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'The Irish Scholes' - one of the top prospects in the US on Penn State, King crisps and MLS dreams

Dubliner Aaron Molloy has been named Midfielder of the Year and captained his university to the NCAA Division 1 tournament.
Nov 23rd 2019, 9:30 PM 28,783 6

BACK IN SEPTEMBER, the Penn State team headed to Long Island and claimed an impressive 4-1 away win over Stony Brook University. 

It was a special night for Dubliner Aaron Molloy as he scored twice for the first time in his collegiate career. But he was still irritated afterwards. 

“There was an offside called against them”, he begins.  

“We’d done some video work and my manager had said, ‘Look, their keeper likes to cheat a little bit – keep an eye out’. So, it was a free-kick about five or six yards inside our half and I let everything settle down. I’d seen their goalkeeper and he was just past the penalty spot so I went for it. Crossbar, down and in. I turned away celebrating, the top nearly came off and everything. And the referee blew it back. And he said, ‘It was an indirect free-kick’. I said, ‘What do you mean it was indirect? I never heard this rule in my life’. But you learn something new every day. I won’t be shooting straight from an offside again, that’s for sure. Can you imagine if I had whipped the jersey off? I’d have been mortified. I finally would’ve made SportsCenter on ESPN…the ‘Not Top Ten’ segment.”

It’s not just the ginger hair that has ensured comparisons with a former Manchester United midfielder. Molloy’s ability to pick a pass as well as his penalty area punctuality has meant quite a few references to ‘The Irish Scholes’ this season, much to his delight. But he remains bemused that one headline described him as ‘The Irish Messi’.   

“I’m not sure where that came from because I’ve never dribbled around anyone in my life”, he says with a laugh. 

“I’ve been a United fan always. My Da (former Irish underage international and longtime League of Ireland striker, Trevor) got me into it and we went to watch them at Old Trafford a few times. I was pretty young but my Da used to say, ‘If you don’t want to watch the game, just watch Paul Scholes play’ and that’s what I still do with some players even now. But I do try to base my game on his. He wasn’t the fastest or the strongest but when the ball was at his feet, he could make things happen. And that’s what I feel I’m like. I’ve scored some decent goals this year so I’ve been called Scholesy quite a few times.” 

The quick-thinking in that game with Stony Brook is an example of the ingenuity and impudence which sets him apart. And why, after a superb season, plenty of people are standing up and taking notice.

Screen Shot 2019-11-23 at 13.05.38 Molloy has captained the Penn State team to the NCAA Division 1 tournament. Source: Penn State Athletics

Earlier this month, Molloy was named Midfielder of the Year by the Big Ten Conference, where Penn State ply their trade. It was the first accolade of its kind the university have won since 2014 and Molloy was also included in the conference’s Best XI. He captained Penn State in each of their 18 games, scoring eight goals and assisting on six others as the side lost just three times.

Their campaign has been so impressive that they’ve qualified for their first NCAA Division 1 tournament in five years. But it gets better. They’re one of just sixteen teams to be seeded.      

“We’re 15th in the country and I think it’s the first time in nine years that Penn State have been ranked going into the competition”, Molloy says. 

“So it’s been a good journey so far. We changed the culture because we lost a lot of players from last year so half the team is brand new and the coaching staff have only been here for about a year. But the lads that have stuck around have been great and it’s really been about the togetherness and having each others’ backs through the easy games and the tough ones. It’s helped us grind through the season.”

Still, it’s the curious nature of North American sports culture. A regular season – the arduous, unrelenting league scenario – is only half the battle. Everything gets ramped up now. For the playoffs. It’s a straight knockout. Early season consistency is pretty meaningless, though Penn State – along with the other seeded teams – get to avoid the first round. 

“It took me a while to adjust”, Molloy admits. 

“I had no idea at all about how everything worked. To be honest, it’s still so massive that I’m still learning. In Division 1, there’s over 200 teams and we’re ranked 15th. But, we’re well aware that it’s a lose-and-go-home situation from here on. Thankfully we didn’t have to play on Thursday night, when the first round happened. So, we got to have a little rest and prepare for this game against Providence tomorrow. They’re in a different conference (Big East) and we’ve never played them in my time here. So it’s about doing our homework on them and they’ll do the same. We actually have a media room here at Penn State and the majority of us got some food in on Thursday and watched their game and it was a bit of a laugh with the lads.” 

The last time we spoke – over two years ago – Molloy, who featured for Bohemians and Drogheda before heading trans-Atlantic, was a new recruit at Penn State and still getting to grips with the sprawling scale of one of the best-known third level institutions in the United States. But now, as he inches closer to finishing his degree and planning his next move, he speaks with a clarity and maturity that goes some way to explaining why his coaches handed him the captain’s armband.  

“They gave me so much more responsibility as a leader”, he says. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-23 at 13.28.49 Molloy has been voted Midfielder of the Year by the Big Ten Conference after eight goals and six assists in 18 games. Source: Penn State Athletics

“It took me out of my comfort zone, especially with the team being brand-new. And I’ve taken it on the chin and grown from there. We have some really good lads on the team: leaders, characters, fellas that just want to win and will do whatever it takes.”

Looking back and seeing what I’ve been through and how much I’ve grown is fantastic. I’m very proud of my family for giving me this opportunity and grateful to Penn State for letting me live out my dream. I have so much respect for the League of Ireland but I really wanted to continue my career, get an education and look past soccer for when I’m retired. Sometimes playing at a high-level in college is frowned upon and people don’t think the level is that high. But in MLS, the majority of the American players have been through the collegiate system so it’s super tough. There’s some really good teams, great players, excellent coaches. And being in the system has helped me grow enormously.”  

Family is important to him. The oldest of eight and a self-confessed ‘mammy’s boy’, there were plenty of tears at Dublin Airport when he made the initial move to the US and Florida’s Keiser University in 2016. His mother was anxious, stressed. The usual. But, he settled quickly and Penn State has subsequently been the making of Molloy.   

“When I went over first, she was like your typical Irish Mammy – worried, concerned, ringing twice a day”, he says. 

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“But once she came over and I showed her around Penn State, she felt so comfortable. I have people around – my girlfriend and her family, a fantastic group of friends. And it’s like a family environment here. There’s never any trouble, everyone will say hi to you on the street, everyone is wearing Penn State clothes. It’s just a really, really nice area to be in. So the Ma found it very comforting since she saw the campus and the everyone here.

She’s been absolutely fantastic I’m a little mammy’s boy when she comes over because she does look after me. She’s been over plenty times now and I always seem to score when she’s here.” 

But her influence doesn’t just end there. 

“The care packages…” Molloy begins. 

“I try to stay away from the stuff. I’m on a strict diet in the season and she’s sending me over the Tayto, the King, the Kinder Bueno. I’m like, ‘Here, Ma – send them after Christmas because I’m trying to stay healthy’. But she’ll send over some small things from Penny’s – tee-shirts and other bits and pieces – and it’s always great getting stuff from home.” 

The next steps are pretty clear in Molloy’s mind. In January, the MLS SuperDraft takes place and he’s aiming to make a suitable impression.  

“I’m a senior now and I’ve got no eligibility left to play for Penn State after the NCAA”, he says. 

“I’m only a few classes short of graduating and I can actually do those online so then I’ll have my degree in Recreational, Park and Tourism Management shortly. Then, I’ll hopefully get to the Combine (a pre-draft event where prospects are put through their paces and get the chance to mingle with reps from MLS teams) and then the draft.  Then, it’s about becoming a pro soccer player. To have also got an education along the way is the best of both worlds, which has always been the dream.

I’m not going to say no to anything, but it’s my number one target. I’d love to be in MLS. But I have to see how things play out. Right now, the focus is Penn State and the further we get, the better my chances will be of getting a contract after the season.”              

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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