For the fifth year in a row, the Chicago Fire spent time in Mississippi over the last week, returning to the roots of veteran midfielder Justin Mapp for preseason training and a friendly with a familiar MLS foe.
The state's soccer community recognizes Mapp as their most famous son - he's the only current Major League Soccer player from the Magnolia State and while he's now a "seasoned vet" at age 25, he took a tougher path than most to develop into a top talent.
"Growing up and playing there was a lot different for me then where it's at for kids now," said Mapp from Houston Wednesday. "It wasn't that there was this out-and-out attitude towards soccer, it just wasn't as popular as other sports and with the state being small population wise, the talent pool wasn't as high."
"Sippy" (the nickname bestowed on him by his teammates) rose above the rest, earning an invite to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL in 2000. Training everyday with the top youth from around the country, he was part of the United States U17 World Championship team that went to Trinidad & Tobago in 2001, before signing with Major League Soccer the following year. Mapp was selected by DC United, but played sparingly during his rookie season and was traded to the Fire in 2003 in exchange for midfielder Dema Kovalenko.
It was in the Windy City where his career began to take off, appearing in 21 matches while tallying three goals and three assists during his first year in Chicago. Now the second most tenured player with the team behind "Fire Original" C.J. Brown, Mapp has played in 164 matches, recording 14 goals and 35 assists for the club since 2003.
Entering his ninth season as a pro, Mapp is still happy to go back to his Mississippi roots, serving as a local concierge to teammates that aren't so familiar with the area.
"We're on a pretty tight schedule wherever we go in preseason, but I help guys out as best I can when we're there, especially the new faces. It is kind of an odd place for a pro team to go, but we've made it normal and we keep going back because we're received so well. I think the guys appreciate that and also enjoy the eats whenever we're there. I hope we continue to go back."
In what seems like a soccer backwater to most, Mississippi has made impressive in-roads towards soccer development with a number of competitive youth clubs popping up around the state, a successful Premier Development League team in Mississippi Brilla and above all, the launch of the Chicago Fire Juniors program in 2006.
"My thought from a young age was that I wanted to be a professional player and the attitude toward that idea wasn't what you would think. After a while I saw the opportunity to do it and here I am. I think the sport in the state has grown a great deal since I grew up there and there will be more players eventually that come from there."
The youngster's got to experience what has become a spring-time fixture last Sunday, when the Fire played a preseason match in Ridgeland, MS - just 30 minutes from Mapp's hometown of Brandon - against F.C. Dallas.
Though he didn't start, Mapp entered the match to a raucous ovation in the 39th minute, befitting of a crowd from the Hospitality State (Mississippi's other nickname) showing appreciation for one of their own. Looking to impress the home crowd, Mapp was dangerous throughout the match, which the Fire won 3-0 over the Hoops.
As preseason comes to a close, Sippy is looking forward to returning to his second home in Chicago -- just weeks away from MLS First Kick.
"We've put in a lot of hard work in each location we've been this preseason and played some very good competition. The coaching staff has done well in preparing us for the season and we just have two more matches before the one that counts. I'm looking forward to it."
Mapp's referring to Thursday night's game against the Houston Dynamo at the Carl Lewis Track & Field Complex on the University of Houston campus. The club returns to Chicago on Friday where they'll train in preparation for the final preseason match against the University of Notre Dame, next Saturday, March 20 at Toyota Park.