During the opening week of the MLS season, one heard the term "fresh start" about as often as commissioner Don Garber uttered the word "historic." But in the case of Ante Razov and Chivas USA, the former term is utterly appropriate, because heading into this season, both player and club desperately needed a new beginning. And while it will take more than one game to declare the season a success, Razov and Chivas each took a giant step forward last weekend, as the former U.S. international bagged two goals in his side's 3-0 win over Real Salt Lake.
The win saw Chivas further distance itself from an inaugural campaign that was nothing short of a debacle. Last season, the only thing scarcer than wins was the team's commitment to defense. But against Real Salt Lake, Chivas showed a good balance between defense and attack. And while Razov was one of the prime beneficiaries of his squad's newfound stability, he was quick to highlight his team's success and not his own.
"I'll trade [goals] any day for how my team played," Razov said. "We played some good soccer at times, and getting the win is obviously the most important thing. Scoring the goals is just icing on the cake."
Such a team-first attitude is bound to raise some eyebrows in Chicago and Columbus, where it can be argued that in both cities Razov sulked his way out of town. Despite a stellar six-year career with the Fire, a contract squabble prior to the 2005 season left Razov feeling unwanted, and his decision to leave Chicago saw him shipped to Columbus. But rather than get a new start, the opinionated forward clashed almost immediately with then-head coach Greg Andrulis. Razov was benched after just five games, demanded yet another trade and was eventually shipped to the team formerly known as the MetroStars for John Wolyniec and a portion of an allocation.
Ten months later, Razov says that he feels badly about the way his brief stay in Columbus ended. Still, the episode seemed to cast him as the Terrell Owens of MLS, one who was less concerned with the team and more focused on his own stats. But according to former Chicago Fire president and GM Peter Wilt, it's a label that ignores Razov's positive qualities.
"[Razov] really does want to win more than anybody else in that locker room," Wilt said. "I think he's very misunderstood by people outside of the team. He is like a lot of great forwards, single-minded, somewhat stubborn, opinionated, strong-minded for sure, and I think those are good qualities to have in a forward."
Fortunately for Razov, one person who has long understood him is Chivas USA head coach Bob Bradley. Back in 1998, Razov was coming off two unimpressive years with the Los Angeles Galaxy and was contemplating retirement. Bradley, then with Chicago, invited Razov for a tryout, and the Whittier, Calif. native started well but then faded. That was when Bradley stepped in.
"I let [Razov] know that I felt like in order to be a top forward, he had to work harder," says Bradley. "He couldn't be a forward where if he scored that was a good day and if he didn't that was a bad day. He had to know how to contribute in more ways to the team. That was just the starting point, but when you challenge him in a positive way, when you show him that you care about him and that you want him to be successful, I think he appreciates that. That's been the basis of the work we've done together."
Said Razov, "[Bradley] allowed me to be myself and to use my talent, but he also said, 'There is more to it than just being talented.'"
That relationship has been replicated at each of Bradley's three MLS coaching stops, the latest of which saw him acquire Razov in a Jan. 30 trade with the New York Red Bulls in exchange for Thiago Martins and some allocation money. But even with the solid rapport, Razov's recent health struggles add some risk to the equation. Surgeries to his right ankle and groin wiped out nearly all of his 2004 season, and a recurrence of the groin injury interrupted his 2005 campaign. But according to Razov, his health is no longer an issue.
"For the first time in two years, my body is completely healed," Razov said. "I'm feeling real good, and I've gone through the whole preseason where I'm just chomping at the bit."
It's not just Razov's return to health that has him eager. The attacking talent that is surrounding him -- in the form of Francisco Palencia, Juan Pablo Garcia and the recently acquired John O'Brien -- may yet allow him to regain his reputation as one of the most feared forwards in the league. And while their partnership is still very much a work in progress, Razov is already sensing the possibilities.
"Their soccer talents, I trust that right off the bat," Razov said of Palencia and Garcia. "You know the ball is coming, the right ball is coming, and that it's coming at the right time. Those are things that I pick up on real quick, and hopefully they picked that up off me right away. We're just going to try to keep building off that. We're certainly not content with what we have done. Let's be honest, we haven't done anything."
That's one message that Bradley is sure to remind his team of in the games to come, starting with this weekend's road match against D.C. United. But that won't stop Razov from enjoying his new environment. He has his health as well as a coach and team he respects, he'll be a constant in the lineup, and he's back playing near his hometown. And if Razov's form holds up the entire season, his fresh start may yet turn into something historic.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org