By Grant Wahl
August 06, 2008

QINHUANGDAO, China -- There's no delicate way to put it. Brian McBride is an old guy.

Old enough, at 36, to be the most senior player in the Olympic men's soccer tournament. Old enough to have played (and scored) in the 1998 World Cup. Old enough, for pity's sake, to have scrimmaged against the 1992 U.S. Olympic team as a promising 20-year-old forward at Saint Louis University.

And yet McBride may be the most important of the three over-age additions to a U.S. under-23 team that has failed to score much all year, either during the Olympic qualifying tournament in March or in two exhibitions over the past week (in which the U.S. was shut out by both the Ivory Coast and Cameroon).

McBride proved he could still be an offensive force during Fulham's miraculous run to avoid relegation in the English Premier League last season. And he's hoping that his experience in major tournaments can help his young teammates (none of whom are older than 24) when the U.S. opens its Olympic campaign against Japan on Thursday in Tianjin (5 a.m. ET, MSNBC).

"Anytime there's a situation involving a tournament of this stature, somebody might have a question I'll be able to help out with," McBride told me. "But these guys have quite a bit of experience themselves, so my input will probably be minimal. But hopefully when it needs to be there it's poignant and helpful."

The last time McBride played for the U.S. in a major tournament in the Far East was the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. All he did was score goals against Portugal and Mexico to help lead the Americans on a surprise run to the quarterfinals.

Like that U.S. team, this Olympic outfit isn't expected to survive its first-round group (which includes Japan, the Netherlands and Nigeria). "But the great thing about these situations is anything is possible," McBride says. "We have a great group of guys that's very talented, and it's a tight group. The interaction is fun when it needs to be fun and down to business when it's down to business."

McBride retired from international soccer after the '06 World Cup, but the idea for him to join the Olympic team came about in a conversation with his friend Jonathan Spector and U.S. Olympic assistant coach Lubos Kubik after a game between Fulham and Spector's West Ham United earlier this year.

"We were all just sitting there talking, and Jonathan said to Lubos: 'You know, Brian wants to play in the Olympics.' Lubos is a very genuine guy, and he said, 'Oh, that would be great.' I said, 'Lubos, don't joke about things like that. I take it seriously.'"

"I didn't give much thought to it afterward. Jonathan was just having a little fun. But two or three days later I got a call from Peter [Nowak, the U.S. Olympic head coach]. Then I realized they were serious."

McBride moved home to the Chicago area with his family earlier this summer with the idea of joining his hometown Chicago Fire. But the inability of the Fire and Toronto FC to reach a deal kept McBride from donning an MLS uniform when he wanted to. That stalemate, which was finally resolved a week ago, was the Olympic team's gain. McBride is now set to join Chicago after the Olympics.

"I still feel like I have a few good years in me left," McBride says. "And I have a tremendous desire to do well and win an MLS championship."

In the near term, though, McBride is trying to create some goals with a U.S. front line that includes teenagers Jozy Altidore, the $10 million man recently purchased by Spain's Villarreal, and Freddy Adu, the newly minted AS Monaco forward who scored four goals in the Olympic qualifying tournament. McBride's ball-holding strength, deceptive foot skills and bullish aerial prowess should complement the speed and skill of Adu and Altidore.

Even though McBride says he was meeting all but three of his Olympic teammates (Adu, Brad Guzan and Michael Bradley) for the first time last week, he remains optimistic that it won't take long to get comfortable with each other.

"Anytime you make a change you have a little bit of a transition," he says. "But for me it's been a lot easier. I've been a part of U.S. Soccer for a long time, so you have that comfort zone. Then with me being familiar with Peter and Lubos I have a great amount of respect for them."

"And to be honest with you the quality of the players that are in camp makes it easier to come in and try to meld with them. It's not much different than a normal team situation for me."

For the U.S., picking up three points against the Japanese is paramount in what should be the Americans' most winnable first-round game. The Japanese selected no overage players to their roster and feature only two players from clubs outside Japan: midfielder Keisuke Honda (VVV Venlo of the Netherlands) and forward Takayuki Morimoto (Catania of Italy).

But if you're a seasoned McBride-watcher, you might have to readjust when you watch the game on Thursday. After wearing No. 20 for his entire career, McBride will be donning No. 17 during the Olympics, which only allows numbers from 1 to 18. "The last thing I wanted to do was take anyone's number," McBride says, "so I said I'd take whatever number was left."

If McBride can be that team-oriented on the field, the U.S. might just have a shot of reaching the knockout rounds.

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