NEW YORK -- When 5-year-old Shalrie Joseph was living in Saint George's, Grenada, he was told ''to hide below the bed and don't come out." In October 1983, the government of the Caribbean island nation had been overthrown in a military coup, and the United States military was intervening.
''I didn't know what was going on, and I was scared," Joseph recalled. ''As a kid, you can't comprehend what is going on. I heard a lot of noise and I just wanted to be safe."
Fast-forward to the mid-'90s. A teenage Joseph was residing in Crown Heights and holding his own against all comers on the soccer field. But Joseph remained undercover in many ways, on the periphery of society. Late in the summer of 1999, Joseph made a life-changing decision.
''There was all kinds of trouble around me -- cars and jewelry, the fast life," Joseph recalled. ''I was going nowhere fast."
Joseph's mother thought he should consider enrolling at Bryant & Stratton College, as his cousin and uncle had. The college offered a business degree and chance to ease into the sporting mainstream playing soccer, the only catch involving a move to Syracuse.
''It was a week before school started and I didn't want to go there," Joseph said. ''But the more I talked to my mom about it, I decided to try it. If I didn't like it, I would come back. I wanted to get out of New York and see different things, and it was close but not too close. A lot of my friends were there and I went with my cousin and met the coach."
Bryant & Stratton is extremely low on the intercollegiate athletic totem pole. But the team won the National Junior College Athletic Association soccer tournament in 2000. For Joseph, it meant he was on the road toward the mainstream, and his two years at St. John's University became a ticket to visibility. Joseph became the star of the St. John's team, which reached the semifinals of the 2001 NCAA Tournament, performing in central defense, midfield, and at striker.
Now, Joseph has emerged as one of the highest-profile players in Major League Soccer and the most valuable player of the Revolution, the team that rescued him from yet another voyage into obscurity. In fact, the team that might have overlooked Joseph was the MetroStars, the opponents of the Revolution tonight at Gillette Stadium in the second game of a total-goals playoff series.
''I went to a workout at the Meadowlands and there were at least 200 kids there," Joseph said. ''They wanted me to come back for the second day, but it was a long drive [from Brooklyn]. It could have been different if I had [returned], but I don't hold anything against them."
By 2001, Joseph was close to being on the radar screen of MLS and, possibly, the US national team. But it was again decision time. Grenada called on Joseph to play in a tournament, paid his way home, and he led the team to the Windward Islands tournament title before a crowd that included the country's prime minister.
''I didn't think I would get seen, my country called, and it was a great honor," Joseph said. ''I would have stayed [in the US] and waited for the opportunity. I was told to be patient and wait for my opportunity. But it is a decision I don't regret. I made it and I am learning from the experience. My roots are in Grenada and I didn't think I would ever get a chance with the US. I maybe sold myself short a little bit."
But by then, Joseph was accustomed to feeling invisible. What are the chances of an inner-city, immigrant kid succeeding in a huge, strange country, where the population of a neighborhood is greater than that of one's native land?
''Shal emerged because he had a special talent," St. John's coach Dave Masur said. ''He has vision, technique, and a tactical sense of the game. He is never at a loss for what to do with the ball. I marvel at the pace of how he puts the ball where it belongs, sets up the other guy so he can deal with it, how he wins the ball and sets up counters. He sees the game better and passes better and knows what is around him better than anyone in the league. The better the level of play, the better he fits in."
The Brooklyn Italians Soccer Club has been providing a haven for undiscovered soccer talent since the 1940s, cobbling together diverse ethnic groups to win the US Open Cup in 1979 and '91. Chris Armas (Puerto Rico) and Carlos Llamosa (Colombia), who would perform for the US in the World Cup despite having been outside the national team system, played with the Brooklyn Italians.
''There is a lot of hidden talent in the New York area, California, Chicago, all the ethnic hotbeds," Brooklyn Italians coach Joe Barone said. ''The problem is the MLS does not go around looking for talent in those places. You have to ask questions and find the right people, but you can find very good players hiding around in these places."
Barone brought Joseph to Modena, Italy, where the team won the Torneo Enzo Ferrari and gave Joseph a vision of playing in Europe. Instead of signing with MLS, Joseph and college teammate Jeff Matteo went to Monza, a lower-division Italian club, a trip that dead-ended after the club failed financially. They moved to Germany, Joseph refusing an offer because it did not include Matteo.
''We all learned a lesson," Masur said. ''It is not easy to make it in a two- or three-day period. They want you to prove yourself over time and you have to be willing to spend five or six weeks over there, so they can evaluate you and see how you fit in."
The Revolution had been so impressed with Joseph they selected him in the second round of the 2002 MLS draft, though he would not be available for at least another year. Joseph returned from Europe and was playing for the Brooklyn Freedoms when he was contacted by the Revolution, and since Joseph had no contract leverage, he signed for $24,000 annually. Coach Steve Nicol played Joseph at right back in his debut in a CONCACAF Champions Cup game in Costa Rica in 2003, but by the third game of the regular season had moved him to a starting defensive midfield slot.
Joseph's tackling and ability to transition into offense is a unique combination in MLS, and he has become an offensive threat this season, scoring six goals. After two years of earning a minimum salary, Joseph is now an All-Star performer and one of the Revolution's highest-paid players.
''Shalrie is pretty much the leader of the team," Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston said. ''He has gotten more credit this year and it has been a coming-out party for him. He is a leader and he wins so many balls and distributes in midfield. He has size, strength, and he is scoring goals this year; he is the total package."
But Joseph's game is about intangibles, reading the situation, involving teammates, performing difficult tasks smoothly. These are the traits that separate top-level players, and they are impossible to teach. Joseph's style was shaped by his background, but he has been able to express it only through perseverance and by making propitious decisions. There is also a palpable hunger about Joseph, who has played several games with a broken nose and other injuries. He injured his foot in practice last week, aggravated it in Game 1, but is listed as probable for tonight's game.
''As a kid, you play for fun, but as I got older I realized how much I really liked [soccer]," Joseph said. ''The more you play the more you fall in love with it. That's where the passion comes from."