play as a team and we create chances, and when one has a chance, he can take the shot.”

The son of a father of Italian descent and a mother of Armenian heritage, Rossi was born in Montevideo, Uruguay’s largest city, where he began playing soccer at the Solymar Sports Center when he was 6.

He soon caught the attention of Peñarol, the country’s most successful team, which invited him to play in its academy when he was 11. By the time he made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old, he already had played more than 60 games with Uruguay’s youth national teams.

After scoring 12 times in three seasons at Peñarol, Rossi signed with LAFC and scored the first goal in team history the day before his 20th birthday. If that was his coming-out party, last season was Rossi’s coronation — though it didn’t end the way he hoped it would. He missed LAFC’s opening-round playoff loss after testing positive for COVID-19 while on international duty, then saw his second-half goal erased in the final 18 minutes of a 2-1 loss to Mexico’s Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League final.

“It left a little bit of a bitter taste, but those are things that happen in football,” he said.

That taste faded quickly, Rossi said, because he has neither the time nor the energy to look back. So he’s heading into this season with a new home, an old teammate and the same goal of finding his way to Europe.

“I always try to look at the positive side of things,” he said. “I’ve never stopped long to think about negative things because you can’t do anything about them. Instead, I think about the beautiful things that can come.”


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