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Better than ever

When an athlete comes back from an injury, it has become both a cliché and an essential part of PlayerSpeak 101 to talk at length about how they "appreciate the game more." Well, of course that's going to happen. Take anything you love away from you and you want it more than ever.

Look at relationships. Entire sitcoms have been based on the "I took you for granted and now I want you back" premise, whether it featured Sam and Diane, Ross and Rachel or, my favorite, Dylan and Brenda/Kelly.

When Chris Klein tore the ACL in his right knee in October of 2001, he experienced the same sort of feelings as far as his love for the game and how lucky he is to play it for a living.

But it was more than that with Klein.

While his friends, teammates and fans obviously felt bad for him that his World Cup dreams were shattered and that the road to recovery would be long, every passing comment of encouragement he received started to sound like something else to him: doubt.

"Everyone was great," said the Kansas City Wizards midfielder. "But in the back of my mind, I knew they were thinking, Will he be the same or as good as he was? That, all of a sudden, became my incentive - to prove anyone wrong who thought that and to be better than I ever was."

If his outstanding Comeback of the Year performance for the Wizards last season, when he piled up 19 points on seven goals and five assists in 25 starts, didn't prove such a point, his recent play with the National Team certainly has.

Prior to the Nov. 17 match against El Salvador at RFK, Klein had not scored a goal in six appearances with the National Team.

But, in the four games Bruce Arena's squad has played since November, Klein has tallied two goals and has been one of the most consistent players on the field as a starter in each contest at his familiar right midfield position.

"He's playing better than ever," said Wizards head coach Bob Gansler. "He was just on the verge of making his presence noticed and felt on the National Team scene when he came down with the injury. I thought he was playing well then and had a shot to make that roster for the last World Cup. But the way he has come back to have his best year in the league, really underscores what the young man is all about."

Klein believes he is both faster and stronger than before due to the rigorous rehabilitation he went through and training habits he has kept since being healthy for nearly one year now.

His workouts have included speed training and a lot more time in the weight room than before the injury.

Standing at 6-foot-1 and a cut 180 pounds, Klein is noticeably stronger and is starting to resemble the type of midfielder that Germany typically produces. Yet, it's his ball skills and tactical understanding that has improved the most.

"Everything is coming together," said Gansler, the head coach of the 1990 U.S. World Cup squad. "He's always been a physical presence and very intense with a blue-collar ethic and all of that, but he has refined his technical side of the game and is much more smarter and more aware now on how he can punish other teams. He's a two-way player, who runs end line to end line on both sides of the ball."

Mentally, he's ready for stardom, which is one of the aspects of an athlete's game that is so often overlooked. Now 27, and entering his sixth year in MLS, Klein is no longer just happy to be getting paid to play soccer for a living and to be considered for the National Team.

"I now go in to camp with the idea that I know I can play with the National Team," said Klein. "I've felt more comfortable this time around, but you can't get too comfortable with your spot or with your role. There are some guys who are always going to be there. I'd like to think I can be one of those guys, but I'm not there yet."

Many would differ with that thinking, as there isn't an overload of flank midfielders crowding the National Team pool.

For Klein, it appears to be simply his position to lose at the moment, whether it be to the likes of Ben Olsen or Steve Ralston. While Klein says that he hasn't talked a lot to Coach Arena about his exact role and where he stands, he knows precisely what his job entails when he puts on a U.S. jersey.

"One of the interesting things about Coach Arena is that he really puts the pressure on you," said Klein. "He lets you know and lets everyone else know what he expects from each position. Then the responsibility falls on your shoulders to go out and do that. He wants (right midfielders) to get in a lot of crosses, take guys on when we can and get chances on goal, as well as link up with the right back and defend well. If you can't do that, he's going to find someone else. That's basically the gist of what he says."

Now that veterans like Peter Vermes, Mike Burns and Matt McKeon are no longer in K.C., Klein's duties on the club side extend a bit deeper than that.

"It's almost like I switched from being one of the young guys to one of the veterans," said the St. Louis native. "More responsibility will now fall on my shoulders. Obviously, we have guys like Tony Meola and Preki who are the older players who have been around and are team leaders, but I'll be counted on, too."

Recently, Klein has seen a change in his teammates, as the trip to South Africa last month that he missed due to National Team duty seemed to bring them closer together and sharpen the side's overall focus.

He also is quick to point out that despite not having a first-round draft pick in camp that the Wizards look at the acquisition of Josh Wolff and Jimmy Conrad as the best first two selections they could have possibly signed. A striker like Wolff, who utilizes a full array of darting runs to get open for through balls, will be the perfect weapon for Kansas City's midfielders to utilize.

"Josh Wolff will have a tremendous impact on our team," said Klein. "He's got that breakaway speed where he can get behind defenders. He's also very good in the box and running on to balls. He'll be a guy that teams will have to key on. If you key on him, then you've got Preki right there and Eric Quill on the other side, so there are a handful of us that teams are going to have to think about. What that enables us to do is have more space and it doesn't allow teams to focus as much on Preki and myself, which really opens it up."

"Chris's crosses are getting better all the time, and Josh will give us one more quality recipient," said Gansler. "Josh is going to extend the opponents defense, which means there is going to be more room for Chris to work in, and he excels in that. He just eats up the miles."

He eats up defenses, too. And practically with a smile on his face.

For someone who grew up going to St. Louis University games to watch Mark Santel with wide eyes, it took a grueling injury to truly restore such a sense of wonderment about the game and to inspire Klein to reinvent himself as a player to achieve greater heights and to prove any naysayers wrong.

"I now look at the injury as a tremendous blessing."

So do Wizards fans. For once, the cliché seems to hold true.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Shaketiller10@yahoo.com.