Seeking the Union of Sport and Faith in Philly

Major League Soccer veteran Brian Carroll aims to balance competition with Christian charity.

Brian Carroll, captain of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union
Brian Carroll, captain of Major League Soccer’s Philadelphia Union (photo: Greg Carroccio/Philadelphia Union)

Soccer has been a part of Brian Carroll’s life as far back as he can remember. He and his two younger brothers, Jeff and Pat, battled against each other in almost every sport as they grew up in Springfield, Va., but they became particularly adept at soccer. This skillfulness resulted in all three of them playing the sport collegiately and professionally.

Brian Carroll finished his collegiate career early, exiting Wake Forest University after an All-American season in the fall of 2002 that nearly included a Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in football. He was selected 11th overall in the Major League Soccer draft by D.C. United in 2003, and the midfielder since has played in more than 300 professional games.

Despite his extensive experience, Carroll still finds the ideal, and oftentimes delicate, balance of athletic competition and kindness toward others to be a challenge. However, he has had help from late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, MLS friends and, of course, the Catholic Church.

Brian Carroll, captain of the Philadelphia Union and father of two, recently spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about the pursuit of athletic excellence while maintaining a well-rounded, Christ-centered life.


What do you think of the Union’s season so far?

It’s been a slow first half of the season, personally and collectively, but we’ve picked up the pace lately, and we are still in the playoff hunt. Last Friday, we tied a game with Eastern Conference leader Sporting Kansas City. That was a good indication that we’re capable of more than our 5-8-9 record might suggest.

One thing that’s always good to keep in mind, regardless of what your record might be, is to control what you can and let go of what you cannot. Your preparation is under your power, but the preparation of other teams is not, so there’s no use in getting caught up in a concern over scores, standings, possible playoff brackets, etc.

I’ve been part of teams that played a fantastic game, maybe even the best they played that year, and yet, the other team was just a little bit better. Then there were times when you have an awful game and yet the other team was just a little bit worse. In the first case, you can’t be frustrated about your great performance just because it wasn’t quite as great as the other team’s. In the second instance, you can’t be too happy about playing an awful game; even though, yes, you did win it.

Instead of looking at it only from a numbers-comparison standpoint, it’s better to look at it from a production standpoint. You try to produce the best soccer you can, and when you do that, then the great majority of the time, you’ll win anyway. That’s what UCLA basketball coach John Wooden found to be the case so many times in his unbelievable career. He cared about how well his own team played, regardless of how well the opponent might have played, and [yet] he also won a lot more games than coaches who were fixated on comparisons and results.


What do you enjoy most about playing Major League Soccer?

I really enjoy being able to take the God-given gifts I have and use them as far as they’ll go. I’ve enjoyed the game from the time I was 5 to now, at age 33. Being able to play a sport continually for 28 years, the last 11 and a half of which I’ve been paid for, is a great blessing. I’ve always been able to maintain gratitude for being able to play soccer, and I’m even grateful for the gratitude itself, because, so often, we can take things for granted.

I also like being with the Philadelphia Union, specifically. It’s nice to be back on the East Coast, to have enthusiastic fans (not only for soccer, but for the other sports in Philly) and to be able to live in a good suburb of the city. It’s a good area, only an hour and a half from the mountains and beaches, where the beauty of creation is so wonderfully on display.


What are the most challenging things about Major League Soccer?

Professional soccer is a very competitive business. It’s a do-or-die endeavor, where you’re always trying to do your best, not only to compete against other teams, but in order to stay on your own team. If you don’t produce, there’s a line of guys nearby who’d be happy to take your position.

Considering that great competitiveness, it can be a delicate balance to establish solid working relationships with teammates. You have to maintain a high standard of play for yourself, but also try to help others to be as good as they can be. This is where treating others with charity is so important.

John Wooden’s wisdom is helpful here and, of course, so is the broader perspective on life that the Church gives us. One of the guys who made this perspective clearer for me was Eddie Gaven. There was a three-year period from 2008 to 2010 in which we both played on the Columbus Crew as midfielders, and it was during this same time that we would talk about being Catholic and even go to Mass together.


Have you always taken the faith seriously or was there a specific time that you started to do so?

I come from an Irish-Catholic family and always remember the faith being a part of my life. In a similar way to being grateful for soccer, I’ve always seemed to have a steady interest in the Church. There wasn’t a dramatic time that I left the Church or came back with a totally different perspective. I’ve just always seen being Catholic as an essential part of who I am.

We would go to Sunday Mass as a family, and I kept going to Mass at Wake Forest University. That was a time in life that you make your own decisions, and I found it pretty easy to go to Mass in college, even though I was living in a different state. I just knew that cutting off my relationship with God wouldn’t bring happiness.

In addition to Mass continuing to be a regular part of life, soccer was as well. Despite the big changes, there were also big parts of life that I took with me.


Your experience of moving out probably helped your younger brothers when they left home.

I hope so, but I think we all helped each other out, though. I might not be at this level of soccer if I didn’t have my younger brothers to compete with. I would play all kinds of sports with my brothers, Jeff and Pat, while growing up. It didn’t really matter which sport, or even if we were inside or outside. We just always seemed to be competing in something.

As we developed, soccer became the sport we were most proficient in, so all three of us played in college and professionally. We’ve all played for D.C. United; I played with Jeff in 2006 and 2007, and then Jeff played with Pat in 2008, while I went to the Columbus Crew that year. 

Now, Jeff is married with two kids and works at St. Bernadette Church in our hometown of Springfield, Va., as the marketing and development director. He also coaches the U-14 D.C. United Academy soccer team. My youngest brother, Pat, works for UPS and will be married to his college sweetheart later this year.

I will have been married for eight years on Dec. 30 of this year. My wife, Katie, and I have two children so far: one [age] 4, the other 2. Their ages can make going to Mass a big challenge, since they’re barely aware of what’s going on. I’m looking forward to when they can become more attuned to the importance of the Mass.


What do you enjoy most about family life?

Despite the challenges that 4- and 2-year-olds can present, I enjoy how much they bring people together. Family celebrations are made livelier and are renewed by additional members. People like to teach them things and also find out what they‘re thinking. Interacting with little kids like this is so different from interacting with other adults.

New children are always a blessing, and people are touched by how guileless they are. You think about the value of each human soul, and you also think about the value of being a part of the life of that soul. You see how much you’re needed and how God wants us to function so closely together as a family under his Lordship. It’s a beautiful thing to be united in faith like that.

Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.