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It had been nearly two years since Northwestern alum Matt Eliason played college soccer, when he got a strange text from his old coach, Tim Lenahan.
"I was just sitting in my office, or I should say 'cubicle.' I was not important enough for an office," Matt says. "He was like, 'Yeah, do you want to play with Messi? Yes or no?' I did an auto-correct with my brain trying to think about what does he mean by ‘play with Messi’? Are we going to show up to a practice and get his autograph?"
It was 2013, and Lionel Messi — considered by many to be the best soccer player in the world — was hosting a charity game in Chicago.
Most athletes, even very good college athletes, never get the opportunity to play with their childhood heroes. But Matt Eliason was about to find out what it’s like to get that chance.
In 2007, Matt Eliason was a high school senior. His future as a soccer player was uncertain.
"So, once the head coach of Northwestern, Tim Lenahan, said he had a walk-on spot for me, I was really excited and was just anxious to get there to try and prove that I belonged as a Division I soccer player," Matt says.
Matt made the team. And over the next four years, he scored 33 career goals — becoming Northwestern’s all-time leading goal scorer.
A few weeks after his senior season ended, Matt was sitting in a Chipotle when he received a call from Major League Soccer. He had been invited to the combine ahead of the 2011 draft.
"In my head, I thought the call might come but wasn't completely sure," Matt says. "And so then it kind of made me shift my focus to ‘OK, what am I going to do now?’ "
Matt decided to take some time off from school and headed down to Fort Lauderdale for the combine. He was eager to show off his skills in the scrimmages.
"[I] had a couple assists but ended up not scoring — and in my head, a bit of doubt creeped in," Matt says. "And I was just kind of like, ‘Oh, man. The one thing I'm really good at — scoring — I wasn't able to do in these three games.’ "
Matt flew back to Chicago and resumed his classes. The draft was a few days later.
"I was just checking Twitter and checking online to see who took what, and I assumed if I wasn't getting any phone calls that probably was not good news," Matt says.
It wasn't. Matt went undrafted. He received an invitation to try out with Sporting Kansas City, but he broke his foot before preseason workouts.
Matt hung up his cleats.
"[I] ended up taking a role in corporate finance in Chicago," Matt says. "So, once I took that, I kind of crushed the dream of ever playing in MLS."
Nearly two years passed. Matt settled into his new life.
He didn’t play much soccer. But luckily, on the day he got that text from Coach Lenahan, inviting him to play with Messi, he’d recently finished a half marathon.
"I was actually in good shape — which, if they had asked a year earlier, might not have been the same answer," Matt says.
Matt figured he’d ride the bench. But as he learned more details, he began to realize he might actually get a shot at playing.
"And then, more and more, players drop out," Matt says. "And, eventually, you're doing the math and you're like, ‘They only have, like, 16 of these high-level pros. They got to fill in these starting spots with someone.’ And, slowly, as it built towards the game, I was just kind of shocked at how it was working out, and that there might actually be a chance for me to get on the field."
On July 6, 2013, Matt and his teammates waited anxiously in a hotel near Soldier Field all the while rubbing elbows with players from some of the best teams in the world.
"Famous stars like Alex Song, who at the time was on Barcelona," Matt says. "I was just hanging out there and we're like, ‘Oh, hey. What's up?’ He's probably confused, ‘Who are these random people talking to me?’ "
The excitement of the game didn't really hit Matt until he boarded the team bus.
"As we were driving over in the bus, you saw fans waiting outside of Soldier Field — for Messi, not for us," Matt says. "But we're going into the stadium and just seeing thousands of fans surround the bus. It was a pretty cool sight. And it actually started to get a little nervous because in my head, I didn't expect to do too much in the game. And then I was like, 'Oh, if I actually get on the field, there's a lot of people here.' "
Inside the locker room, Matt was formally introduced to his new teammates. Legendary players like Malouda and Thierry Henry. His team was coached by Fabio Capello, the former manager of the English national team.
"One of the most high-profile coaches in the world, and he's sitting there giving a pregame speech," Matt says. "And it was just — went to 100 real quick. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what did I get myself into here?’ The advice was pretty much just pass the ball to the pros. We were kind of there as place fillers. And they're like, ‘Don't try and do too much. Pass the ball to the good players.’ "
The moment was so surreal that Matt didn't even realize he was in the starting lineup.
"I just kind of trotted out there, warmed up," Matt says. "Carlos Bocanegra was the center back. I grew up watching him at Fulham and on the U.S. Men's National Team."
Warm-ups ended and Matt took his place with the starters. He gave himself a little pep talk beforehand.
"I was kind of like, ‘OK, let's just try and be as simple as possible. Just try and pass to the closest person,' " Matt says. " 'Let's not make this too complex.’
"But then, about 10 minutes into the game, the competitive spirit takes over you. And, you know, players are playing hard — they don't want to be embarrassed, but it's not as fast as it would normally be in a real game. So, I kind of saw some opportunity. I was like, ‘If I actually get a chance to go forward a little bit, I might be able to get a good shot off.’ "
In the 27th minute, Thierry Henry received the ball at the top of the 18-yard box. Matt saw his chance. He made a darting run behind the defense and looked for a pass from Henry.
"It was kind of too much behind me to try and head the ball, so it popped up onto my chest," Matt says. "And then I'm facing the wrong direction, so kind of just decided to go for it."
Like an acrobat, Matt jumped in the air, his whole body suspended in mid flight. His legs flung upwards, striking the ball.
Matt had just scored a bicycle kick in a game against Lionel Messi.
"Malouda and Thierry Henry came and jumped on me," Matt remembers. "And I was like, 'Wow, this is real.' And then, the rest of my teammates came and were like, ‘Oh, my God. I can't believe you actually just did that.’ "
Messi’s team won the game 9–6. But news of Matt’s goal began to spread.
"I actually went golfing the next day, and I remember one of my buddies who also played in the game, Cody Stanley, was like, ‘Dude, your video is up to 180,000 views on YouTube,’ " Matt says. "And I was like, ‘Oh, man, that's pretty crazy. That's a lot.’ And then we played nine holes and then came out. And it was at 1.2 million views.
"I know the big thing for me coming into work was that they had an article on it on the back page of the Wall Street Journal, which holds more weight where I work than ESPN."
Matt’s CEO even sent him an email, "saying, ‘Man, that's so cool. You made it onto the Wall Street Journal, and it only took you like a few months of working here.’ "
Matt’s CEO wasn't the only one who noticed. Professional teams from around the world began reaching out, offering Matt chances to try out.
One of those teams was the New York Red Bulls.
"I played in a few reserve games, played pretty well," Matt says. "Again, kind of when I needed to, didn't score. And I think that was — ultimately, a forward's going to be evaluated on whether they score or not."
It didn't help Matt’s chances that the New York Red Bulls already had forwards Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and MLS MVP Bradley Wright-Phillips. But Matt’s trial with the team did raise his profile.
"The team Thróttur from Iceland, the coach emailed me and said, ‘Hey, I saw the kick, heard you were with Red Bulls. We really need a forward. ... I'm not going to sign you without seeing you play, but we'd love to have you in for a trial,’ " Matt remembers.
Matt scored in his trial game and was signed by Thróttur Reykjavík FC in 2014. Finally, he had the chance to fulfill his dream of playing professional soccer.
"Whenever I score, that's when the good things happen," Matt says. "So, I try and do that more often."
You can learn more about Matt Eliason and his time in Iceland by watching the documentary, “Messi and Me,” directed by Renny Maslow.
This segment aired on May 11, 2019.
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