From Airdrie to the Azteca. It doesn’t quite have the ring of the Inca Trail, nor is it a path so well trodden. But Calum Mallace could have been Scotland’s secret weapon this weekend.
As Alex McLeish surveyed what amounted to the wreckage of his call-off hit squad last week, he pondered sending out an SOS to MLS ahead of friendlies with Peru and Mexico. Johnny Russell had already been included but the Scotland manager considered recruiting Sam Nicholson and Danny Wilson, Russell’s fellow Major League Soccer-based Scots.
Clearly practicality was a chief consideration. Mexico City is a lot more accessible if you’re on that side of the Atlantic to begin with. But it is more than just practicality that behoves McLeish to consider the case of Mallace, an Airdrie-supporting native of Torphichen, the small village in West Lothian.
He might have taken out US citizenship (it helps to be identified as homegrown for player-quota reasons). However, the Saltire graphic next to his name on the Los Angeles FC roster makes it clear where he’s from. Mallace remains eligible – and, crucially, is desperately willing – to play for Scotland.
He has been joshing with Mexican team-mate Carlos Vela, who is expected to line up against Scotland in the early hours of this Sunday morning. “We have been chatting in the locker room, joking about it,” he says. Except the joke’s on Mallace slightly, since he won’t be playing.
There was scant mention of the LAFC midfielder in last week’s reports about McLeish turning to MLS for help. McLeish has now shelved the idea of recruiting Wilson and Nicholson. He says he’s happy with the squad as it is.
But this doesn’t excuse ignorance of Mallace, whose side are challenging Russell’s Sporting Kansas City at the top of the Western Conference. Wilson and Nicholson’s Colorado Rapids, meanwhile, are last in the Eastern Conference. It is one reason why McLeish knew that it would be tough to extricate them from their club commitments.
Mallace’s credentials seem impeccable in view of Scotland’s next mission: few Scots know what it’s like to play at the Azteca stadium. With Scotland preparing to enter a lion’s den, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have someone conversant with the historic arena.
No other Scot has tasted the special atmosphere of a special place since the likes of Paul McStay and Steve Clarke played there in the World Youth Championships in 1983, the latter scoring in a 1-0 win in front of 85,000 people.
Mallace has not heard from McLeish, nor any other Scotland manager, despite featuring in the North and Central America’s equivalent of the Champions League final: the CONCACAF Cup final. He was Andy Robertson a few years before Andy Robertson. In 2015, while at Montreal Impact, he played both legs of the final; the first leg, against Mexican side America, was at the Azteca in front of over 100,000 people.
“Obviously the stadium has a ton of history behind it with Diego Maradona and all that,” he recalls. “You knew that going in. I got the nod to get the start that day as well so obviously the nerves were going a little bit.
“Once the game started it was back to business. Walking out in front of so many people screaming at you, hating you, it is quite an intense experience for sure.
“In the days leading up to it they were outside the hotel making a noise and making sure we could not sleep. We had police escorts on the way to the stadium with people throwing stuff at the bus. It was very intense. It’s the most intense atmosphere I have ever played in front of.”
Despite the intimidation, Montreal emerged with what seemed a more than useful 1-1 draw. Unlike Scotland, who will travel to Mexico City on the eve of the game, they spent ten days in the city to acclimatise.
However, it was the second-leg at home where they ran out of puff, conceding three goals in the second-half to lose 4-2 on the night and 5-3 on aggregate. It was, he says, “similarly the greatest achievement and biggest disappointment of my career”.
Mallace could reflect that, had it not been for him, they might not have got there. His 60-yard long ball, dubbed “the miracle pass”, set-up the decisive late strike for Cameron Porter in the quarter-final win over Pachuca, another Mexican team. Mostly a defensive midfielder, it was a glimpse of what else he can do.
Mallace grew up in Torphichen, near Bathgate. He started playing football for ICI Juveniles, for their under-nines, when he was just six years old. He followed Airdrie home and away. “We would go every single Saturday,” he recalls. “Me and my dad, my uncle, my brother, my granddad. We would get a pie, a Bovril and listen to Off the Ball on the way home.”
This seemingly idyllic existence came to an abrupt halt when his father, Jim, informed the family they were moving to Minnesota for a job opportunity. They – Mallace has two elders brothers, Craig, a former professional footballer, and Scott, an actor/screenplay writer – have remained Stateside ever since.
But memories of home remain vivid. When Mallace talks about partisan fans in connection with the Azteca, he knows of what he speaks.
His time following Airdrie dates back to before the club’s flit from Broomfield to the Shyberry Excelsior. Whatever the Mexicans have in store for Scotland, it can’t match the notorious Section B’s often acid welcome for visiting teams. “I remember we got a brick from the old stadium and my granddad actually got a patch of grass to put in his front garden. It was one of the best stadiums, all this standing room! They were my favourite games to go to.
“I went to every game home and away and for 90 minutes I would be singing with my brother. We would be the ones trying to get it going! Airdrie fans are definitely the most loyal and most high energy, no matter what.”
Top-level football in America is trying to replicate such passion. The league has a burgeoning reputation. Mallace was sitting injured in the stand at the StubHub Center when Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored his wonder goal winner on his debut for LA Galaxy.
The Scot has a right to be miffed at his latest international snub, particularly since LA is little more than four hours in a plane from Mexico City. If Mallace didn’t have a game this weekend, against FC Dallas, he says he would have flown down to watch McLeish’s side.
“Of course I would hop on down there and sit with the Tartan Army and sing along,” he says. “I love Scottish football and I am disappointed every time we are not in the finals – we deserve to be there, especially this year. That was incredibly disappointing.
“I used to go to Hampden when I was living in Scotland. Talking about the best fans in the world, well, you have them right there – the Tartan Army.”
There’s nothing more he’d like than “to pull on the dark blue shirt” and play for them. But he doesn’t seem despondent. Why would you be? He lives in West Hollywood and plays for one of the up-and-coming MLS clubs.
He’s previously been based in Montreal and Seattle, where he played on loan for a short spell. Life is good. He is married to Jordan (not that one) and has a dog called Finnegan – or “a dug” as he pronounces it.
So for all the Americanism he might have picked up along the way – he thanks The Scotsman for “reaching out” to him in an email – he retains plenty of associations to the old country. He’s just hopeful someone else might reach out to him before long. The ball’s in your court, Eck.
l In association with Bruce Farms of Perthshire.