In the 1900s, millions of Italian citizens emigrated from the old country to the United States of America enthralled by the opportunities of the American Dream.
Many made their fortunes, some stayed and others returned home.
More than a century later, thousands of Italian student-athletes repeat the same journey, departing Italy for America to pursue a collegiate soccer career and an education.
Upon graduating college, many stay in the U.S., some return home but just a handful realize the dream of playing professional soccer.
In the USL Championship and USL League One, Claudio Repetto, Marco Milanese and Luca Mastrantonio realized their American Dream.
With the USL experiencing unprecedented growth and success in the men's and women's domestic game and the transfer market, the United States is set to host Conmebol's Copa America, the FIFA Club World Cup and the FIFA World Cup in the near future, the trio of Italians are present for a historic moment in U.S. soccer.
“The interest is growing a lot and the contacts between America and Europe are also improving because there are several agents working on the two fronts both for college and the professional level,” said Repetto. “If there’s a moment in my opinion to undertake, bet on yourself and come to America, this is the best moment.”
Aside from 2021 League One All-League First Team midfielder Marco Micaletto, Repetto, Milanese and Mastrantonio are the only three active Italian-born and raised soccer players to have come through the American collegiate soccer system and make it professionally in the United States.
Claudio Repetto, a forward for Miami FC in the USL Championship, born and raised in Genoa, Italy, had two colors tattooed on his heart from the first day – the red and the blue, the rossoblù – those of Genoa CFC, Italy’s oldest soccer team.
“My uncle on my mother’s side always brought me to the stadium as a kid to see Genoa play and he was a Genoano [supporter of Genoa], so it was the beginning of a love for the rossoblù shirt,” said Repetto.
However, his father’s side of the family being mainly Sampdoriani – supporters of Sampdoria, the other historical club of the city – made an amusing rivalry and derby emerge within the family.
“My dad played for Sampdoria and with my grandfather he supported the club, so in my family they are more Sampdoriani,” he said.
“And then, playing for Genoa from seven to 18-19 years old, I completely bound myself to the Genoa shirt and as a fan of the club.”
Repetto playing for the Genoa youth | Image Credit: Genoa CFC
After suffering relegation from the Serie A in 2021-22, Genoa was immediately promoted back to Italy’s top-flight after only one season in Serie B.
“It’s a great feeling because it is a bit of a revenge,” Repetto said. “Everybody criticized us. The way we come back to Serie A is that of winners, because Gilardino [the coach] demonstrated that this is a team that completely dominated Serie B.”
Coincidentally, Sampdoria will not be playing Serie A soccer next season as the club suffered relegation this year.
“Unfortunately, there will be no derby, but I am sure that Sampdoria will do well, come back and then after two years we will have this derby again.”
Luca Mastrantonio, a defender for Union Omaha in USL League One, born and raised in Rome, Italy began his journey as a soccer player in Roman local clubs competing for the youth ranks of ‘Futbolclub.’
When the club could not afford to pay the salaries of the experienced senior part of the first team, Mastrantonio and his teammates suddenly found themselves competing for the club in Eccellenza – Italy’s fifth division – fighting against the threat of relegation.
Mastrantonio with Omaha | Image Credit: Union Omaha
“Despite having no experience in the league, we were still able to finish the championship well and survive relegation,” said Mastrantonio. “That year, we were named the ‘invincible grasshoppers,’ because we were basically a team of academy kids playing in Eccellenza against experienced people."
“It was a great time," he said. "At an age where we were all very light-hearted.”
Coming from the Eternal City, the soccer culture is implanted into Romans from a young age like a religion.
“Soccer is everything for the people of Rome and it all starts with a rivalry,” said Mastrantonio.
Roma vs. Lazio is known to be one of the fiercest rivalries in worldwide soccer, and twice each season, the winner of the Derby della Capitale is awarded bragging rights until the next derby.
“There’s always been that rivalry even when you play soccer games at recess, and you play Roma against Lazio,” he said. “When you go watch the derby, the next day you show up to school with a Roma or Lazio jersey.”
“It’s rivalry, friendship and emotions.”
Marco Milanese, a defender for Union Omaha in USL League, born and raised in Isernia, Italy located in the small region of Molise, had to accustom himself to leaving home at a young age in order to play soccer competitively.
“When I was little my family used to make fun of me because they said I was a mammone [‘mama’s boy’] and I never wanted to be away from home,” Milanese said.
However, the realization came that this could not last for long.
“If I wanted to play at certain levels, I couldn’t stay in Molise because there aren’t any professional clubs, so sooner or later I would’ve had to leave,” he said.
Just a few years after leaving home, Milanese quickly established himself as a globetrotter around some of Italy’s Serie A academies, playing for Chievo Verona, Parma Calcio, Torino and Napoli – where he played for the U-19 team in the UEFA Youth League and was called up by former coach of the club Maurizio Sarri to several First Team matches.
At Napoli, Milanese found himself being part of a locker room with players that he would previously watch on TV or play with on video games.
“Before practice, with [Dries] Mertens we warmed up in the gym. We talked a lot,” said Milanese. “After practice we always played PlayStation with [Piotr] Zieliński, [Amadou] Diawara and [Elseid] Hysaj.
Milanese during his playing days at Napoli’s U-19 | Image Credit: SSC Napoli
“Those were relationships that I would have with a normal group of guys.”
With Napoli winning its third scudetto in May, this past season’s team led by Luciano Spalletti broke a 33-year period since the club’s last.
Although unable to make his debut with Napoli in 2017, Milanese remembers very well the pressure he experienced being part of a group fighting to win a scudetto missing since Maradona’s days.
“[In 2017] It was really a matter of pressure,” he said. “Because in Naples there are at least 20 to 30 radios only talking about the club every day.
“In my opinion, Spalletti did a great job managing the players’ mentality. Because in Naples you win three games and you are a hero, then as soon as you lose, you’re nobody.”
Unable to break through professionally for Genoa or Napoli, Repetto and Milanese had to adjust to play semi-professionally in Italy’s fourth division – Serie D – where Mastrantonio had started to play after his time at Futbolclub.
After playing for various hometown Serie D clubs, on loan from Genoa, Repetto considered going on a preseason training camp with some teams in Serie C – the third division and the first level of professionalism – a move, however, he described as risky.
"Being professionals in Italy is always a bit of a gamble," said Repetto. "If it doesn’t work out in Serie C, you can quickly find yourself in Serie D and suddenly not being a professional player anymore, which means you might have to start looking for a job."
Coming to the United States to play collegiate soccer was a possibility.
"At the beginning, I was quite skeptical about it," said Repetto. "I didn’t know very well how the collegiate system worked in the U.S. and what the soccer level would be."
After spending half a year acquainting himself with the collegiate soccer system and evaluating the transfer – including the prospect of making it professionally in America – Repetto made his decision and moved to Des Moines, Iowa to play for Grand View University.
The selling point was being able to pursue a degree while still continuing to play high-level soccer in a country hungry for the development of the game.
It was a bet on himself, and for Repetto it paid off.
Claudio Repetto's pathway in the United States saw him transfer to Coastal Carolina for his junior year where he earned United Soccer Coaches All-Southeastern Team honors as a senior. | Photo courtesy Coastal Carolina Athletics
After two seasons with the Vikings, he translated his play into a transfer to NCAA Division I school Coastal Carolina, where he played two more seasons. Along the way, he starred in USL League Two, scoring eight goals in 13 appearances for perennial playoff contender the Ocean City Nor’easters in another effort to get on the professional radar.
With seven goals in 29 appearances for the Chanticleers and a United Soccer Coaches All-Southeast Region award to his credit, Repetto headed two hours south from Coastal’s campus in Conway, S.C. to the USL Championship’s Charleston Battery, where he joined the professional ranks midway through the 2021 campaign.
For Marco Milanese and Luca Mastrantonio, defenders and teammates at Union Omaha in USL League One, moving to the U.S. was instead an immediate decision.
Mastrantonio had frequented university courses while playing in Serie D, without much success or the ability to concentrate properly on either. Like Repetto, he began in the NAIA ranks at University of Northwestern Ohio, but parlayed that experience first into the Division II ranks at Rockhurst University in Missouri before transferring to the University of California Irvine for his junior season. As a redshirt junior in 2019 after sitting out a year following his transfer he was voted to the All-Big West First Team, adding to his credentials for a professional career.
Milanese, on the other side, was involved in talks with Napoli to renew his contract and permanence with the first team, but his agent could not find an agreement. In a matter of months, an 18-year-old Milanese went from getting a taste of professional Serie A soccer to abruptly being without a team.
“I was a bit disappointed,” said Milanese. “Because it was out of my hands.”
In the following summer, an advertisement of College Life Italia – the same Italian agency that two years earlier had brought Mastrantonio to study and play soccer in northwestern Ohio – caught Milanese’s attention.
“I saw the opportunity of studying in America,” said Milanese. “I took the chance to contact this company and by the time they had explained to me the process I had already made my decision.”
Unlike his counterparts, however, Milanese arrived at the top of college soccer at perennial NCAA Division I power the University of Akron. There he quickly grabbed attention, being named to TopDrawerSoccer.com's Top 100 Freshmen list.
After 45 appearances for the Zips, including in the shortened 2020 campaign, he transferred to UNC Greensboro for his final two years and in 2022 earned United Soccer Coaches All-South Region Second Team honors as well as being voted to the All-Southern Conference First Team.
Marco Milanese completed a successful college career at UNC Greensboro, where he earned All-Southern Conference First Team honors in the 2022 campaign. | Photo courtesy UNC Greensboro Athletics
Living away from home playing for Italy’s best academies, helped and prepared Milanese in his decision to move across the Atlantic.
Five years later, he is the youngest of the three to sign a professional contract after graduating college from UNC Greensboro – an opportunity many internationals dream about, but only few are fortunate to accomplish.
Milanese and Union Omaha huddling together before a League One Match | Image Credit: Union Omaha
“The opportunity for international students is difficult,” said Mastrantonio, the first student-athlete from College Life Italia to sign a professional contract, now in his third professional season in League One.
Clubs in the USL have a limit of seven international spots in their rosters, which are often used toward more experienced, professional players coming from abroad.
In addition, signing internationals also employs costs to sponsor their visas.
“Compared to the costs that clubs would pay to sign an American player out of college they are significantly higher, so they often decide to go with the domestic player,” said Repetto, the only active student-athlete to go professional from his collegiate agency, USA College Sport.
And once you make it professionally, it’s not over.
“Obviously you have to be consistent over the years and continue to assert yourself,” said Mastrantonio. “Otherwise, it’s easy to be laid off.”
For Repetto, that hasn’t been a concern so far. After signing with the Battery midway through the 2021 season he became an immediate hit for the club, recording nine goals and three assists in 24 appearances.
That paved the way for moves to Phoenix Rising FC prior to the 2022 season, and then midway through that campaign to his current surroundings at Miami FC.
After spending two seasons at FC Tucson, Mastrantonio joined Union Omaha in 2023, one of the four League One clubs to win a league title.
Milanese, following his last year at UNCG playing Division I soccer – where he was named College Life Italia Men’s Soccer 2022-23 Player of the Year – signed with Omaha.
“Obviously, it’s always great to have an Italian [in the team],” said Mastrantonio. “We have a good relationship. We live together and cook together. We’re very close so I’m happy.”
A partnership that was extended to the field.
“It’s a relationship on the field that comes natural, especially because being two defenders we see things very often in the same way,” said Milanese.
“And then I see him as an older brother, he’s been in this league for three years,” he said. “I just got here so I watch and learn from him, always.”
Since his arrival in the league, Milanese was surprised by the high intensity level of games across 90 minutes.
Mastrantonio at Werner Park ahead of a Union Omaha match | Image Credit: Union Omaha
“This league, in my opinion, is very competitive because all the teams are more or less the same level,” said Milanese. “Every weekend, if you don’t play the game at high levels, you can then lose it.”
It’s an opinion shared by Repetto regarding the USL Championship.
“For my own experience, it’s a very good level,” he said. “A lot of guys from all over the world want to come here because of the mentality to advance at the tactical and technical level, along the psychological and physical ones.
“[The USL] already has great consideration, but in my opinion it should have even more because there’s so much talent and so many players that then go to play in Europe from USL.”
After spending his first and second USL Championship seasons with the Charleston Battery and Phoenix Rising FC, Repetto joined Miami FC in the summer of 2022.
On April 23, he found his first goal for the club in the Championship, converting a penalty in a 4-1 win against Las Vegas Lights FC.
“Scoring goals is always amazing,” Repetto said. “Even more when you do it and the team wins.”
In Miami, Repetto found a similar environment to home.
“Coming from Genoa there’s the beach, the ocean,” Repetto said. “Miami for sure is a place where I feel closer to home.”
During his short, initial spell for Miami FC in 2022, Repetto was able to share the locker room with an old acquaintance: Luca Antonelli.
Former Miami FC defender Luca Antonelli and current Miami FC forward Claudio Repetto exchanged jerseys when Repetto was playing for the Charleston Battery in 2021, two Italians sharing the same field in the USL Championship. | Photo courtesy Charleston Ba
The son of former professional Italian player Roberto Antonelli, Luca followed his father’s footsteps playing for AC Milan and Genoa CFC while also making 13 appearances for Gli Azzurri at the senior level. Repetto got to play with someone he watched play for Genoa from the stands as Antonelli concluded his professional career in Miami, an experience he’ll never forget.
“It was really a great feeling because since I was little, he played for Genoa and when I was 13-14 years old, I would go watch him play at the stadium. He was even the captain, so I went from being in the stands to playing with him,” Repetto said. “It’s something that I will always keep inside my heart.”
With about half of the 2023 Championship and League One seasons underway, Repetto, Milanese and Mastrantonio are set to continue their career aspirations with the same passion and determination that distinguished them this far.
“I expect us to win the league, to be honest, with the team that we have,” said Mastrantonio. “We have so much experience. We should for sure reach the playoffs, but then obviously it becomes a lottery. We have to approach every game individually. Every game is a final.”
Although Union Omaha currently sits below the playoff line, with the right footing and a few consecutive wins the team will be back in postseason action soon, said Milanese.
Repetto, on the other hand, is looking to help Miami FC succeed at what he does best: scoring goals, recently finding his second of the season as a substitute vs. Rio Grande Valley FC.
“At the individual level, I want to help the team with as many goals and assists as possible,” said Repetto. “But the team always comes first. Our goal is to reach the playoffs. Last year we got out in the first round, so we want to go through as many rounds as possible and try to win our conference.”
Repetto on the field against Inter Miami CF in the 2023 U.S. Open Cup edition of the Miami Clásico | Image Credit: Miami FC
Since their arrival to the U.S., the expectations for Repetto, Milanese and Mastrantonio haven’t changed: establishing themselves as professionals and keep rising through the ranks of America’s soccer pyramid.
“We’re obviously still striving to reach the levels of Insigne, Bernardeschi and other Italian stars playing in the United States,” said Milanese. “But being some of the first Italian players to get started in the lower professional divisions is something certainly to be proud of, and I hope going forward that the number of Italians will grow.”
A number expected to increase with the growing popularity of the USL in Italy due to the Italian presence of Repetto, Milanese and Mastrantonio in the league.
“We are the only ones of those student-athletes to come to the United States from Italy that in the end were able to continue the dream,” said Mastrantonio. “Anyhow, it’s something to be proud of because I gave a lot to this sport, and I always wanted to continue to play.”