Back in June, Joe Scally paid a visit to his former club, New York City FC. The reunion allowed him to catch up with old friends and former coaches; after all, it had only been six months since he had completed his move to Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach -- who play Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday (12:25 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) -- and yet NYCFC sporting director David Lee, who had watched Scally progress through the club's academy system, had already noticed a change.
"[Scally] looked more grown up," Lee told ESPN. "He looked bigger, he looked stronger. Just that six-month transition -- I think sometimes, we forget that with young people, whether you're going off to college or you're doing something else, you leave your parents and you've got to fend for yourself all of a sudden, and you just grow up quickly. He certainly developed even further physically, which is pretty remarkable."
In the opening weeks of the club season, Scally's growth has been on full display. With starting left-back Ramy Bensebaini out injured, Scally -- a right-back by trade -- was drafted in to replace him and has made nary a misstep, excelling in both a DFB-Pokal victory over Kaiserslautern and last Friday's 1-1 draw against the star-studded lineup of reigning champions Bayern Munich.
"It was crazy," Scally told ESPN from Germany. "Just like a dream."
Given his play in the cup match, he was pretty sure he was going to start against Bayern, which brought on a special set of nerves given the players he'd be going up against, including Robert Lewandowski and Leroy Sane.
It helped that Scally's family was visiting, allowing him to relax, and he was certainly composed once the opening whistle blew. He recalled how an early exchange with Lewandowski -- in which Scally bodied up the forward, forcing him to kick the ball out of bounds -- helped set the tone for him early.
"It was like, 'I just got the ball from Lewandowski, who is someone I've watched forever and is one of the best forwards of all time,'" Scally said. "Knowing that gave me so much confidence going into the rest of the game."
"My whole phone was blowing up," Scally said. "I could just keep swiping. It was great."
Even more impressive has been the rapidity with which he has settled into life in Germany.
Adapting quickly to a new country, a new language and a different soccer culture is always an impressive feat. It's an experience that takes a player completely out of their comfort zone. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made that challenge an order of magnitude more difficult. The relationships with teammates are more difficult to foster given the reduced opportunities for hanging out at the training ground. Even outside of the team setting, the protocols kept interactions with the public to a minimum, reducing the chances to get more comfortable with the language. It's easy to become isolated.
It was an experience that brought into focus everything that Scally had left behind. An ankle injury that he sustained prior to his departure for Germany slowed his initial progress as well.
"It was definitely tough," he said. "The first month I think was very hard just because I left my family, my girlfriend, my friends, everyone behind. And it just happened like in a split second. You think that the day will never come, that you're leaving everyone, and then it just happens."
Scally's father John added, "Thank god for FaceTime. Because of COVID, you practice, you couldn't even hang out with the players... you have to just go back to your apartment and that was it. So that's really good that he got through it. He's a very mature 18-year-old."
Getting on the field helped speed up the acclimation process. Once the ankle injury was behind him, the defender quickly established himself in Gladbach's second team, making 15 appearances in the 2020-21 season. He also trained regularly with the first team, and while the speed of play and thought was a challenge at first, he soon gained the respect of his new teammates. His early success gave him peace of mind, as well that conviction he'd made the right decision to head to Europe.
"When you do really good, it gives you more confidence, makes you happier," Scally said. "So I think right after that first practice with the first team, in my first game, that's when everything really started accelerating."
It helped that his longtime friend, Reyna, was nearby. Their apartments are 45 minutes away from one another, and even when they couldn't see each other in person, there was the video game connection. While Scally rules at Mario Kart, Fortnite is Reyna's domain, especially when Reyna's younger brother Joah is involved.
"They're both so much better than me," said Scally with a laugh. "When we're playing Fortnite, when I die or when I go down, they'll just never pick me up because they're better off without me."
When Scally finished the 2020-21 season, he took a couple of weeks off in West Palm Beach, Florida before returning home to Long Island. It was there that he started training for the new season, a regimen that required a special kind of discipline.
Father John is co-owner of the Village Idiot Pub in Lake Grove, New York. The establishment is a two-minute walk from Scally's home, and the lure of some of the more sinful items on the menu was tough to resist. His siblings, Drew and Anna, did little to make their brother's adherence to a diet easy.
"My brother and my sister, they would always get the wings and shove it in my face," Scally said. "From time to time, of course, I'd have to get it, but they make a really good grilled chicken with Frank's hot sauce. I was just fine with that and it was so good."
Scally's biggest weakness? Fried Oreos. "They had that with vanilla ice cream," he said. "That was the hardest thing on the menu, not to get."
Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, Scally had a new manager to impress in Adi Hutter. All the more reason to lay off the fried Oreos and report to preseason in good shape. He did just that, and as some injuries in the backline piled up, Scally put himself in the frame for first-team minutes. Two games in, he's repaid his manager's faith, and against Bayern, Scally kept Sane very quiet.
"I have to pay Joe Scally a huge compliment," Hutter said after the Bayern match. "He made his Bundesliga debut against Bayern Munich today, aged 18, right-footed on the left side against top players, and he rewarded me with an absolute class game."
Inside Joe Scally's Bundesliga debut vs. Bayern Munich
Eighteen-year-old American Joe Scally describes what it was like to make his Bundesliga debut against Bayern Munich.
Lee said he has noticed that tactically, Scally has shown improvement. More specifically, his decisions in terms of positioning when Gladbach don't have the ball, knowing when to press an opponent or stay connected to the center-back have all been sharpened.
"You're playing against top-level players, and if you make the wrong decision, you can get punished," said Lee. "I think he made, for the vast majority, just some really fantastic decisions throughout the game and that helped them to get good results and performances that they've had in the first games."
With Bensebaini working his way back to full fitness, it won't be a surprise if Scally soon finds himself back on the bench, but he's aware that it doesn't pay to look too far ahead. All he can do now is make himself as indispensable as possible to Hutter and his staff.
"If I keep doing good and the coach has as much trust in me, maybe I stay or I go to the right side and I start," Scally said. "So whatever happens, I always trust the coach and trust his decisions and will always keep working for the team."
Given how the first weeks of the 2021-22 season have gone for Scally so far, his growth over the remainder of the campaign will be worth watching.