It’s only practice. And a fairly light one at that, shrouded in drizzle two days before a game. A veteran would be quite forgiven for loafing through this one. Towards the end of the session, the ball skips into a narrow pocket between a defender and the goalkeeper during a routine drill. For a nearby attacker, it’s a quarter-chance at best. So, of course, Tim Cahill throws his 34-year-old body, which he has already put through 15 seasons of hard labor in the English leagues, headlong into the mix.
In a fine flash Cahill manifests the warrior spirit underpinning his unlikely career. Because it never did look like the Australian midfielder would end up here. Not as the emotional leader of the New York Red Bulls. Not following a lengthy spell with Everton of the English Premier League. Not growing up anyway.
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Drama was Cahill’s thing before he embarked on his soccer career. He acted in some small parts as a child and young teenager. And he modeled a little, leveraging the square face and anime eyes conjured by his Samoan mother and English father. Unlike all his burly rugby-playing Samoan cousins, Cahill was too small to be a serious soccer prospect. “Messi-small,” as he puts it.
When the Samoan federation called him up for an under-20 World Cup qualifying tournament, even though he was just 14, he went with little thought about the potential ramifications. He figured he wouldn’t get used. He was told that it wouldn’t affect his eligibility to play for other countries, though he wasn’t thinking much about that. He hardly had an international future for Australia, let alone England, or even Ireland or Scotland, through his father’s ancestry. To his mind, it would be a cheap way to go visit his ailing grandmother. He came off the bench twice and didn’t think much of it.
And then he grew. At 18, he took a chance on himself. He left Sydney for England and latched on with Millwall, earning a contract and toiling in the lower leagues for seven seasons. One of his managers there, Mick McCarthy, wanted to take him to the 2002 World Cup with Ireland, but those spare minutes played for Samoa eight years earlier got in his way. He was tied to the tiny Pacific islands east of Australia.
The rules were changed in early 2004, allowing for a one-time switch. Cahill made his debut for Australia in March. By that summer, he had earned a transfer to Everton, where his uncompromising play made him a local hero. And then, two summers ago, he joined the Red Bulls at 32.
Cahill could have signed just about anywhere in the world at that point. In some cases, he could have earned a lot more money than the $3.6 million the Red Bulls pay him, he says. He could have bowed to pressure at home and joined the budding A-League. He selected MLS instead.
“I had some amazing offers,” Cahill explains now. “The biggest thing for me was being part of a project. If there wasn’t anything for me to leave a legacy, I didn’t want to be a part of it. The consideration was the bigger picture of being a part of this league – the revolution.”
He wasn’t the biggest star to ever sign with New York. But bar Thierry Henry, Cahill has had the largest impact. With his insertion into the lineup, a historically soft team acquired the inertia and bite needed to make good on its long-unfulfilled ambitions. In 2013, his first full year in America, Cahill came fourth in MVP voting, captured a place in the Best XI and earned an outsized share in the Red Bulls’ first piece of silverware, the Supporters Shield.
To wit, the Red Bulls won 14 games and lost only five with him in the lineup. They lost four of seven in his absence.
It’s hard not to resort to clichés with Cahill. He really does play hard, scrapping and tumbling and rumbling from the first moment until the final whistle tells him to stop almost two hours later. Last year, he scored after eight seconds against the Houston Dynamo and struck a 97th-minute equalizer against the New England Revolution. It’s about the ferocity of will, it seems. Cahill isn’t a bruiser, exactly, and he has skill in spades. But a defiance to unfavorable fates seems to energize him long past the point where others wilt.
“You get situations in life where people write you off because you’re not big enough, not strong enough, not tall enough,” says Cahill, who still only stands 5-foot-10. As he speaks, those deep, dark eyes dart about the room but seldom fix on one point. “It drove me to train harder, make my body stronger. Still, I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but put any defender up against me and I’m pretty sure that nine times out of 10 I win that battle.”
Stout and sure of self, Cahill attributes his mental robustness to Samoan warrior culture. “It’s inside me,” he says. “You have to use that correctly to help you be powerful on the pitch.”
Cahill isn’t the sort of guy willing to shrink from a challenge or stop a few seconds before time.
His selflessness is rare in a player with his determination and his résumé. Cahill is unfussy about position, unmoved by stats and unbothered about plaudits. “It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s never been about me. It’s been about my clubs and their money invested into me and the return in what I did.”
This mindset quickly made him popular with both the demanding fans and a heretofore slothful locker room. “He brings that winning mentality that people didn’t associate with Red Bull,” says Dax McCarty, Cahill’s usual partner in central midfield. “He’s not a Designated Player that came in here to shy out of challenges. When you see a guy like that, who scores a lot of goals, fouling and running around like a crazy animal to win the ball back, that pushes the team forward.”
“A fighter,” Henry says when asked to describe Cahill. “Plays hard for the team. Will give his all. Tim has been more than tremendous for us.”
In Cahill, first-year coach Mike Petke found his on-field counterpoint in 2013. “I see a lot of me in him. I was the guy who would run through a wall for the team and I see that in him,” says the current coach and former Red Bulls defender.
It’s a funny thing: one of the shortest guys on any field is consistently among the best in the air because he isn’t afraid of those barriers. “People are scared of the ball; I’m not scared of the ball,” Cahill says. “And I’m not scared of getting hurt when I jump for the ball. I don’t care who is going to head-butt me or kick me. I back myself.”
There’s more to it than that, though. McCarty explains: “If you put a ball between him and a guy that’s 6-foot-4, he’s probably not going to beat him in a straight battle but he’s so smart, he’ll jump into the defender, make sure he can’t get a good jump, and he’ll hang in the air and get his head on the ball somehow.”
Cahill exhibits the same sort of awareness in the changing room. He isn’t the rah-rah sort of clubhouse leader. He picks his spots wisely. “You can make noises in the right way,” he says. “Some people I’ve played with just scream for the sake of screaming. I don’t like them leaders that are loud for no reason. When Johnny Steele plays a bad ball, he knows. [Teammates] know from my look if I’m happy or not happy. And when we’re doing unbelievably, I’m at my worst, to stop the complacency.”
“He’s definitely not the loudest but his words carry a lot of weight,” says goalkeeper Luis Robles. “He’s not the type that’s going to try to bring anyone down even if he doesn’t have the most positive thing to say. He’s had a huge impact on the locker room.”
Cahill exerts the same influence for Australia on the eve of his third World Cup. He is the country’s record goal-scorer with 31 tallies over the last decade. He once again played a crucial role in qualifying, ferrying back and forth from New York to guide the Socceroos safely through the thicket.
In order to keep him healthy – and there exists no evidence that Cahill is slowing up any, though he is currently sidelined with a hamstring complaint – the federation tracks his fitness with an obsessive attention to detail. Cahill logs the number of hours he sleeps, how he feels, the stresses on his body, fatigue and muscle soreness. A GPS tracker measures his labor in practice. Every single day, a report is sent to the Australian national team to aid with preparations for Brazil.
“That’s where you want to be as a pro,” says Cahill, who is signed through 2015. “I’m 34, but I’ll give any 18-year-old a run for his money in the gym or on the pitch.”
He runs around a lot off the pitch as well with his life now in harmony with his past, his present and his future. The oldest three of his four children have begun modeling careers. His first-born, 11-year-old Kyah, sang the national anthem at a Red Bulls game last year and he’ll begin recording in studio soon. There might be television ads as well.
Cahill himself is involved with a raft of charities – “Anything that anyone needs a hand with,” he says – and he runs grassroots soccer programs back in Australia. He dabbles in fashion, too. Following the Socceroos’ 95th-minute penalty loss to Italy in the round of 16 of the 2006 World Cup, he was introduced to fashion designer Giorgio Armani and they have been friends ever since. Cahill wore Armani’s clothes as an ambassador for most of a decade. He recently struck out on his own, designing suits for Shoreditch that retail around the world.
New York allows Cahill’s many pursuits to coexist in one place, even though he doesn’t care for cities. “I never thought I’d be in New York because I don’t like the bright lights,” says Cahill, who lives in New Jersey, away from town. “I don’t like craziness.” But like a well-tailored suit, they fit each other so very well.
Cahill hopes to play in his third World Cup in a couple of months.