Taylor Graham has been down this road before. For the third time in his professional career, he is joining and MLS training camp after not playing in the top US league the previous year.
This year is no different for Graham, 28, though he hopes for a different result than his previous two MLS stops.
“I feel great going into every camp in the MLS. It’s an opportunity and there are things you can control and things you can’t. The only thing I can really do is come in and play hard every day,” Graham said. “I did that with the other teams and I’m going to do that here. Certain environments people thrive in and other environments they don’t.”
Even his time at Stanford University creates an image of perseverance. A walk-on from Thousand Oaks, California, Graham converted from forward to central defender during his first year. After redshirting, he played only two games his freshman year, then spot-start time as a sophomore. He started every game as a junior and helped the Cardinal to a semifinal berth and captained the team to the College Cup final as a senior.
After finishing his college career at Stanford, Graham embarked on his first season in Major League Soccer with the Kansas City Wizards. Though he struggled for playing time his first year, he got himself onto the field with his imposing presence on the back line.
But he didn’t fit into the Wizards long-term plans, so at 24, he was cut. That was when he first signed on with the Sounders in the USL, where he earned Defender of the Year honors in helping the team to a USL First Division title in 2005. He parlayed that success to another opportunity in the MLS, this time with the New York Red Bulls. But again he saw only sparse playing time and returned to Seattle after year-and-a-half. Like clockwork, his appearance in Seattle led to another USL crown for the Sounders in 2007 and he put himself in position to earn a spot on the Sounders FC roster with a good 2008 season.
He did just that when he signed in the first week of training camp, but don’t expect that to make Graham complacent with his role.
“Having been in the MLS before and knowing that you can be signed and have it taken away from you just as easily, you can’t get complacent – you can’t get comfortable,” Graham said. “Whether I signed a contract or not, I was still going to come in and work hard. There’s just an added level of confidence now.”
Graham is one of three former USL Sounders signed to the MLS club and with six others still in camp. His familiarity with those teammates and his ability to mix in well with so many different groups of players has made him a vital asset to the club in the early-going.
“He’s just got a very engaging personality, but he’s also got a pretty level head,” Head coach Sigi Schmid said. “Those guys are important for the locker room. Taylor wants to be on the field, he doesn’t just want to be the locker room guy, but certainly he has that element and that’s an important thing to have. If you have cohesion and the guys like playing with each other and for each other, it just makes the day go a lot nicer.”
While he is helping bridge the gap between the old Sounders and the new Sounders FC players, Graham, whose Spanish-speaking background has also helped incorporate the Spanish-speaking players in with the rest of the team, is using his familiarity with team and city for the first time in his MLS career.
“I love this city. I like the fans. The organization may have a different name, but to me it’s the professional soccer team in the city of Seattle, so there is definitely some familiarity,” Graham said. “It feels good sleeping in my own bed every night. I’ve been from apartment to apartment or hotel to hotel like some of the guys are right now, but this is my home.”
Graham returns to his home state of California for training camp with the Sounders FC in Ventura next week. They will play four exhibition games there before returning briefly and finishing the final stage of training in Argentina. The season opens March 19 against the New York Red Bulls at Qwest Field.