Noonan in high demand
Not too long after the New England Revolution had returned to the locker room following their season-ending loss to Chicago in the Eastern Conference final, Steve Nicol took Pat Noonan aside for a moment.
The 2002 MLS Coach of the Year could have gone on all night telling his young striker how well he performed in his rookie campaign, how the loss wasn't his fault, and how they wouldn't have been there without him.
Instead, Nicol kept it brief, and passed on some information that he knew would lift Noonan's spirits.
"He told me I was being called into the National Team's next camp" said Noonan. "Bruce Arena was at the game, and I guess he'd been watching me lately since I'd been playing well."
Playing well? Talk about an understatement.
No player in all of Major League Soccer was as hot as Noonan coming into the league semifinals, as the 23-year-old striker had tallied goals in four of six games, including a hat trick in the regular season finale against the MetroStars to help the Revs secure home-field advantage in the first-round and earn Player of the Month honors for October.
In the playoffs, he picked up right where he left off, scoring one of his sides two goals in a 2-0 win over the Metros, and was dangerous throughout the two-game series. For a coach looking for new blood, particularly up front, it was an easy decision for Arena to invite Noonan to train with his squad from December 12-19 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
"I knew that there'd be interest in him," said Revolution assistant coach John Murphy. "All the credit goes to him, too, because he worked hard for us all year, even when he wasn't starting, and he came through when we needed him."
That interest didn't just come from those within the U.S. Soccer Federation, either. The Irish National Team even looked into getting Noonan into camp to play for them rather than the U.S.
"I think they saw my name and then realized maybe they had a chance," said Noonan.
Though U.S. Soccer said it wasn't aware of such contact, officials from the Ireland called Noonan's parents in St. Louis, as well as Nicol, to inquire about whether Noonan would be eligible or not.
They were hoping that Noonan was perhaps born in Ireland before moving to the States at a young age, but instead found out that his closest tie to Ireland is that his father's great-grandparents came to the U.S. from there.
Even if he had been eligible, Noonan's heart has always been with the U.S. National Team and is the team he someday wants to play for regularly.
"This is where I want to be, and this is the best situation for me," said Noonan.
Just wearing the colors of any National Team didn't seem possible too long ago.
Noonan was a three-time All-American at the University of Indiana and was a first-round (9th overall) selection in last January's MLS Draft, yet he was joining a team that had the league's goal-scoring leader in Taylor Twellman and a returning National Team player in Joe-Max Moore pegged to start up front.
Unlike fellow draftees Ricardo Clark (MetroStars) and Todd Dunivant (San Jose), Noonan was not being talked about by anyone -- inside or outside of the Revs -- as a possible starting player in his rookie season, but rather a second-half option off the bench at best. And he prepared himself for such a role.
"I was just planning to come off the bench and give the team some good minutes probably out wide more than up top for (Brian) Kamler and (Steve) Ralston if they needed rest," said the Ballwin, Missouri, native. "But guys started going down and I got my chance."
After initially being used as a flank midfielder, Noonan started to see time up front at the beginning of the summer since Moore was battling different injuries and Twellman was both away with the National Team and battling an illness he came down with at the Confederations Cup in France.
Even though he was seeing time in most every game and starting the occasional match, it really wasn't until late August when Twellman broke his nose on a collision with L.A. defender Danny Califf and newly-acquired Chris Brown got injured that his starting role up top was secure, which is all he said he needed to prove himself.
"I always knew that if I could get out there for seventy, eighty or ninety minutes a game that I could make something happen," said Noonan, who scored 48 goals and registered 31 assists during his wildly-successful collegiate career. "I was getting in for fifteen minutes early on, and I think I was doing well, but it was just a matter of time before I could show what I could do with more minutes on the field in a game."
Noonan scored eight of his 10 goals in the last two months of the season to finish among the league's top ten goal-scorers, and start a buzz around MLS about his knack for finishing a la his teammate, Twellman.
"He has the confidence of a goal-scorer and he knows what to do around the box," said Murphy. "Much like Taylor, he takes less chances to get a goal than the average forward, which is the hallmark of any great scorer."
Even though there won't be a friendly to take part in, Noonan will now try and put those qualities on display for Arena in scrimmages with the U-23 National Team next week.
"Even when I started playing well, I didn't expect a call-up to come so soon, but I know that Bruce is looking at some younger guys to give them a shot," said Noonan. "It's an honor and it's definitely the next step. I'm just going to give it my best shot."
To do that, he's been talking to Twellman, Ralston, his roommate Adin Brown, and fellow Hoosier Chris Klein, who plays midfield for the Kansas City Wizards and is a regular on the National Team.
"I've just been asking them what to expect and how to act," he said. "I'm pretty sure I know how to approach the situation and take advantage of the opportunity, but at the same time, it's great to have those little helpful hints to try and get a step ahead.
"I'm just really looking forward to it, and hopefully things will work out for me."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.