Brother Rice's Russell Cicerone navigates U.S. pro soccer's uneven terrain

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Forward Russell Cicerone has started three of four matches for Saint Louis FC where he has one goal.

Former Birmingham Rice standout Russell Cicerone is following the trail of crumbs to Major League League soccer, which has him starting at Saint Louis FC — his third club in three years in U.S. pro soccer’s second tier.

Cicerone scored the winner in the 76th minute of St. Louis’ season opener, a 2-1 victory over Indy Eleven on March 9 and snatched another in the team's 2-0 triumph over Atlanta United 2. He's been in the starting lineup in four of five St. Louis’ regular-season matches, which sees the club atop the USL Eastern Conference at 4-0-1.

The narrative appears more in line with the reputation that followed him at the University of Buffalo, where he amassed 42 goals and 22 assists in 71 appearances, as well as with the Premier Development League Michigan Bucks, where he put away 20 goals in 22 games while helping lead the Pontiac-based club to a 2016 PDL national championship.

His poaching skills prompted the Portland Timbers to take him in the fourth round, 76th overall, in the 2017 in the MLS Superdraft.

The goals fell off and reality set in.

Cicerone, 24, scored one goal with Portland Timbers 2, the MLS club’s USL entry. With Portland dragging its feet in offering him a contract and FC Cincinnati — which was preparing a move to MLS from second-division USL — opening its doors, he bolted for the Queen City last season.

He struggled for playing time and managed only one goal in 10 appearances. 

“It's been a lot more difficult than I originally thought it was going to be,” Cicerone said. “It's definitely a grind trying to get playing time, but there's so many good players out there and these organizations … it's important for them to win. They need to have competitive situations like that. But I think it's made me a much better player.”

“I've gotten through some adversity and that's made me better, too.”

Cicerone has honed in on the “subtle things,” when the goals are not forthcoming such as the importance of tracking back, making critical passes in the defensive half and playing a key role in the offensive buildup.

“Before I thought I would have had a bad game if I didn’t have a goal or an assist,” Cicerone said. “Then I would sit down with the coaching staff and we would go through my individual (video) clips and it would turn out I really had a good game. I completed passes that advanced us into the final third or I got back did my defensive responsibilities, and we won the game 1-0.”

If he needs words of wisdom outside soccer, Cicerone can call home. His mother is Mary Cicerone, who's won six state titles in 36 years as Birmingham Marian High girls basketball coach.

Mary and David Cicerone are proud soccer parents, who traveled regularly last season to Cincinnati to watch their son. The couple has been to St. Louis to see Russell in action once this season.

“I'm always telling him what to do. I'm a coach, right? That's what I tell him,” Mary Cicerone said. “Sometimes he listens to me, sometimes he thinks I'm crazy.”

Mary Cicerone describes herself as a “nervous” soccer parent, but one who is in tune with the U.S. professional landscape.

Russell started kicking a soccer ball on the sideline as a preschooler while older sister, Anina, started in the sport as a kindergartner before going on to play soccer at Western Michigan where she was an academic All-American in 2011.

Russell, who played hockey at Brother Rice where he won a state Division 2 title in 2012, developed through Vardar, which has produced numerous elite soccer players in Michigan.

“If we had to do it all over again, if we knew he was going to be this kind of player, had a passion for it, we would have tried to get him into an MLS academy,” Mary Cicerone said. “Those guys have a foot in the door right away.”

Russell also kicked around the idea of going to Europe to play, following a path taken by Holly’s Caleb Stanko with Germany’s SC Freiburg and Plymouth’s Josh Gatt with Norway’s Molde FK. His paternal grandfather Marco Cicerone was born in Italy, but a wrinkle in U.S. citizenship laws threw a roadblock in that plan.

Stanko returned to the U.S. this spring and is playing with FC Cincinnati. Gatt, whose career was hampered by knee injuries, played with the MLS Colorado Rapids before returning to Austria this year.

“I don't think he would have liked to have given up his four years of college because he had a good time,” Mary Cicerone said of her son’s four years at Buffalo, which ironically dropped its men’s soccer program due to budget cuts. “He loved his college years, but to be to where he wants to be, you know, if we had to do it all again we would have tried to find a way to get him into some kind of MLS academy. That would be my advice for people today.”

Russell Cicerone won't look back, only toward the goal. 

"It's going really well, I mean we're on top of the table right now," he said. "So, it's going well. I like the city. I like the team. I like my teammates. Everything is good."