Matt LaGrassa woke up on Wednesday, January 17, 2018, in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif. It was a typical January morning in Northern California, the temperature hovered around 55 degrees and a thin layer of fog was present in the city. Matt got into his trusty 2007 Scion TC to begin a journey that would serve as a reflection of a three-year career.
It was February 2, 2016 when Matt LaGrassa signed his first professional contract with his hometown professional team, Sacramento Republic. He had just wrapped up a successful college career at Cal Poly where he scored 18 goals in four years and led the Mustangs to the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Now he got a paycheck to play in front of his family.
"Getting to play in front of my family was a real treat," Matt said. "I was so excited to start my pro career and to have the opportunity to play in Sacramento was pretty amazing. My family was at every game, and I think I took for granted how special that is."
Success had followed Matt throughout his life, but in his first four months with Sacramento Republic, Matt played in just one United Soccer League (USL) game, coming off the bench and playing a single minute. It became obvious that Matt wasn’t going to get significant playing time at Sacramento, so he approached Sacramento about a loan.
“I went to the staff and the general manager at the time and said, ‘If the only reason that I can’t get a chance here is experience then can you send me somewhere where I can get experience,’” said Matt. “I was brought in after practice on a Tuesday and they said, ‘tomorrow at 1:00 you have a flight to Tulsa [Roughnecks] to train for a month.’ I was excited. It was hard. I was leaving my family and my girlfriend at the time. It was a challenge, but it’s what I needed to do to advance in my career.”
Matt played in all four matches with the Roughnecks throughout his short-term loan with them. He played so well, in fact, that he was told after training one day that he would be staying at Tulsa the rest of the season by head coach David Irving. Mentally, he felt confidence he hadn’t found yet as a professional, and for the first time all season he felt like he belonged.
Meanwhile, his parent club, Sacramento Republic, had hit a rough stretch. Since Matt had left, Sacramento gone 1-2-2 and was in the midst of its longest winless streak of the season. Just one day after being told he was staying at Tulsa the rest of the season, he received a call saying he had a flight at noon and was heading back to Sacramento.
“To be honest I was happy to be going home and playing for a bigger team competing for the title,” said Matt. “But I was also looking at it and saying, ‘I’ve been playing a solid 90 minutes pretty consistently here in Tulsa, it isn’t good for me to go back and not start.’”
In his first game back with the Republic, Matt saw his first real action, coming on as a dub and playing 29 minutes. He continued to come off the bench for the first-place club until August 13, 2016, when Matt earned his first start as a professional. He notched two assists in that game, a 4-3 win over Saint Louis FC. Finally, on September 3, 2016, he scored his first professional goal. It came at home, but his parents missed it.
“I always give my parents a little trouble because they didn’t see it. They were buying beer.”
After a rocky start, things were trending in the right direction for Matt. He continued to be a regular starter as Sacramento secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Even with a shocking loss in the first round of the playoffs, Matt knew that bigger things, and bigger leagues, were ahead.
A little more than two hours into his four-day trip, Matt LaGrassa passed through Reno, Nevada. Even after travelling a mere 140 miles into a 2,200+ mile trip, he stopped to say hey to some friends and hit up his favorite coffee shop. He made one final stop before heading out of the western Nevada city, the offices of Reno 1868 FC, to say a few goodbyes.
An Instagram post on his profile on November 30th of 2016 announced Matt’s departure from Sacramento Republic after just one season. The decision was mutual between Matt and the club, but it still stung. The dream of playing in Major League Soccer (MLS) was nearer on the horizon, and Matt wanted to give himself the best possible chance to get there.
“My goal has always been to make it to the MLS, and I know I’m capable of that. I really wanted another one-year deal there, and they just weren’t willing to do that and it was ultimately the deal breaker for me. They wanted to put in option, but it was too risky for me. If I played well and an MLS team wanted me, [Sacramento] would’ve had the capabilities to hold on to me, and I think it would’ve been a risky choice for my career.”
That is not to stay the decision wasn’t difficult. Matt had played his entire career in California, and to get a chance to play professionally, in your hometown, in front of your family, is a rare luxury few athletes experience. For Matt, playing at home became as much a family affair as it was an individual one, and as soon as it started, it seemed to be over.
Looking for a one-year bridge deal that allowed him the flexibility to make a move to MLS, Matt chose to sign with 2017 expansion club Reno 1868 FC that offseason. Starting from scratch, Matt saw on opportunity to stay relatively close to home while keeping his sights set on the MLS.
“One of the big reasons was it was a one-year deal which gave me the option to go somewhere else if things were not working out. Also, the connection with the [San Jose] Earthquakes. I wanted to be working in closer tangent with an MLS club and that affiliation is very back and forth even to this day.”
In Reno, Matt had a bigger opportunity to showcase his skills. He played in 31 games and over 2,700 minutes. He completed the third most passes in the USL in 2017 with 1,783 from his midfield position. He played so well, that he got a call from San Jose after the USL season ended. The MLS club wanted to take a look at him and invited him to preseason training with the team. For Matt, he felt he had earned more.
“I felt that I had done enough to get a serious look from the Earthquakes, and I think they were taking me seriously,” Matt said. “But, I think when they declared that they weren’t going to sign me to the MLS team right away and wanted me to attend their pre-season, I felt like I was better off taking a chance here in Nashville.”
It took a day for Matt LaGrassa to make it to Salt Lake City, and another to make it to Boulder, Colorado where he had dinner with some friends. The final two days were spend going from Boulder to St. Louis and from the STL to Nashville. Throughout the trip, there was a lot of reflection and soul-searching, reminiscing about two years of professional soccer.
Nashville SC announced Matt’s signing on November 30, 2017. Again, Matt was betting in himself, and some good fortune, that being in Nashville was the right place to take the next step in his career.
“In my gut, I felt like they were going to get an MLS expansion side, and it’s a bigger club in the sense that it is moving on. There are a lot of eyes on this club, and I thought for a life experience as well, it would be an excellent opportunity to go live in a bigger city across the country and challenge myself in a different way too.”
The bet paid off almost immediately as Nashville was awarded an MLS expansion side just three weeks after Matt signed. In less than two years, Matt had gone from playing one USL minute in six months for Sacramento Republic, to a premier signing for Nashville SC.
And so, Matt got in his Scion TC to drive for four days to his new team. He wanted to enjoy the journey and see people along the way that had played a part in it. Admittedly the trip was a bit counterproductive for a professional athlete. He stayed in “dingy” hotels, ate at food trucks (there was a Mexican food truck in Kansas that was especially good), and had to be creative to prevent cramps in the car.
The trip gave Matt a chance to look back on his successes and struggles in his career.
“I think anytime you spend that much time alone in a car there is a lot of thinking and you reflect a lot,” said Matt. “Starting in Sacramento where I started my career and passing through Reno and saying bye to friends there and old teammates and stopping by the office to see people that worked for the club, it was a pretty interesting experience. You definitely have some emotion going through, but for me it felt like I was on to bigger and better things, and that’s how I feel still. I’m happy to be here in Nashville and I think it’s a great step for my career.”
Now that he is here, Matt is focused on 2018 and helping lead Nashville SC to a USL Cup championship. He is 25, in the prime of his career, and has connected well to the city of Nashville. He lives downtown and wants to experience the vibe of Music City, something he never got back in California.
“Anytime you make a big choice like this – switching conferences and moving across the country – there is always risk involved. You do your best as a player to protect yourself from any unnecessary risk. But we’re still very early in the season, and I am very happy with my choice.”