Ann Arbor — AS Roma’s Dutch international midfielder Kevin Strootman relishes a challenge more than most, which is perhaps why he took Monday’s skills competition with Michigan football players a little more earnest.
When the lithe 6-foot-1 thunderous tackling soccer player muffed a JUGs machine delivered punt, he angrily kicked the rolling football away.
AS Roma players accepted the Michigan invite after training at Eastern Michigan University ahead Wednesday’s International Champions Cup clash at Comerica Park.
Later, when the visitors were declared a narrow 8.5-7 winner, football and soccer players gathered for an impromptu field goal kicking contest from 50 yards out.
The Wolverines team was slaying the Roma contingent of Sadiq Umar, Maxime Gonalons and Strootman with a soccer ball.
“It’s too easy for you guys,” Strootman protested. “Use that other ball,” he added, referring to the football.
Strootman’s competitive streak caught the eye of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who was taking in the proceedings with AS Roma CEO Umberto Gandini, whom he met during UM’s trip to Rome earlier this year.
The coach later pulled the AS Roma player aside to ask him about his recovery from two separate ACL injuries that sidelined in 2014 and in 2015.
“I really enjoyed watching him go through the drills,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a guy who’s really overcome a lot of adversity, two ACL injuries and to make it back to the level he’s playing at right now is really impressive.”
Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh and AS Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman talk about one another's sports after a skills competition Monday in Ann Arbor. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
Strootman’s return to full fitness was instrumental in AS Roma’s buoyant Serie A campaign last season, which saw the club finish second to Juventus and gain automatic qualification for Champions League play.
Strootman, a defensive midfielder whose uncompromising play hasn’t diminished despite the two knee injuries, had six goals in 43 appearances for the club. In May, the former PSV player signed a five-year contract to stay with Roma through 2022 until he is 32.
Toward that end, the ICC kickoff is the steep stepping off point for the 2017-18 campaign. France’s Paris Saint-Germain, Wednesday’s opponent, plays in Ligue 1, a world power. Roma faces English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur on July 25 in Harrison, N.J. and Serie A-rival Juventus July 30 in Foxborough, Mass.
“It’s good,” Strootman said. “Some players, they start a little bit late, some players they are working for like 10 days, so they are ready for the game. I think we can play some minutes. We are ready. We have to be ready before the 20th of August (Serie A season starts), so it’s good to play some friendly games against some opponents.”
Though Strootman looked uncomfortable throwing a football left-handed (think wounded duck), he’s familiar with plying his trade in the playground of America’s pastime. AS Roma played Liverpool at Fenway Park in 2014.
“The pitch is round so it’s difficult to play in but it is nice,” he said. “It’s a big stadium. It’s a really big stadium. We are happy to play there.”
Strootman’s ornery playing style (he’s been likened to a Dutch Roy Keane) comes through in a brief interview. When asked about AS Roma’s influx of new players, which include Mexican international defender Hector Moreno and Turkish attacking midfielder Cengiz Under, he grows impatient.
“I thought we are going to talk about this ...this amazing complex, what they are going to build,” Strootman said, referring Michigan’s athletic complex. “Are we going to talk about this or we going to talk about Rome?”
AS Roma vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Comerica Park
Tickets: Start at $25, available at tigers.com/soccer