Inside Soccer

May 07, 2000

Striker Force
Poised and creative, Chris Albright powered the U.S. into the
Olympics

Chris Albright was still wearing his champagne-soaked uniform
last Friday night when he strolled out the gates of Hersheypark
Stadium in Hershey, Pa., turned to U.S. Olympic coach Clive
Charles and popped the question. "Coach," asked the mop-topped
Albright, "you got a light on you?" Seconds later Albright fired
up an eight-inch-long victory stogie just as effortlessly as he
had torched Guatemala two hours earlier, when he set up three
goals in an electrifying 4-0 rout that clinched a berth for the
U.S. in September's 16-team Olympic tournament.

The triumph was a watershed for U.S. men's soccer, which for the
first time fielded an under-23 Olympic roster composed almost
entirely of pros, 12 of whom are playing in MLS. Instead of
using collegians, Charles was able to call on players such as
Ben Olsen, 23, a third-year midfielder for D.C. United; John
O'Brien, 22, a third-year midfielder with Ajax in the
Netherlands; and Albright, a 21-year-old striker who left
Virginia in 1998 after his sophomore season and has improved
dramatically in his year with United. "You learn things from
professionals that you don't get in a college," Albright says.
"At D.C., I'm playing every day with Marco Etcheverry, who's one
of the best players in the world."

In a breathtaking display on Friday, Albright showed exactly
what he had learned. On the first U.S. possession he nodded a
perfectly touched pass to O'Brien, who slammed it home. Seven
minutes later Albright stormed downfield on a 50-yard breakaway
and unspooled a shot that deflected off the Guatemalan
goalkeeper to Josh Wolff, who tapped in the point-blank follow.
Later in the half Albright cheekily dummied a low cross from
Wolff, freezing the keeper with the decoy and giving 18-year-old
Landon Donovan an easy finish for a 3-0 lead. It's a measure of
Albright's inventiveness that while he scored two goals in the
four-game tournament, he earned his highest praise from
teammates for a play on which he didn't touch the ball.

At a time when a dreadful inability to finish plagues the U.S.
senior team--the Yanks botched so many chances in losing a
friendly to Russia 2-0 last week that it was almost
comical--Albright is an American anomaly: a tough striker who's
fast and strong and shows poise in the box. "Most of our
strikers are one-dimensional," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena.
"Chris can use his strength as a power player, but he's crafty
enough to go with players, and he can attack opponents in the
air, on the ground or holding the ball."

The 6'1", 185-pound Albright showed a nose for the goal in his
national team debut, against Jamaica last year, scoring the
first time he touched the ball. Though Arena cautions that
Albright is probably a year from being ready to play regularly
on the national team, he says he may experiment with Albright at
next month's U.S. Cup, the last tune-up before World Cup
qualifying begins in July.

While Albright may be a forward of the future, he also has a
direct link to the sport's distant past. Like his father, John,
and his seven uncles, he grew up in the working-class
Philadelphia soccer sub-culture that once produced half the
members of the 1936 Olympic team. As a child, Albright would
play every weekend on neighborhood fields, including a grassless
pitch next to the Frankford El train in Philly's Fishtown
section. "The field was all cinders," Albright recalls. "We'd
run around as eight-year-olds, fall down and get up with glass
in our knees. It was a nightmare, but that's what you'd
sacrifice just to get a game in." Says his mother, Patti, "Every
Sunday was a bloodbath. It didn't matter that they were only 10
years old."

Now that he has accomplished his first goal of the summer by
helping the U.S. qualify for the Olympics, Albright can focus on
goal number 2: becoming a consistent offensive threat in MLS, in
which he had yet to score in 11 career games through Sunday.
Goal number 3--making the final roster for Australia--should be
a chip shot.

MLS and Transfer Fees
Selling Out The Future?

It's becoming clear that MLS will have to make some hard
decisions between selling its top young Americans for millions
of dollars overseas and keeping them home to help build the
league. Last week the Norwegian club Rosenborg was reportedly
ready to offer MLS $1 million for Colorado Rapids goalkeeper
Adin Brown, 21, while foreign scouts were also buzzing about
United's Ben Olsen and Los Angeles Galaxy defender Danny Califf,
20. Though a spokesman for Holland's PSV Eindhoven denied rumors
that it had offered $1.5 million for Chicago Fire midfielder
DaMarcus Beasley, 17, it's only a matter of time before he, too,
is sought in Europe.

What's MLS to do? "One of our primary objectives is to keep as
many Americans in the league as possible," says commissioner Don
Garber. "But that has to be balanced with making the right
decision for our strategic growth. At some point you have to
ask, How valuable is that particular player in attracting fans?"

MLS has had only modest success in the transfer market, making
seven figures on the sales of Stern John to England's Nottingham
Forest ($3 million to $6 million, depending on his future
transfer value), Eddie Lewis to England's Fulham ($2 million),
Shaun Bartlett to FC Zurich ($1.3 million) and Brad Friedel to
England's Liverpool ($1.3 million). Lewis and Friedel both
wanted to play in Europe, but that's not always the case with
Americans. D.C. defender Eddie Pope, 26, nixed a $3.3 million
transfer to a German club two years ago because he wanted to
stay in MLS. (When a player is transferred, he generally
receives 10% of the fee, along with an increase in salary.)

Granted, MLS has reached long-term deals with several Americans
(including Olsen, Columbus Crew forward Brian McBride and, just
last week, Galaxy forward Clint Mathis), but any of those
players could be sold overseas at any time. Meanwhile, the
league hasn't hesitated to spend on pricey imports such as
German defender Lothar Matthaus, who is reportedly earning $1
million this season for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

According to MLS's executive vice president, Ivan Gazidis,
Americans are still at a premium. "We've got a lot invested in
these young players," he says. "We'd have to be awfully well
compensated by a club that wants their services."

Q & A

Former U.S. and MetroStars coach Bora Milutinovic was born in
Serbia, lives in Mexico City and, as his friends like to say,
speaks five languages, none of them well. We tested that notion
last week by calling him in Beijing, where he's coaching China's
men's team as it tries to qualify for its first World Cup.

Q: How are things in China?
A: It's exciting, my friend, but the league is very small. This
is hugest country in world, but they have only 14 teams. The
challenge is same I had with USA. First I need to find the
players!

Q: How do you communicate with them in training?
A: In English! Ha-ha-ha!

Q: They must not understand very much.
A: They don't understand, but they listen very, very hard! I
show them by example how to kick the ball or position
themselves. It's no problem.

Q: Bora, you went 7-25 with the MetroStars last year. Who's
better, China or that team?
A: MetroStars better for now. MetroStars is special story. I
don't like to speak about MetroStars.

Q: So how is China different from other countries?
A: Here they call me Milu, not Bora. When I say, "I am Bora,"
nobody knows who I am. But when I say, "I am Milu," they say
"Ah! Milu!" So I sign my autograph Milu in Chinese. But not much
is different. You win and you are king. You lose and they fire
you. This is the life.

Q: "My friend" has always been your favorite expression. Have you
learned how to say it in Mandarin?
A: Wode pengyou! Wode pengyou! My friend! My friend!

COLOR PHOTO: TOM SILKNITTER After a season as a pro, Albright (11) is looking like a sure shot for the Games. COLOR PHOTO: KARIM SHAMSI-BASHA If MLS receives the right offer, Beasley and other top prospects may be headed for Europe.

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