Throughout high school, the phone would constantly ring in Michigan redshirt junior midfielder Tyler Arnone’s Hicksville, N.Y. home. His mother, Linda Rogus, would answer, the voice on the other line asking if Tyler could come to a local tryout. Rogus would respectfully decline, like she always did, citing that Tyler only played for fun. She would hang up, shaking her head.
“Who was that?” Arnone would call to his mother from another room.
“Your jazz band teacher,” she’d yell. “He wants you to audition for a spot.”
“Again?” Arnone would shout back, feigning disbelief. He was good at the trumpet, and he knew it. He was second chair in his school band despite never practicing. His mother would repeatedly tell him to pick up his instrument, but he was so naturally gifted, he rarely had to.
Arnone understands music well — the nuances of it, the harmonies that sound best, the intricacies that distinguish good from great. He has an enormous appreciation for all types of music, much like his value for all aspects of soccer, from the beautiful, fluid buildup to the rough, choppy finishes.
A team captain this season, Arnone is both the conductor and soloist on the field. He holds together the team the way a melody does a song. Connecting passes and swinging the ball from side to side, he keeps the offense in sync. He plays with an untamed passion which reflects much of where he came from. He grew up playing street soccer where the old playground adage, “no blood, no foul,” dominated games.
Hicksville is a quiet blue-collar town on Long Island, the type of place where thick family ties and old-fashioned values run deep, where simplicity reigns supreme. Despite Hicksville’s minute, 6.8-square-mile size, its musical contributions include guitarists Denny Dias of Steely Dan and Al Pitrelli of Megadeath and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
In the locker room two hours before a recent match, Arnone blasted his hometown’s most famous native son, Billy Joel.
“I love ‘River of Dreams,’ ” Arnone says. “He talks about Hicksville a lot.”
Arnone grew up next door to Joel and admired more than just his music. Arnone, whose father is a physical education teacher and mother a gymnastics coach, didn’t come from fortunate means. After his parents divorced, they worked hard to support him and his older sister, and when times got tough financially, Arnone would read articles on Joel and try to compare his mentality to that of his music idol.
“(Joel) made the best of a not-so-good area,” Arnone said. “So why couldn’t I?”
Arnone began playing soccer at 4 years old, and it’s been an everyday thing since. He didn’t score a goal during his first two years competing, but on his sixth birthday, with his team losing 5-0, Arnone finally recorded his first career tally — six of them, leading his team to a 6-5 win.
“I remember it vividly,” Arnone said. He pauses, laughs. “My mom has it on video.”
Arnone relied heavily on his mother during his early childhood, and he considers her his greatest influence. After his parents split, she drove him to practice, made sure he kept on the right path, picked him up when he was down and attended all his matches.
Since the time Arnone first began playing, his father, while local, has seen his son compete in fewer than five games. Arnone keeps in contact with his father often, but the disappointment of not having his support on the field forced Arnone to fill that void elsewhere.
“(My father) talks to me on the phone, he’s always there,” Arnone said. “But because my parents divorced, it’s not that I sought a father figure, but (my coaches) kind of took that place for me.”
The Wolverines coaches this season have been using the phrase, “Entitled to nothing, grateful for everything” around their players, a motto Arnone has taken to heart. There are nights when Arnone will lie on his bed and look around his room — which is littered in Michigan apparel — in awe, and count the opportunities afforded to him.
“(I wasn’t) poor, but lower-middle class for sure,” Arnone says. “So then to come to a place like Michigan, where you have the best of the best, for some people it’s easy to lose appreciation for it, but that quote is something I value every day. Just being here and going to school at Michigan, playing sports here, it’s unbelievable.”
Coming out of high school, Arnone was on cloud nine. His high-school team had just won the state championship. His club team went to the national championship. He was a top recruit headed to St. John’s in nearby Queens, N.Y. on a full scholarship. But all the accolades, all the promise, would be short-lived.
“You’re not good enough to play Division I soccer.”
It’s the end-of-the-year players-and-coaches meetings in 2010, and the St. John’s staff is blunt with Arnone, who had redshirted his freshman season despite being healthy and willing to play. Arnone — who had passed on Michigan to stay closer to family — was watching his college soccer career evaporate before it ever started.
Arnone decided to transfer and put Michigan on his scholarship release papers. The Wolverines former coaching staff, led by former coach Steve Burns, reached out to him the next day.
“They said, ‘We want to make this happen. How can we make this happen?’ ” Arnone recalled.
Arnone had never needed to put the hours in to improve at the trumpet. But on the soccer field, there was much to be done — skills to polish, people to impress, a spot to earn. Burns and the coaching staff transitioned Arnone, who was an attacking midfielder in high school, to a more defensive role, but at just 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, he was considerably undersized for his position. Getting stronger was his top priority to keep pace in the Big Ten and to have a legitimate presence on the pitch. He put on nearly 15 pounds of muscle last offseason and hopes to add more.
Nearly three years have passed since his transfer, and Arnone has tallied 29 points on nine goals and 11 assists in two-plus seasons, earning 2012 first-team All-Big Ten honors along the way.
How Arnone plays the game separates him from other good center midfielders. He’s willing to do the dirty things — to track back defensively, sell out his body on a tackle. Arnone also has a tremendous soccer IQ, and uncanny feel for the game. His speed of thought is on par with the best at the collegiate level and he’s often two steps ahead of his defenders by the time he receives the ball. That intelligence might just lead to a professional contract after graduation.
This past summer, Arnone trained with Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer, spending a week with both clubs. His workouts were not official trials, but he gained professional experience playing alongside the likes of United States National Team members Graham Zusi and Matt Besler.
“I would love to be in the MLS,” Arnone said. “I’m a big family person, and I don’t know if I want to go overseas and leave my family and friends.”
He paused, reconsidering what he’s just said. “But don’t get me wrong, if the opportunity presented itself, I’m going.”
Back in the Michigan locker room, Arnone has just finished putting on his cleats. His head is bobbing to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” He’s no longer playing music in the tangible sense, but with the way he orchestrates the Michigan offense, he might as well be.
He turns up the volume in his headphones, feeling the music course through him. His body is loose, light. His mind circles back to what an old coach once told him after a game, that he was only as good as the last match he’s played.
“You’re only as good as the person you are today, too,” Arnone said. “Today’s a new day. Time to get better.”