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He's a breakout success

From tough streets of Brooklyn, Joseph emerges as MLS star

FOXBOROUGH -- The oasis was manicured with a lush layer of dirt, scuffed and gouged just about down to its concrete underpinnings. From it sprouted a pastoral carpet of discarded bottles and rocks honed like stilettos. The key to these enchantments was a pair of bolt-cutters, the only way to disarm the padlock set off like a diamond in a lovely necklace of chain link.

"Dirt-poor," recalls Shalrie Joseph.

Paradise.

At least in this netherworld it was. Surrounding this patch of Brooklyn blight -- also known as a playground -- was a moat of temptations to damnation. Guns and drugs and sweet cars and translucent jewelry and easy, dirty money.

So idyllic was this setting in the Crown Heights neighborhood, near New York's notorious Brownsville section, that you had to break in to get out. "The playground was always locked," says Joseph, still disgusted at the recollection. "People didn't want us to be there. They think everything is going to be about drugs."

Joseph was, and is, a classic addict. His narcotic was, and is, soccer.

"I didn't care about any of the dangerous objects on the field," he says. "I just wanted to play the game. I still have that joy and passion to play the game. Every day of my life."

So in that sense, Sunday will be no different. Joseph, 28, will be playing soccer, as always. It's just that he'll be doing it in a slightly more hospitable ambience than that to which he was accustomed as a teen: the cushy turf of Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. And for a slightly more tangible reward: the MLS Cup, which will be the stakes when All-Star midfield anchor Joseph and the New England Revolution face the Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer's championship game.

But the nicest bonus may be this: Joseph doesn't have to be there.

Not-so-beautiful game
It wasn't that he didn't have any alternatives to soccer. It was that he didn't give himself any.

"From the time I was 4 or 5 years old," says Joseph, "that's all I've wanted to do."

To the exclusion of all else. School stunk; he wasn't a bad student, but he didn't want to be any kind of student at all. And no other occupation appealed to him.

"I was going to be a pro soccer player," says Joseph. "That was it. I didn't have a backup plan."

While growing up in Grenada, he might as well have vowed to become a ski instructor. The soccer conditions only aspired to wretchedness: "There was hardly any kind of facilities," says Joseph.

That was partly the legacy of the US intervention in Grenada in 1983, when 5-year-old Shalrie hid under his bed, at his grandmother's behest, to dodge the bombs raining no more than a couple of hundred yards away. He found delinquency somewhat more difficult to avoid. "I was always in the streets. I was always getting into trouble. I'd had a couple of fights."

And his mother had had enough. Ann-Marie Joseph was a single parent who had emigrated to the United States in hopes of establishing a more solid foundation for Shalrie, leaving the boy with her mother in the interim. When he began roaming, she decided now was the time for a reunion. At 15, Shalrie was dispatched to Brooklyn.

He found an upgraded soccer environment, but not by much. That didn't prevent him from sneaking onto the field, day and night, as far away from those cursed classes as he could get.

"It was mostly Caribbeans in my school," says Joseph, "and all we'd do was play soccer. Just play soccer and relax. We didn't worry about anything else."

The soccer gave him plenty to worry about, such as survival. Each game was an international referendum. The Jamaican kids were the best. No, the Trinidadians. Or the Italians. Or the Irish. Or . . . Everyone, it seemed, was playing for the honor of homeland. And the matches were accordingly brutal.

"The inner-city game," says Nick Dimitrievski, the coach at Bryant & Stratton Junior College in Syracuse. "It's a war."

The price of battle was cuts and bruises and stitches and occasionally worse.

"I went down to one of Shalrie's high school games," says St. John's University coach Dave Masur, "and I saw him get his mouth cut open."

"By an elbow," remembers Joseph. "I got one tooth broken in half and another was shaky. I wasn't used to that in Grenada. I wondered why the soccer had to be so tough, so physical."

So pointless.

If this was a war, it was being waged over nothing. The only future for neighborhood soccer prospects seemed to be ethnic rec leagues. The real money was on the streets, and Joseph noticed. He was still at it; while his mother was working day and night as a store manager, he was hanging out with his buddies. That automatically put him on the fringes of the underworld.

"Around me, guys were selling drugs," says Joseph. "The bling, the ice, the cars -- I wanted it. I never sold drugs, but I was just going down the street where there were no positives or good direction."

Making the grades
At that point, Ann-Marie Joseph knew it was time to rearrange the map. "I was worried about his friends," she says. "He was at that age. He just wanted to play soccer, but I refused to settle for that."

More important, she refused to allow Shalrie to settle for that. His education ended when he got his high school diploma, or so he thought.

"I'm going to be a soccer player," he told his mother.

"You're going to be a student," his mother told him.

By now, Joseph had a scholarship offer from Dimitrievski but no inclination to accept it. With a week to go before classes started, he had nothing else to do. Except . . .

"If I hadn't gone to school," says Joseph, "I'm sure I would have been attracted by the drugs and street life."

If he hadn't gone to school, he would have had to give up soccer cold turkey. Ann-Marie Joseph issued the mandate: "If you don't keep your grades up, you don't play."

Thus warned, Joseph began doing a convincing impression of a diligent student and a model citizen. He ventured to Bryant & Stratton, and, to his surprise, he went beyond.

He impressed Dimitrievski as "the epitome of a leader," and he impressed St. John's Masur as the epitome of a promising player. Masur awarded Joseph a scholarship, then transformed his life.

"He had the biggest influence on me," says Joseph. "He showed me there was something beyond soccer. He gave me discipline, helped me mature. He emphasized to me I needed something to fall back on."

The result: Joseph earned a degree in sports management and business, plus his coach's everlasting admiration, especially after he led St. John's to the 2001 NCAA Final Four.

"He was far and away the best player we had technically and tactically," says Masur. "He has a very clear idea of how to play, he's extraordinarily consistent, and he has impeccable technique. But more than that, he's a fantastic kid. He was so open-minded and adaptable. That's not necessarily the case with kids of such talent. He wasn't 'Oh, I'm too good. I don't need to practice.' He was always early to practice, always ready to practice, even the day before a match. He was enthused for every game, no matter how big or small. He was willing to absorb and learn so much."

The most valuable lesson was this: "Now I have a degree, something I can use after soccer," says Joseph. "I'm still not sure what I'm going to do with it, but at least I have options."

Transferable skills
The options now are extremely lucrative, but they began in sheer penury.

After leaving St. John's, Joseph spurned MLS's interest and headed for Europe "because that's the biggest stage and that's where I wanted to play."

That didn't dissuade then Revolution coach Fernando Clavijo from selecting him in the second round of the 2002 draft. "We knew it was a long shot because he was going to Europe," says Clavijo, now Colorado's coach, "but we took a chance. He's such a good player, and you always hope it will turn out that you'll be able to use them."

In fact, Joseph needed to use MLS. His European excursion was fruitless -- an Italian club signed him but went bankrupt, then he refused a German offer because the club wouldn't take a friend of his as well -- and he was in Queens, working construction part time while his girlfriend attended St. John's, when the Revolution's new coach, Steve Nicol, called before the 2003 season.

"He said, 'Why don't you come up for a couple of days and see if you like the environment?' " recalls Joseph. "I loved the environment."

He soon began dominating it as well -- except at the pay window. Because his European flier had left him with no negotiating clout, he accepted the MLS minimum of $24,000, then went about showing what a ridiculous bargain that was.

First he had to find a home. Not in New England, but on the pitch. He'd played forward and defense in college, but his destiny was midfield, once there was a vacancy.

"Most players get a chance through injuries or suspensions," says Nicol. "We had an injury, we put him at midfield, and the rest is history."

Joseph may soon be, too, in terms of MLS. He's making $167,500 now, but he's coveted in Europe, where he can make tenfold that. Earlier this season, MLS rejected a transfer offer of $1 million from Glasgow's Celtic FC, and the ante should be higher when the transfer window reopens in January.

Joseph offers the bromide that "I'm not thinking past the MLS Cup; then we'll see what happens," but for a player who already has taken a crack at Europe, the implication is clear.

"If he leaves," says Revolution defender Jay Heaps, "I hope he goes to one of the best clubs in the world because of his size [6 feet 3 inches, 180 pounds] and ability. If not, I hope he stays a couple of years and someone has to pay a ton of money for him instead of stealing him for a million bucks."

Come or go, Joseph already has impressive credentials. He's a three-time MLS All-Star, an odds-on choice for selection to his second straight Best XI team, and considered arguably the league's premier midfielder.

In the area of tenacity, he has no peer. He's a bulldog on the ball, and he's never let little things like a broken nose, broken cheekbone, torn finger ligament, hip flexor, or strained knee prevent him from playing. The lone injury that has forced him to miss time -- tendon damage in his right hand that required surgery -- occurred during a Boston nightclub incident Sept. 14. "There was an altercation, and I was trying to get away from it," says Joseph, whose hand is still encased in a cumbersome wrap on the field. "There was some glass on the floor and I fell on it."

Opponents know the feeling. "I watch him now," says former mentor Dimitrievski, "and playing against some of the finest players in the world, he doesn't care. He'll go at 'em."

Now where could he have learned that?

Bob Duffy can be reached at Duffy@globe.com.

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