A decade before Robb Heineman took over as the CEO and co-owner of Sporting Kansas City, he watched soccer like most other 20-somethings. He was simply an adoring fan.
OK, perhaps a bigger one than most.
In 1996, Heineman took a trip to Europe and witnessed the first international soccer game of his life, a match featuring AS Roma and ACF Fiorentina in the Serie A league in Italy. Some 17 years later, Heineman is able to recall specific plays, the quality of the game and the drama of its final moments. Perhaps most of all, though, he remembers the young man who was beginning to blossom into one of the world’s greatest stars.
Roma teenager Francesco Totti.
“What a player,” Heineman recalled Monday, still shaking his head in amazement. “If you’re going to be out there, seeing him is one of the highlights.”
This time, Totti is making the trip stateside.
One of the top players of his generation, Totti will join his Roma teammates to battle the best the MLS has to offer in the MLS All-Star Game at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Sporting Park.
Totti, 36, brings quite a resume. He has spent his entire 20-year career with Roma — he began at only 16 — a longevity matched only by his consistency.
He is the club’s all-time leader in appearances (535) and goals (227), the latter of which is good for second most all-time in Serie A history.
“You’re talking about one of the best players who’s ever played,” said Michael Bradley, 25, Totti’s teammate for Roma but also a member of the U.S. men’s national team. “For me, the opportunity when I came to Roma — to play with him, to train with him, to be his teammate and became his friend — has been an incredible experience.
“You have an idea coming in what kind of player he is, how good he is, but I can assure you that when you’re close up, around him every day and play with him, you realize that he’s so much better than everybody realizes.”
Totti joined the Roma youth academy in 1989 and was called up to the senior team in 1993, making his first professional appearance at only 16. He became a fixture of the team two years later, with various coaches switching formations to make Totti a focal point of the offense throughout his career.
He is a five-time winner of the Italian Footballer of the Year, and he’s twice won the league’s player of the year award.
As a 36-year-old, he isn’t the player he used to be, but he still managed 12 goals a year ago.
Totti is entering the final year of his contract with Roma, a 20-year marriage that may be nearing its end. He hinted earlier this month that retirement is a possibility, though he sidestepped questions about his future Monday — specifically one asking if the MLS could be an option.
“In this moment, I think only about Roma,” Totti said through a translator Monday. “I have a contract with Roma, and I’m trying to respect it.”
In the meantime, Totti is set to enjoy his first action against MLS competition — the match Wednesday will provide an opportunity to meet old friends.
None are more notable than Thierry Henry, who is making his third all-star appearance with the New York Red Bulls. Henry and Totti last met in the 2006 World Cup final. Henry competed for France, Totti for Italy.
“When you talk about Roma, you think about Francesco Totti, and when you talk about Francesco Totti, you think about Roma,” Henry said. “We could be talking about Francesco Totti all day. I have so much respect for him, and I’m happy to see him again.”