The ‘Irish Messi’: Aaron Molloy’s Trans-Atlantic Odyssey
Aaron Molloy’s journey to Penn State men’s soccer’s all-time highlight reel began with breakfast and a dare from teammate Travis Keil.
It was a Sunday, and the Nittany Lions were in Los Angeles preparing to play Loyola Marymount University in a non-conference match.
“We were having breakfast that morning, and [Keil] told me, ‘You should try it in the game today,'” Molloy said, referring to the type of half-field shot that, if successful, inspires endless online attention and is usually passed off as luck.
Thirteen minutes into the match, Molloy won the ball in midfield, took two touches, and chipped LMU’s goalkeeper from his own half.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it as soon as I won the ball against LMU. I just hit it. I didn’t even look up to see where the goalkeeper was,” he said over the phone after a training session in July. “Lucky enough, it went on target and I went off celebrating.”
Jeffrey Field regulars aren’t surprised when Molloy, a junior majoring in business, scores net-ripping goals from distance. Since he arrived in Happy Valley last summer, the defensive midfielder has scored both of his home goals for Penn State from outside the penalty area.
He’s now the co-captain and engine at the center of Jeff Cook’s gradually improving squad and one of the top-ranked professional prospects in college soccer — an industrious and decisive mixture of hard running, tough tackling, precise passing, the occasional silky dribble, and the courage to shoot from anywhere. He is Penn State’s Paul Scholes, though the Sons of Jeffrey have affectionately dubbed him the “Irish Messi.“
Molloy was born in Dublin, and grew up playing for local sides Bohemian F.C. and Drogheda United. After realizing he wanted to continue to play soccer after secondary school while taking his education more seriously, he explored the possibility of playing for an American university.
He soon met Alan McCann, a fellow Dubliner and a coach at Keiser University in Florida, who also played collegiate soccer in the United States.
“I went back to Ireland recruiting, and obviously his name came across from two of my contacts,” McCann said.
“(McCann) came and watched me play, came up to my house, was chatting to me,” Molloy said. “It’s obviously so much better when you know someone from the same country and the area you grew up in…The Irish help the Irish…You take care of your own.”
Molloy traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the summer of 2016 to play for McCann’s Keiser University team, and spent a season with the Seahawks before transferring to Penn State the following year. He has played under McCann for the past two summers at Reading United A.C., a Premier Developmental League (PDL) team that won a conference championship and reached the national league final in August.
Molloy has conquered the game on this side of the Atlantic, scoring goals and collecting honors for both Pennsylvania teams. He was recognized as the PDL Young Player of the Year in 2017 after bagging seven goals — including a late, long-range game-winner that sank the under-23 New York Redbulls squad — and an assist for Reading.
He immediately contributed for Penn State under Bob Warming last season, with sixteen starts and three goals to what was an admittedly disappointing 5-10-2 season for the Nittany Lions. And he maintained his impressive summer form as Reading’s captain this year, notching four goals and four assists throughout the club’s historic 12-1 season. He currently leads the PDL’s list of top college prospects, outranking players from national powerhouse Wake Forrest, sixth-ranked Louisville, and Big Ten rival Michigan State.
“I’m absolutely honored to be number one top prospect,” he said over the summer, “but I think my main focus is really just on the team.”
Molloy’s coaches recognize this focus. Both Jeff Cook and McCann appointed him captain of their teams after a single season. They trust him to lead two very different squads — at Penn State, a close-knit group of teammates who train together from August to June, at Reading, an eclectic mix of college players from across the country who meet only for the summer.
“For me, it was a no-brainer,” McCann said. “[His teammates] look to him because of what he does consistently, his daily habits, his off-the-field character. He’s a born leader and a leader of men.”
“Aaron brings total focus and commitment every single day, and I thought that was something we wanted to have as a basis for our methods,” Cook said.
Molloy didn’t shy away from claiming the responsibility and honor of the captain’s armband.
“I jumped at it like a lion,” he said. “I’d love to take on that responsibility of leading the team out every game and putting the team first.”
Against Ohio State, Molloy was at his best. He was one of the first players out of the Jeffrey Field tunnel and the loudest in the team’s pregame hype huddle. As soon as the match began, it was clear he was in control. As the second central midfielder alongside the combative Mitchel Bringolf in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Molloy was the bridge between Penn State’s offense and defense. He sprayed passes to wingers to switch the point of attack, sprinted forward to take shots, and tracked back to help on defense.
He occupies the middle of the field so naturally that it’s difficult to picture him anywhere else.
“I sit in front of the back four and just make tackles, leading the team and trying to play out from deep and just trying to get everything through the midfield,” he said.
In the 31st minute, he latched onto Jeremy Rafanello’s lobbed pass and rifled a clean volley into the corner of the net.
Later, his free kick found Stephen Kenney at the back post to seal the win for Penn State.
Molloy wears the armband proudly, but isn’t removed from his teammates. As he spoke to the media after the match, co-captain Dani Marks passed and yelled “Aaron Molloy” in a mock Irish accent.
“It’s a big derby– first game in the Big Ten,” he said on the sideline. “I think we played really well.”
Molloy’s opponents have noticed his meteoric rise. Over the summer, opposing teams began to mark him with two players in an effort to stifle his influence. It rarely worked.
“Teams have doubled up on him and he’s still able to control games,” McCann said. “He’s still able to perform, outperform the level of every player on the field consistently, too, so it’s a credit to him.”
Molloy has played approximately a game a week since the beginning of June, starting every game for Reading and Penn State. He and the Nittany Lions are off to a lukewarm Big Ten start. After mauling Ohio State and earning a hard-fought draw against Michigan in Ann Arbor, they lost to No. 2 Indiana and No. 5 Michigan State.
As he slowly approaches his final Penn State season, Molloy’s attention will shift toward the possibility — now the probability — of a post-college professional career.
“We did stick together a four year plan for him, and that concludes with him being a professional after college,” McCann said. “Coaches are very aware of him. He’s obviously the number one prospect in the country right now.”
Molloy’s presence in the American game is the realization of the storied sacrifice that set Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Christian Pulisic and countless other players on the path to stardom — the choice to leave the comfort and familiarity of home to compete in a foreign league at a young age.
“A lot of my friends went, they stayed and played soccer in Ireland professionally. They went over to England. I wanted to try a different route,” Molloy said.
“I’m very pleased that I’ve taken this journey and I haven’t looked back since.”
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