TAMPA — Jeremy Christie had to go halfway across the world to become a hero back home.
Last week, Christie, a midfielder for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, was one of 23 players named to New Zealand's World Cup team, which will play in the world's biggest sporting event starting next month in South Africa.
In Tampa, Christie has found a new home. In five games, Christie, who has one goal and two assists, has been the catalyst of the Rowdies' offense, seemingly in the middle of every play. Now Tampa Bay must persevere without one of its most experienced and flexible players.
"He's played every minute of every game so far. So we lost a big part not just on the field but off the field," Rowdies coach Paul Dalglish said. "He's one of our main guys in the locker room. We'll miss him when he's away.
"But at the same time, we're unbelievably proud that he's going over there to play in the World Cup."
In New Zealand, the World Cup is a monumental event. It's the first time since 1982 the All Whites — the team's nickname, playing off the nation's famed All Blacks rugby team — have qualified. Christie, who turns 27 on Saturday, wasn't even born then.
"It's been a dream," Christie said. "I made my debut in 2005. And my first game, the coach said the goal was the 2010 World Cup. Every time I was in camp, that was the first thing they talked about. To be there and be part of it is going to be awesome.
"We sort of always hear about '82 because the head coach played in that and the assistant coach played in that. So we know how important it is for the country and for the sport. Hopefully, football can start to take off in New Zealand because it's kind of been a sleeping giant."
As in the United States, soccer plays second fiddle to other sports in New Zealand.
"It's a 100 percent rugby country, but I love rugby," Christie said. "We'd just like to get a few more column inches in the newspapers, but the World Cup will definitely take us to a new level football-wise. Being a Kiwi, you're always about rugby."
Among the reasons Christie has been valuable in Tampa Bay is he's one of the few players with international experience. He has 20 caps (or international appearances) dating to 2005. He played in last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, appearing in all three games and starting one for a team that went scoreless while finishing 0-2-1.
But he was left off the roster for New Zealand's past four international games.
"I thought I was still in the mix after the Confederations Cup," Christie said. "I hoped I was still on their minds. Obviously not being there the past few squads, I was a little anxious. But I'm so happy to be a part of it."
He said coming to Tampa Bay likely played a role in being selected. Last year, playing in the Australian pro league, minutes were limited, so he joined the Rowdies. (He was the first player the new organization signed.) While the pro seasons in Australia and New Zealand finished in February, Christie has been able to stay fresh in the coaches' minds. "If I wasn't playing here, I probably wouldn't have made it," said Christie, who left for national team training last week.
"It's probably been the best decision I could have made because I've played a number of minutes every week, and it's probably gotten me back on the national team."
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at [email protected]s.com.