Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Aloha, World Cup
Much like his home state, Hawaii, was the final territory to join the United States of America, Brian Ching may have been the last player on the roster list to find out he was chosen as a member of the 2006 U.S. World Cup team.
After his game-winning goal against the Colorado Rapids in last Saturday's game propelled the Houston Dynamo to victory, Ching and his teammates enjoyed the hospitality of their squad's owner, billionaire Phillip Anschutz, at his luxurious Denver-area ranch. An annual visit is a tradition for each Anschutz Entertainment Group team, but the weekend of relaxation and fun effectively cut off the team's one World Cup hopeful from his regular sources of communication.
"Our team spent Sunday afternoon, all of Monday and then Tuesday morning [at the ranch]," recalled Ching. "I didn't have any cell phone or any email access."
Ching could have gone crazy with frustration, but he welcomed the distraction from worrying if coach Bruce Arena would pick him to go to Germany.
"It allowed me to not think about anything and get away from it all."
Most of the players who either made the World Cup roster or were listed as alternates were notified by email before the public announcement on ESPN's SportsCenter program, giving them time to deal privately with the news.
Due to the logistics of leaving Colorado, there was no such cushion of discretion for Ching, whose despair or joy was to take place in a very public venue.
"We sat down at a bar and grill in the Denver airport, before our flight back to Houston," explained the forward. "I was watching the live telecast."
Ching wasn't facing the news alone, however. Gathered alongside were his supportive squad members, who had bonded this season closer than ever after coping with the organization's move from San Jose and the transformation to their new identity as Houston's new MLS team.
"I was sitting in the bar with my buddies -- a whole bunch of teammates," stated Ching, remembering the key moment. "I saw my name get brought up there. Everybody started yelling."
He laughed softly. "It was kind of a cool deal."
Luckily, Ching's cell phone service was working again, as he then had to dial an important number.
"The first person I talked to afterwards was my wife. I called her. She was really excited -- she watched [the SportsCenter announcement] too. It was a pretty big moment for the both of us."
Charisse and Brian were recent newlyweds when they had to deal with the shift of his place of employment.
"It was a new and exciting time for us, with the team moving to Houston, and having to get used to the city."
The challenge of the adjustment helped Ching to not dwell on his struggle to establish himself with the national team. In the friendlies the U.S. team played in early 2006, the forward who had impressed many was Taylor Twellman. After Twellman scored a hat trick against Norway, many believed his play had pushed Ching out of the World Cup picture.
Arena contended, though, that friendlies were not the only standard by which he would make his choices for the roster. The form in the MLS season displayed by those considered "bubble players" would also be taken into account.
"I put a little bit of pressure on myself, but not too much," clarified Ching. "My mind wasn't like, 'You have to do well, or you won't make the World Cup team.'"
Instead, he was busy with the task at hand, trying to help establish his team as a success in a new city in a short amount of time.
"I focused on doing well here. [Dynamo management] had us running around doing a lot of interviews and getting to know the city and what not. I didn't have a lot of time to think, 'If you score a lot of goals here, you'll increase your chances to make the World Cup team.'"
At one point, Ching was concerned that the difficulty of settling into a new life in Houston would impede the on-field performance of his team. The welcome the Dynamo players received allayed those concerns.
"It's fantastic," declared Ching. "It's better than any one of us could have imagined as far as the amount of media attention and fan support we're getting. Our field is fantastic. Those things have really helped us as a team feel comfortable really quickly. We're enjoying the transition. A lot of us are glad that we moved to Houston."
With his eagerness to please his new city as motivation, Ching ushered in the franchise's debut with a bang. He scored four goals in an impressive 5-2 Dynamo victory.
"I was just excited to get off to a good start here -- with the fans and the city of Houston," Ching insisted.
His teammates, however, didn't miss the implication of such a gaudy goal haul.
"One of the guys came up to me later and said, 'Good job -- somebody's going to take notice.' That's when I thought, 'Maybe. Hopefully, I can keep this up and make a good case for myself.'"
The odds were not exactly in his favor, but that meant little to the player that had taken one of the most unlikely routes to a soccer career in the first place.
At seven years of age, Ching had to be talked into giving the sport a try. His mother, Stephanie, wanted her son to experience team play and suggested soccer. Ching resisted. A compromise was reached when Stephanie, who had never played the game, agreed to coach his AYSO team.
Even though the athletic Ching enjoyed the sport, he also pursued other interests, such as surfing and cross-country running.
"I only played seasonally until college. In college I started playing year-round soccer."
His stellar play at Gonzaga attracted MLS scouts.
"From college I got drafted to Los Angeles," explained Ching of his start with the Galaxy.
He struggled to adjust to the pro league, marking only a single goal.
"I had a bad year there."
Ching was released from the club and found a spot with a lower-division team. There, he regained his scoring touch.
"I went to the A-league with Seattle. I had a good game against the San Jose team in an Open Cup game. The next year, they took a chance on me. It's kind of been a whirlwind ever since I got back in the league."
To arrive at a World Cup roster spot was especially sweet for Ching when he considered how far he had come.
"It validates the path that I took to get to where I'm at -- the work and the amount of effort that I put in over the past four or five years. I was watching the World Cup in Seattle four years ago. To get from the A-League to being in the next World Cup team isn't easy."
Ching also believes he is capable of even more. Arena, meanwhile, may be counting on his continued development.
"He picked me because I'm playing well," Ching speculated. "I'm in form. I think he's looking for another big target guy to kind of fill the shoes of (Brian) McBride. I have a lot of potential to grow as a player, playing in a good environment. I haven't played as much soccer as a lot of guys that are on the World Cup roster right now. I've scored for him in the past -- in big games, like the Jamaica game. I think those are all reasons why I'm on the World Cup team."
"It's a culmination of being with us for a couple of years and knowing what he brings to our team on the field," explained Arena about selecting Ching. "From 2002 on, we've had a fantastic group of players and Brian's been a part of it. He's a good teammate, on and off the field."
Plus, the goals in MLS had caught Arena's eye.
"Brian's play has been very good to start the league," he noted.
The option of having another strong, tall forward on the bench would also seem to appeal to Arena as a strategy in confronting World Cup opponents.
"The teams that we're playing did influence who we picked," admitted Arena. "This is an interesting group in comparison to the last World Cup. Portugal, Korea and Poland were very different teams than the Czech Republic and Ghana. They are teams that are physically big. They bring a component of speed into the game, so we're well aware of that fact in trying to sort our roster."
The trek Ching took through the various levels of American soccer gave him a deeper appreciation of how the sport has progressed in the U.S.
"The players have gotten better and better through the years. There's more competition out there," he observed.
Considering that increased quality, Ching reflected on his remarkable progress.
"Four years ago, I just wanted to get back into MLS. That was my goal. Now, I'm on the World Cup team. It's been an amazing journey."Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org