Real Salt Lake: ‘It keeps getting better’ for Ned Grabavoy
By Christopher Kamrani
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 03 2014 03:47PM
Sandy • There is no "S" in Grabavoy. But there was on March 16, 2013. For one afternoon match at Rio Tinto Stadium, Real Salt Lake midfielder Ned Grabavoy was Ned Grabavoys.
The last name was suddenly pluralized last spring — not officially, not at a county courthouse — when Grabavoy sprinted onto the field as a substitute in the 46th minute of RSL’s home opener against the Colorado Rapids a year ago with an extra letter. Major League Soccer wasn’t happy about it, but the Chicago-area native wanted it added.
It was for James and it was for Charlotte and it was for Monica. "Grabavoys" signified family. It signified the Grabavoy family. In January, Monica and Ned welcomed premature twins, James and Charlotte. Ned watched his infant son, weighing in at about four pounds, breathe in a glass case after complications following delivery. Weeks later, Charlotte contracted RSV, a dangerous respiratory virus that infects lungs and breathing airways of infant children. Grabavoy was in San Jose, Calif., the night before RSL’s season opener against the Earthquakes. His wife called and said something was wrong with Charlotte.
Grabavoy flew back to Salt Lake City and "was living" at Primary Children’s Hospital for a week with Charlotte. He didn’t train. Soccer, the thing he initially fell in love with, couldn’t be further away. While his young daughter recovered, Grabavoy’s mind raced. He kept thinking how James would eventually pick up the RSV infection.
So when Grabavoy decided to lace up his cleats and get back to the training field, his phone rang. It was his mother-in-law, in town to help. James was sick. It was RSV. Grabavoy took the 9000 South exit and swerved to get back on I-15 Northbound to speed right back to Primary Children’s.
"I just felt like something wasn’t right," Grabavoy said. "We took James to the hospital and basically [the doctors] said his whole body was shutting down at six weeks old. I just sat there and didn’t know what to think."
Again, he watched as his infant son breathed with the aide of a machine.
Life and its curveballs • Grabavoy is here because of a curveball. As a youth baseball player growing up southwest of Chicago, he saw something he’d never seen before, swung away, and connected with air. It was then that one of Major League Soccer’s fiery, competitive players decided that a bat and a mitt weren’t needed. He stuck with cleats and a ball and a goal.
Shaped as a player in the prominent Chicago Magic youth soccer program, Grabavoy developed into a star in the 1990s. He was a mainstay in national youth programs, starting with the U-14 U.S. team and staying in the program until the U-20s. The Gatorade National High School Player of the Year in 2000, Grabavoy spent time overseas as a trialist with famed European clubs such as Bayern Munich and AS Monaco, and eventually won a national title at the University of Indiana in 2003.
He passed on the opportunity to sign with Monaco and German Bundesliga club Stuttgart, opting to play soccer stateside.
"I was an American kid," Grabavoy said. "I wanted to go to college and experience college. I think what’s difficult for people to understand now, because of the young guys will say, ‘You could have signed where?’ I try to explain to them that the landscape of American soccer 10 years ago was completely different. You could maybe name a few players that played overseas that were American."
But the start to his MLS career, however successful early on, was rocky. He won an MLS Cup with the L.A. Galaxy in 2005 after struggling to figure out new coaching staffs and front offices. He was traded to Columbus in 2006 and reunited with Sigi Schmid, who drafted him in L.A. After two years with the Crew, Grabavoy’s first MLS contract expired, and he asked the club to leave him unprotected in the Expansion Draft, knowing he’d be chosen by the San Jose Earthquakes.
Grabavoy’s suddenly-journeyman road continued. He started 21 of 24 matches for San Jose in 2008, but entering the 2009 season, he was called in by the front office. The Earthquakes decided to waive Grabavoy at 25.
RSL came calling.
But it took Grabavoy three to four months to fight through the reality that life as a professional soccer player was becoming difficult to handle.
"I almost got to a point where I thought to myself, not exactly, ‘Do I want to do this anymore?’ But, ‘Do I want to do this in this league and this country?" he said.
A diamond in the rough • There’s Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman, Luis Gil and there’s Ned Grabavoy. Each fill a critical role in RSL’s patented diamond midfield formation, which controls a game’s style of play with its interchangeable parts and fluidity exuded by each of the four starters.
"He puts in, does his shift and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves and unfortunately, Ned’s one of those guys," said RSL assistant coach Andy Williams. "He doesn’t get all the goals and the assists, but the dirty work he does, you just can’t make that up. Before getting into the league, he was a playmaker — he still has playmaking abilities, but he sacrifices that part to help the team out."
Over time, Grabavoy’s efforts on the training field made it difficult for former coach Jason Kreis and his staff to leave him out of the lineup. It was a goal of Grabavoy’s to "make it an absolute nightmare for you to make a decision not to start me."
"He’s an amazing technical player," said RSL GM Garth Lagerwey. "It’s not that it goes unnoticed, but it goes under-appreciated sometimes."
Since his acquisition, he’s logged more than 11,000 minutes and has started 125 matches across all competitions for RSL in his five years with the club. He’s coming off a career high a year ago with five goals and five assists.
"He knows how much he means to the team, he knows how much he means to the club and myself, and that’s all that really matters to Ned," said RSL coach Jeff Cassar.
And playing soccer while maintaining a spirited edge is what keeps Grabavoy, now 30, feeling like he’s improving his talents and ability to comprehend the game each year. He’s also fueled by the fear of failure, having grown up and seen several talented players — whether it be in high school, college or with youth national teams — around him fizzle out due to a number of circumstances.
"From the time I was young, I always kind of played and trained and worked with the thought process of, ‘I was scared,’" he explained. "I was scared because I was considered the best player in my age group and so I just always thought of myself as in front of this pack — everyone’s in my rear-view, but everyone’s chasing me as fast as they could."
"It just keeps getting better" • For 45-plus minutes, Grabavoy helped man the midfield, as he does so often, known as Grabavoys. He celebrated Alvaro Saborio’s 80th-minute goal last March 16, a goal that earned RSL a 1-1 draw.
That match changed everything. The landscape of Grabavoy’s career, however bumpy it was to start, now has more of a purpose when he goes home to James and Charlotte.
The ‘S’ just served — and still serves — as a reminder. How he views his life, his profession, and how he approaches each and every day changed the minute his children were born. And those dire moments, those nights when Grabavoy stayed up staring through the glass and watching machines help inject air into the lungs of his child turned out to be another moment the Grabavoys would win.
"I caught a little flak after it, and it won’t happen again," Grabavoy said. "I wasn’t trying to make a big thing or big statement. For me, it was just for myself and for my family."
Over a year later, the twins are like any normal 1-year-olds. They are, according to Ned, "all over the place and have completely different personalities." The first game they saw dad play live in was the MLS Cup final on Dec. 7, when RSL lost in a penalty-kick shootout. They were in attendance for this year’s home opener, a 1-1 draw against L.A.
"You go through life the last 10 years as a professional soccer player, traveling all over the country to play in big games against great players — I’m completely happy with everything off the field — and I think to myself, ‘My life is unbelievable," Grabavoy said. "Now I’m married and have kids and every time I go home from training, I just honestly look and think I don’t know if it could get that much better than this, but it keeps getting better. It keeps getting better."