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Ex-NU player rides bicycle kick all the way to MLS tryout

Matt Eliason, whose goal in the Lionel Messi exhibition at Soldier Field became a YouTube sensation, will play for the New York Red Bulls' reserve team

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

6:48 PM CDT, August 19, 2013

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In little more than a year at GE Capital in the West Loop, corporate risk analyst Matt Eliason accrued enough time to take off for the journey he started planning for as a boy growing up in Lombard.

Talk about your dream vacations.

Eliason, the "bicycle kick" guy who upstaged global futbol star Lionel Messi last month at Soldier Field, will ride his popularity to New York for an MLS tryout with the Red Bulls. For one week beginning next Tuesday, Northwestern's all-time leading scorer will play for the Red Bulls' reserve team with hopes of earning a contract for next season.

"This has all been surreal,'' Eliason said on the job Monday.

It began with Eliason reading a text on his phone. As remarkably as things have unfolded, perhaps it will end with credits rolling on a screen.

You interested in playing w/Messi next Saturday? Seriously.

Northwestern soccer coach Tim Lenahan scrambled to help organizers of the July 6 exhibition at Soldier Field, "Messi and Friends" — a debacle more aptly titled "Messy, Without Friends" — when many international stars backed out. Lenahan quickly texted former Wildcats players such as Eliason, who was in shape after completing a half-marathon in June.

But when Eliason responded to Lenahan's message, he never imagined committing to a few hours of fun could end up changing his life.

Haha. Yea I would be interested. …I'm fit but my soccer skills might be lacking.

In the game's 28th minute, everybody found out Eliason simply was being modest.

Eliason controlled a pass from former Arsenal superstar Thierry Henry with his chest, popped the ball up and, with his back to the goalie, went airborne to rifle a shot with his right leg just under the crossbar for the acrobatic goal.

"I thought I might as well go for it,'' Eliason said. "It's not often you get to play in front of all those people at Soldier Field.''

Or with Messi, a worldwide icon who made Eliason awestruck like so many carpooling youth soccer players. Imagine Eliason's reaction when Messi marveled at something he did.

"I don't think he speaks English, but he just said, 'Congratulations' and shook my hand, which was more than enough for me,'' Eliason said.

Henry immediately whispered in Eliason's ear, in his French accent, "SportsCenter Top 10.'' Indeed it was. Suddenly, the one-time Northwestern walk-on had become an instant, international YouTube sensation — now with more than 3 million views.

Those with trained eyes for soccer point out Eliason also scored a second goal and played a solid all-around game, but that wasn't why GE Capital CEO Keith Sherin reached out to a 24-year-old employee.

"(Sherin) was probably the best guy I've met through this,'' Eliason said. "The game itself was the coolest part. I wasn't sure anything would come of it but figured if something happened there, I might have the chance to do something special.''

The experience reignited a fire that injuries and a subpar senior season in 2010 had extinguished. Undrafted in 2011, Eliason broke a foot one week before a tryout with Sporting Kansas City, which eventually let former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson audition.

Two years later, just when Eliason started accepting life as a successful former Big Ten athlete eager to advance up another field, fate intervened.

"This has given me a second life,'' Eliason said. "I think I have the ability to keep on playing.''

On a recent corporate-training trip to Connecticut, besides visiting ESPN studios in Bristol, Eliason attended a Red Bulls game. He posed for pictures with Henry, the team's striker. He heard his legend exaggerated to the point fans allegedly asked Henry if he knew Eliason. Mostly, Eliason strengthened connections that smoothed the way for a tryout.

"Either the story becomes more incredible, or he'll get closure so he doesn't go through life saying, 'I never got an opportunity to try out for MLS,' '' Lenahan said. "But I think something even bigger happens.''

Whatever happens, Eliason will arrive prepared. He runs 5 miles every workday before 8 a.m. Around 6 p.m., he loosens his tie and takes the train to Evanston for individual drills with Northwestern coaches. The Wildcats soccer family remains tightknit. During Eliason's tryout, he will stay at the New Jersey home of former teammate Nick Gendron. Another, Cody Stanley, proudly broke the news on the blog SippinonPurple.com.

They saw Eliason enter college needing a scholarship and leave having made history. Nobody who knows Eliason would be surprised to see this improbable turn of events kick-start his soccer career.

"Good things happen to good people; that's the lesson for me,'' Lenahan said. "And, inevitably, everybody gets their shot.''

When the chance comes, take it — no matter how tricky it looks.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh