McBride remains a hero in Columbus

July 30, 2005
By Marc Connolly
(Archive)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In Fulham FC's brand new media guide for the 2005-2006 season, the opening section of Brian McBride's bio reads like this:

A Premiership footballer and a longstanding international striker -- in the UK country those kind of credentials would undoubtedly mean a life forever in the public eye. Brian McBride, however, can walk around in his hometown of Chicago in almost total anonymity.

That may be the case in the Windy City, but definitely not when it comes to his adopted hometown of Columbus. The former Crew star was welcomed back to the city he spent eight years in by being honored with "Brian McBride Appreciation Day" at City Hall last Thursday. McBride has been inundated with autograph requests and non-stop interviews with the media all week as his team prepares to take on the MLS All-Stars on Saturday. "It's been hectic," said McBride. "Have I had much down time? Not really. But when we're on preseason, normally we're stuck out somewhere where there is nothing going on. This way it's nice."

The relationship between McBride and the Crew has always been a bit different than the one enjoyed by other star players around MLS with their clubs. In no other market could one step off an airplane and immediately be greeted with poster-size action photos of that city's top soccer player. But in Columbus, McBride's face was not hard to find around town, whether at be in photos at sports bars, the airport or in sporting goods stores. His low-key persona and humble way that he goes about his business to go along with his tireless work rate on the field made him the perfect symbol for a club that has always dubbed itself as "America's Hardest Working Team."

And according to Fulham manager Chris Coleman, McBride's popularity in London has been steadily growing ever since he joined the Whites in January of 2004.

"It's the same at Fulham," said Coleman. "You ask any Fulham fan -- they love Brian. He's a 100-percent total team player."

While it has been enjoying for McBride and fellow American Carlos Bocanegra to get a chance to spend some time in the U.S. with their club team, it hasn't been without work. Coleman has been putting his side through rigorous training sessions during their stay in Ohio. According to a few of the Fulham players, one of the reasons they had such a difficult time against the Columbus Crew in a 2-1 loss on Wednesday night was because of the team's fatigue level from two-a-days.

"For us, the most important thing is our fitness," said Coleman. "Even days of the game, we've fatigued them. We want them to be ready for Birmingham. It's preseason, and we're here to work."

With the team's opening match of the 2005-2006 against Birmingham City on August 13 looming, this is a competitive time for the Fulham players who are hoping to impress Coleman and win a starting role. Count both McBride and Bocanegra among those on the fence, as their starting positions are hardly secured.

From listening to Coleman, it's apparent that McBride is battling Icelandic striker Heidar Helguson, who also plays as more of a target striker, more so than either Tomasz Radzinski or Collins John. The U.S. national team standout made a strong case for inclusion in the starting XI when he exploded for six goals in Fulham's final nine games.

"If he shows the same form that he showed at the end of last season," said Coleman, "then it's a no-brainer that he's going to be in the starting lineup."

McBride said that it is important for him to get back to full fitness since he's been off the past six weeks. He didn't join Fulham at the start of their preseason at Coleman's urging since he had national team duties during the end of May and beginning of June. He's hopeful, yet not sure that he'll be a starter when the English Premier League kicks off in two weeks.

"I'm definitely not guaranteed a place and that's part of soccer," he said. "I think right now (Coleman) is saying those nice things because there's a lot going on and he's a really good guy. But I know that it's going to come down to the way that I play. There's a lot of good players on this team. By no means am I counting on starting or anything like that."

Bocanegra's prospects for starting as a member of the team's back four don't look as strong. After starting most every match for Fulham as a left back since joining the side in January of 2004, the 6-foot defender found himself on the bench at the end of the last season. His start in the team's final match against Norwich was his first in nearly two months. And it'll only get more difficult this year since Coleman recently signed Denmark international Niclas Jensen to be his left back. It has left Bocanegra in a competition with Zat Knight and Alain Goma to be the team's two starting central defenders.

Even if Bocanegra does win a job, he'll miss a considerable amount of time during the late summer and early fall with the U.S. national team as the side continues trying to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. The 26-year-old knows that he has improved since coming to the EPL and remains one of Bruce Arena's top overall defenders. Having to defend some of the best players in the world on a week-to-week basis has been a bit of an adjustment coming from MLS.

"The players out here are all good athletes and very technical," he said. "These guys are pretty big and tall and physical and I think that's pretty much how it is throughout the league. They're horses, basically."

While Fulham has several top-notch players, it'll never be confused with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. It is not a side that features many stars, especially now with the recent departures of Andy Cole and Edwin van der Sar. Coming off a 13th place finish in the EPL, the upcoming season will likely be one that finds the London-based club fighting more to stay in the league than to win the league.

"We're not a big club in the Premiership," admitted Coleman. "We've probably got one of the smallest accounts. We haven't got a big, massive budget. Yet, we're still expected to compete with and beat the big teams."

Without having an endless supply of funds to buy players with in the way that Chelsea and Manchester United seem to do, Coleman and his staff have to be more creative when it comes to finding talent. And they're still actively looking to add to the squad. It makes the likelihood of Coleman pursuing yet another American more than likely.

"We're always looking for good players and new talent," said Coleman, indicating he'd prefer to bring in younger players he can develop rather than established stars. "I'm very aware of the U.S. market and the standard of play. I'm constantly talking with Brian and Carlos, and of course we have our scouts that come and look here."

Perhaps something happens over the next month with one of the younger MLS All-Stars as a result of the match against Fulham on Saturday.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.