Game-changing new acquisitions add sizzle to the MLS playoff race

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Within days of official notification that McBride would be leaving Fulham FC, the English Premier League club posted a tribute to him on its Web site. Accompanying a compilation of diving headers, thumping volleys, joyous embraces, and standing ovations of was a Foo Fighters song, There Goes My Hero.

That feeling is shared by fans of Columbus and the U.S. national team as well as the London club, and now his hometown team is getting its dose.

Twice named Fulham's Player of the Year, McBride left the Cottagers in June after scoring 32 goals for them in 5½ seasons. Each of the last three winters he and his wife, Dee, discussed a move back to the States, but each spring, Fulham had lured him back with another lucrative one-year contract that paid him more than $1 million per season.

"To be honest, we had a plan of 2½ years and getting back home," says McBride. "The way things turned out, it's been great, but we needed to make some decisions based on not necessarily monetary value."

Finally, last spring he informed MLS he wanted to play in Chicago -- he was raised nearby in Arlington Heights, where his mother, Maddie, lives -- and Fulham released him.

After nearly two months of wrangling, during which McBride played in the Olympics, the Fire traded forward Chad Barrett and its No. 1 pick in the '09 SuperDraft to Toronto FC, which stood atop the allocation list and thus held his MLS rights.

He will make about $200,000 this year and the maximum salary ($335,000 in '08) plus allocation money next season unless Chicago acquires a second Designated Player slot.

The prospect of Cuauhtémoc Blanco serving up crosses for McBride while livewire Chris Rolfe buzzes around the goalmouth and rookie Patrick Nyarko contributes off the bench mitigates what the Fire gave up.

"I think Brian is a great teammate and a true professional," said Fire head coach Denis Hamlett. "He's come in here and shown our guys that he's capable of playing in big games and helping us do little things."

McBride believes his success in England and with the national team (30 goals in 96 appearances) stems in part from playing as a setup man as well as a goal scorer during his time in Columbus. Alongside Stern John (44 goals in 55 MLS games) and Jeff Cunningham (62 goals for Columbus), McBride learned how to play the final pass as well as polish it off. He logged 45 assists in his eight Columbus seasons.

"Probably then I started to try to figure out how I can best help the team," he says. "It was a good process for me; it helped me to understand more about the game and what I needed to do to help the team.

"It helps me not only score goals but get in spots to help my teammates, to get them into scoring positions or help us keep the ball. I'm not saying I know exactly where I'm supposed to be or know exactly what I'm supposed to do, but I'll try to."

He answers to "Hucks," or at least that's the one-word message you get on his answering machine. "Hucks." That's it.

No pleasantries, no banter, no cute plays on words. The burly Huckerby, 32, has brought the power, pace and dribbling skills he utilized during 16 years of professional play in English soccer to MLS, and so far, the Quakes' opponents are second-best.

"He's the type of player who wants to take you on but he doesn't throw in a stepover or nutmeg you;" says Houston assistant coach John Spencer. "There's no frills, no spills, he gets it on his feet, he knocks it past you and then it's, 'Can you catch me?' He's a good player."

Huckerby is one of a half-dozen good players signed by coach Frank Yallop since a rough start (2-6-1) to the Quakes expansion season. He signed an 18-month contract worth $337,000 annually in July and immediately helped the Quakes run off a nine-game unbeaten steak that lifted them to within a point of third place, and a playoff spot, in the Western Conference. (San Jose was finally eliminated with Saturday's loss at Kansas City.)

While playing eight of those games, Huckerby scored four goals and received credit for assists on four more playing a most direct style: Get ball. Run at opponent. Shoot or cross. Repeat.

A native of Nottingham, Huckerby started his pro career as a forward before noticing a reluctance to stay central. "I'm right-footed," he says. "I always tended to drift that way when I played up front, so playing on the left is my natural position. I'm not bad with my left foot. That's where I can be pretty dangerous. I've been very lucky that I've adapted to play out wide. I'm lucky that I can go to either side."

Stints with seven clubs led him to Norwich in '03. In five seasons, he was named the club's top player twice and selected for its all-time team. (Norwich was founded in 1902.) When the club declined to extend his contract in June, he refused to listen to offers from other clubs, saying he would never play against Norwich.

"I loved playing for Norwich and that will never change," he says. "The first thing I do on my days off is check out how they're doing. But for the time being, I'm doing something else."

Yallop is happy his career ended before Huckerby's began.

"I'd have hated to play right back against him," says Yallop, who played 14 seasons in England for Ipswich, Norwich's East Anglian rival. "He just gets it and goes right at you. He never stops. He's great for the fans and great for the team."

Quakes captain Nick Garcia, who works out with Huckerby three times a week in the gym, concurs.

"I think he's the kind of foreign guy this league needs," says Garcia, who is three years younger. "There's been plenty examples of failures, but I think Darren is the quintessential example of a guy who can step in."

For the second time in as many seasons, teams facing the Houston Dynamo must contend with a rugged forward who towers over teammate Brian Ching and just about everybody else in MLS. As Yogi Berra so famously said, "It's déjà vu all over again."

Jaqua is once again wearing the bright orange, having returned to Houston following a short stint in Austria with SCR Rheindorf Altach, which he joined last January as a free agent. He says he enjoyed his five-month stay, during which he scored five goals in 10 games, but soon realized all ventures to Europe aren't created equal.

"I had a great time over there," he says. "I enjoyed the team. But I think the MLS is a very good league. People think you go to Europe and you can go anywhere and it's better. That's not necessarily how it is. It's great to be here. It's fun being in Houston and fun training every day. I got nothing bad to say about my experience over there. Some of it is personal for coming back, some of it is soccer as well."

Jaqua played a vital role in Houston's repeat as MLS Cup champion last year. After the Dynamo acquired him in midseason, Jaqua scored six goals and added one more in the playoffs. Under MLS regulations, Houston retained his rights within the league and thus had first crack at him when he decided to return.

There's a wrinkle in the new deal, however. Jaqua, a native of Portland, Ore., wants to return to the Pacific Northwest, and thus is likely to be traded to expansion club Seattle Sounders FC upon season's end. Jaqua and the Dynamo are really in the same situation as last year when the club knew he'd most likely head for Europe once his contract had expired, and using Jaqua as a hired gun, so to speak, worked out pretty well.

Houston assistant coach Spencer says Jaqua's work ethic has made him a favorite among his teammates.

"He's one of the truest, big, honest, gentlemen I've ever met in my 18, 19, 20 years in the game," said Spencer. "The guys love him and he's been great for us last year and obviously a bit of this year."

In his first eight games for Houston this season, Jaqua scored three goals -- including two in a 3-1 thumping of Kansas City -- and registered four assists. Sometimes he plays in place of Ching and sometimes they play together, a frightening prospect for any back line trying to stop them.

Jaqua's 6-foot-4 frame suggests a pure target man adept in the air and not anywhere else, yet he played some wide midfield during his days with the Fire ('03-06), and he occasionally does so with the Dynamo.

"It's nice to be able to see the game without somebody right up your ass kicking you and whatnot," says Jaqua, who gets more than his fair share of late tackles and forearm shivers. "It calms me down a little bit and I think sometimes it helps me play a little bit better out there."

During the preseason, Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio assembled a shopping list of elements needed by his team.

High on that list was a quintessential second attacker who could mesh with Juan Pablo Ángel. In Venezuelan international Rojas, Red Bull has found a complement for Ángel, who knew him somewhat from the other side of the ball, when his national team played against Colombia.

"Well, about Juan Pablo, it was mostly when I faced him with the national team, and well, when he played in England [Aston Villa], he was exceptional," says Rojas, 31. "He is a very interesting player; he is very professional both inside and outside of the playing field. He motivates people. He has been a great leader who has helped to keep us where we are."

And where are the Red Bulls? Squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. In his first six games, Rojas earned four assists and aside from blowing a few prime scoring chances, looked very much the part with a crafty sense and slick touch on the ball. Two of those assists came on goals by Ángel, who scored five goals in six games with Rojas on the field.

"He has great talent and a lot of vision for the game," says Ángel. "And on a personal level, he is a great man with a family and with experience, so it is very easy to interact with him."

By adding Rojas, midfielder Juan Pietravallo (Argentina), and defenders Gabriel Cichero (Venezuela) and Diego Jiménez (Mexico), Osorio forged a team that erased most memories of embarrassing defeats to Colorado (4-0) and D.C. United (4-1) earlier in the season as well as a 2-0 loss to USL-2 club Crystal Palace Baltimore in the U.S. Open Cup.

Before coming to MLS from UA Maracaibo, Rojas bounced around clubs in several countries while earning 85 caps -- second all-time -- for Venezuela, which dropped to eighth among the 10-team South American World Cup 2010 qualifying competition after three straight losses.

"There is a lot of hope we could make it, but it's tough, there is a lot of competition, everything is pretty even," says Rojas. "That has been the hot topic. We have to think that going to [the World Cup] the first time could be the most important thing for our country."

After playing for Venezuela against Peru in early September, a passport problem delayed his return to the U.S., but he came back in time to play in a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake to preserve his unbeaten record (3-0-3) in MLS.

"The game is very dynamic," he said of the American league. "I've tried to adapt. It differs from other countries like Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador that I played in. The game [there] is a little more paused; the ball is moved around more. This is a very interesting league, very dynamic and very organized, and it is also very equal. This is important because any team can win -- it doesn't matter who they play."

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine. Click here for a free three-month subscription.