The 28-year-old American has been getting his career back on track in MLS since joining the New York Red Bulls in February.
New York Red Bulls forward Mike Grella has told the Seeing Red podcast that he believes the style of football in the English lower leagues is why he failed to make his mark with the likes of Leeds United.
A former First-Team All-American and top college prospect after scoring 41 goals for Duke University between 2005 and 2008, Grella originally spurned the chance to start his pro career in MLS in 2009 in order to explore European options through his Italian passport.
He soon found a home in England with then-League One side Leeds following a successful trial but, despite going on to show some flashes of potential, could not manage to hold down a regular first-team place during his two-and-a-half seasons at Elland Road.
Released in August 2011 after scoring five goals in 40 total appearances for the club, the former US Under-20 international would split the following two campaigns with Brentford, Bury and Scunthorpe United, respectively, but again struggled to make an impression.
After a brief stint with Danish outfit Viborg, he returned to the States in 2014 to join NASL’s Carolina RailHawks on a short-term deal but, at that stage, was considering retiring from the sport altogether.
However, after opting to return to New York, the Long Island-native began training with New York City FC ahead of the expansion side’s inaugural campaign and eventually earned a pre-season trial with their crosstown rivals, the Red Bulls.
He impressed enough to earn a permanent deal leading up to the 2015 season and has since proved a shrewd signing, scoring five goals in 16 games and earning plaudits for his highlight reel-filled performances on the wing.
While he has not quite managed to make the same kind of impact as retired ex-skipper Thierry Henry, the American attacker has finally managed to display some of the potential which once saw him labelled a future national team star and he believes that is because of the creative freedom afforded to him in MLS – something he did not get in England.
Speaking to Seeing Red, Grella said: “I played for a lot of teams in England and couldn’t really make it stick. I just think it was more because of a cultural difference and a difference in opinion about how the game should be played.
“In the lower leagues in England, it’s very difficult if you’re a technical player to impose yourself on the game. I played for a lot of different managers and at one time really did think about calling it quits.
“My wife and I decided that we wanted to settle down back in New York and have a family," he continued. "If soccer was going to fit into that, great, but if it wasn’t then I was going to move on because I wanted to put my family first – that was the most important thing for me.
“We decided to move back and I actually trained with New York City FC for about two months, was able to get back into shape and then had the opportunity with the Red Bulls, which was unbelievable for me and my family.
“That’s where we are right now and we’re all working hard to win something this season and really impose ourselves in the league this year.”
After a month-long winless slump, two straight MLS victories over Real Salt Lake and NYCFC have put the Red Bulls back in touch with the Eastern Conference’s top teams, while a win in their upcoming US Open Cup clash with the New York Cosmos will also seal them a place in the quarter-finals of the competition.
With some summer reinforcements expected – Shaun Wright-Phillips being one possible option, it remains to be seen whether Grella’s spot in the line-up is guaranteed at this point but, considering the praise he has been getting from head coach Jesse Marsch of late, he should continue to be an important contributor moving forward.