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Jake LaCava ready for homecoming as Rowdies head to Hartford

After crisscrossing the country and Atlantic to fulfill his potential, Tampa Bay’s leading goal scorer returns to just over an hour from where it all began.
Rowdies forward Jake LaCava celebrates after scoring in a 1-1 draw against Hartford at Al Lang Stadium in March.
Rowdies forward Jake LaCava celebrates after scoring in a 1-1 draw against Hartford at Al Lang Stadium in March. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Jul. 9|Updated Jul. 9

ST. PETERSBURG — New York. Boston. Amsterdam. Sunderland. Marbella. Portugal. Arizona. Denmark. Los Angeles. New York again.

And now Al Lang Stadium.

The soccer odyssey of Rowdies forward Jake LaCava, though, began amidst the rolling hills of New Milford, Connecticut, where he was the third of four boys. His father, Greg, began coaching locally before any of them were born, eventually serving as president of the town’s youth lacrosse association and soccer club.

His mom, Wendy, managed those teams before getting into coaching. LaCava was born in January, or as Wendy called it, the indoor season.

“And we’d lay him down (on) the sideline, lay him down (on) the field,” Wendy said. “The kids would kick around him.”

LaCava grew up playing with his older brothers’ teams, routinely facing kids about five years his senior, but his talent and drive soon outgrew Connecticut’s second-largest town. His parents supported his path to pro soccer, Wendy at one point driving him three hours each way seven days a week for opportunities.

“And he just kept growing as a player,” Wendy said, “so it was phenomenal to watch.”

The sacrifices are paying off as LaCava, who leads the Rowdies with nine goals, asserts himself as a USL Championship player of the year contender on loan from MLS’s New York Red Bulls.

LaCava, 21, scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Memphis last Saturday, making the league Team of the Week with Rowdies midfielder Laurence Wyke. On Saturday night, he and the Rowdies travel to take on Hartford just over an hour from his childhood home.

Origins

Jake LaCava scored both goals during a 2-0 victory over Memphis Saturday night.
Jake LaCava scored both goals during a 2-0 victory over Memphis Saturday night. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

In kindergarten, LaCava would race the fifth-graders at recess until they were tired of losing, then focus on beating his personal best, tracked by his teacher’s stopwatch.

Wendy and Greg were wary of allowing LaCava to dominate with just his strength and speed, and could help him “fill his toolbox” for only so long. By the time he was 9, they were driving him to elite Red Bulls youth programs.

LaCava’s parents recall his focus as uncanny. At Christmas, Wendy would worry that he didn’t like his presents because he refused to rip into them, opening a package only after studying it so he could immediately assemble what was inside.

Even after moving to upstate New York, Wendy kept driving LaCava to the Red Bulls and other academies in New York and Boston. She’d come home exhausted, sometimes around 1 a.m., but she said she had “no problem” putting in the same effort as LaCava, whom coaches called “the machine.” It was worth the look she saw on his face when he trained.

“Not once in all the years that he’s been playing, from the time he was little, I never had to ask him to get his stuff ready,” she said. “Never once did he ever say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go train.’ "

Go West

Opportunities abroad popped up constantly. Portuguese club Estoril wanted LaCava to stay after a four-month stint, but FIFA permissions got in the way. Spending two of those months alone, though, helped prepare LaCava, then 16, for the Barca academy in Casa Grande, Arizona.

“Being surrounded by other kids and other people who love the game as much as you do,” LaCava said, “it kind of takes away the aspect of missing family and missing everything because you’re doing what you love so much of the time.”

LaCava, who credits “bouncing around” at a young age with preparing him for life in the pros, spent a year at MLS LA Galaxy’s academy before returning to the Red Bulls.

“I think his ability to deal with change is important,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “And I think his ability to come in here, come into a new locker room, assert himself, get the trust from his teammates, I that’s going to stand him in great stead.”

LaCava’s travels are mapped all over his body in tattoos. He runs each tattoo by his mom, which he said “encompass” their journey.

“I guess it helps me stay close to her in a way,” he said, “and it also helps me kind of put down roots wherever I’ve been.”

Wendy has sketched most of them, including his first, which she let him get as a present for his 16th birthday. It was a “wolf in the world,” inspired by a report for school. He loved how the alpha would walk with the rest of the pack, following at the end.

Homecoming

Jake LaCava leades the Rowdies with nine goals this season.
Jake LaCava leades the Rowdies with nine goals this season. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

LaCava made his USL Championship debut with Red Bulls II in 2020, recording 11 goals and seven assists over two seasons. He faced the Rowdies four times in 2021, scoring once. Collins reached out, and New York agreed it was time to see what LaCava could do on an experienced team challenging for a title.

Before his pro debut, though, the pandemic paused play at a critical time in his career. Back in Warren, Connecticut, with his father — now the town’s first selectman — LaCava would train three or four times per day. Greg urged his son to give his body a break.

“He would get up off the coach and he would go train again,” Greg said.

Wendy estimated that as many as 50 people could be on hand Saturday to welcome LaCava back to Connecticut, including family, childhood friends, former teachers, his pediatrician and a bus of supporters from the Soccer Club of New Milford.

After crisscrossing the country and Atlantic to pursue his pro dream, this trip means a bit more than just three points.

Contact Greg McKenna at gmckenna@tampabay.com. Follow @McKennaGregjed.

Tonight

Rowdies at Hartford, 7

Streaming: ESPN+

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