Reporting Shane Kitzman
You knew Minnesota had a professional soccer team, right?
Those of you bashfully nodding yes are probably lying – market research has shown as little as 3 percent are aware that pro footballers exist in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
You can stop feeling guilty now, because here’s the good news.
Not only is the Minnesota United Football Club playing competitively within the NASL — the second tier pro league beneath the MLS — their star is an Italian who has as many intriguing storylines as he does delicious recipes from back home.
1. He left Italy and signed with a team 5,000 miles from home
The Genoa, Italy native has played professionally since he was a teenager, bypassing a college degree to always be on the pitch. But the Italian soccer atmosphere consisted of haves and the have-nots, and without lucky connections, he wasn’t sure he’d bust out of the second-tier league and into the first.
“In the United States, I believed it would be more ‘If you deserve to play, you play,’” he said.
After a three-day tryout four years ago, he’s been a Minnesotan ever since.
“It changed my life,” he said. “When I was younger, I visited the United States and thought ‘Football is not good here.’ But now I see it’s growing up fast, and is getting better and better.”
2. His unbridled love for Minneapolis makes him a frontrunner to be the city’s spokesman
Two years living downtown, and the past two in Uptown have made Bracalello a seasoned local. He boasts an affinity for The Butcher and the Boar and the W, and he currently resides just a block from one of his other favorite destinations — Stella’s Fish Café.
“I like running around Calhoun, and the neighborhood feeling of Uptown,” he said, as he and his girlfriend have settled into the City of Lakes lifestyle.
3. He learned English on the fly after arriving in Minnesota
“I just found a lot of nice people to help,” he said. “And I talked a lot with my hands.”
The biggest homesick hurdle wasn’t the language barrier — it was the disconnect with what’s for dinner.
“I can’t hide that at the beginning, it was tough for me – with food especially,” he said. “We love our food, and our culture.”
4. If Minnesota was Italy, I would have never been able to chat with Bracallelo without constant interruptions
If the two of us had been sitting in any Italian park – as opposed to hanging out on Nicollet Mall – a football fan frenzy would have followed him.
“Actually … it has started to happen more and more here in Minnesota,” Bracalello said. “It’s sweet when people recognize your work.”
The top sport channel back home – Sky Sports – has featured Bracalello’s successes, and his local newspaper keeps tabs because Bracalello is one of the few Italians in the NASL (there are a handful in the MLS).
5. He’s has the league’s hottest foot
The NASL’s Player of the Month for May tallied three goals last month, and the striker/midfielder even recorded a game-winner. Last year was also the first in the past three that he didn’t lead the squad in scoring.
“It’s just nice to play for the team, and not just for yourself,” he said. “I played a different role last season. I was scoring goals, but helping the team and having more assists.”
To get a sense of his on-the-pitch prowess, check out the highlight reel.
Oh, and Bracalello knows his celebrations need polishing.
“My teammates always tell me I need to work on it,” he said. “I just get crazy, and express myself. It’s such an incredible feeling.”
Don’t expect to see Bracalello leaving MN United FC — he doesn’t see a difference between the MLS and the NASL.
“I love everything about the United and Minneapolis,” he said. “I am comfortable where I am.”
6. If you took Italian at the U of M, you probably already know him
“I go to the U of M as a guest speaker in the Italian classes to talk about Italy,” he said, as he’s been visiting classrooms for three years. “I tell them, you have baseball, football, and the NBA here … in Italy all we have is just soccer.”
The best part is some of the students transform into instant fans and attend Bracalello’s games throughout the season.
7. When he isn’t playing, he’s coaching all ages
From one-on-one tutelage, to coaching club teams ranging anywhere from U7 to U5, Bracalello is honing the soccer skills of Minnesota’s youth.
“I try to teach them what I learned when I was young – we had a great school in Italy,” he said. “I have my own team in Mahtomedi of U15 girls. I coach a lot in Stillwater, too.”
He used to spend months at home in the offseason, but now that’s turned into just a few weeks as he foresees his future in the US – and it revolves around coaching.
“It’s going to be my job after my playing career ends,” he said. “I will start with high school and then go coach in my league, or the MLS.”
8. He doesn’t mind American football, and claims to boot 70-yard field goals
“I go to Timberwolves and Vikings games,” he said. “I like the show they put on at Vikings games.”
Bracalello said he has been invited to an NFL development camp to try out as a kicker, but declined. He despises the robotic way that NFL kickers are coached.
“I would kick the ball a different way every time,” he said. “And I don’t want to kick in the NFL anyway — MN United is my priority.”
9. The Barbier family of Stillwater are model Minnesotans
After coaching 9-year-old Ethan Barbier, the family has adopted Bracalello, even lending him a car last year so he could make it to his numerous other coaching gigs.
“They’re incredible and have helped me out a lot,” he said. “I consider them my family. I’m a Godfather to Zola, their little girl. And I sometimes go and cook for them, too.”