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Jun 16, 2005

A work in progress

It was only four months ago when the Soccer Gods weren't smiling so kindly on Nate Jaqua. Here he was trying to earn a starting position, yet the Chicago Fire striker wasn't showcasing his ability to score goals. No matter what Jaqua did, he couldn't find the back of the net.

Not exactly what head coach Dave Sarachan was looking for after saying goodbye to both Ante Razov and Damani Ralph during the off-season.

"It was frustrating," recalls Jaqua. "I was getting myself in good spots, but they just weren't falling in for me. The coaches told me that eventually they would start to come."

And they have. In bunches, actually.

After scoring in his third straight match during Wednesday night's heartbreaking 4-3 loss on the road to D.C. United, the 23-year-old striker now has six goals and an assist. Just like that, and seemingly out of the blue, Jaqua suddenly finds himself tied for second in the league in goals scored with Taylor Twellman and Landon Donovan, and just one behind leader Carlos Ruiz, who already has seven goals for F.C. Dallas in just 11 games played.

Jaqua hardly has an answer for his success. In fact, he almost seems baffled by it to some extent.

"It's been nice," says Jaqua. "I don't think it is necessarily one thing I'm doing differently or anything. I think it's more about being comfortable and more confident. You get more used to the game and it feels like it slows down. You're able to find space that you weren't able to find before."

That sounds about right for a player now in his third year in Major League Soccer. Especially for one who was drafted for what he could provide the Fire in the future, rather than right away in his rookie season.

"I was picked because of my potential and how I'd play over time," he says. "I knew if I kept playing and tried to get better, eventually it would start to work out."

That's why it was never difficult for Jaqua to watch Damani Ralph -- a player that was drafted 15 selections behind him in the second round of the 2003 MLS SuperDraft -- light the league on fire with 11 goals to win Rookie of the Year honors.

"I didn't look at it like that," says Jaqua. "I was younger than him, so I was just happy to get time."

It's also the reason the Fire general manager Peter Wilt never worried about whether the player he selected third overall in that draft -- and in front of standout players such as Pat Noonan and Eddie Gaven -- would pan out for his side in due time.

"People seem to forget that Nate was a Project-40 player who hadn't fully developed yet," says Wilt. "His size (6-foot-4) made it clear that he had maturing to do because he really needed to become comfortable in his own body."

Wilt hit it right on the head, as Jaqua still was adjusting to being the tallest guy on the field. While Jaqua says he was always a bit "above average," he was not the big kid you stuck up front to intimidate defenders and win every ball in the air. Instead, he was always a technical player that beat defenders off the dribble while growing up in Eugene, Oregon. A lot of that skill was developed right at home, too, as his father, Jon, who played football for the Washington Redskins, actually built a soccer field for Nate and his brother, Josh, in the backyard of his house.

"I grew up on a ranch so we had a lot of space out there," says Jaqua, whose mother, Connie, was his co-coach during his much-decorated high school career at South Eugene High School. "We had all the equipment, so my dad flattened out a field and welded a few goals together. My brother and I were always out there."

The field wasn't big enough for 11 v. 11, but it was big enough so that the boys could line the field each spring and even have some of their club team trainings there on occasion. Jaqua would sometimes be out there juggling and shooting on an empty goal as early as 6 a.m. and wouldn't leave until it got dark. So even when he grew to be 6-foot tall during his high school years, he was hardly a lumbering forward without technique.

But once he moved on to the University of Portland, Jaqua shot up a few more inches. All of a sudden he had a much bigger advantage in the box and became more of a presence in the air.

"I never used my height until I got into college and my coaches said, 'Listen, you're a big guy here. You have to start taking advantage of this,'" he says.

Jaqua learned to become more of a target forward who plays with his back to the goal, but still feels he's best when facing the run of play, which is one of the reasons Sarachan has utilized him as an outside midfielder three different times this season, including on Wednesday night when he was moved to the right midfielder slot after he got a goal and assist to give Chicago a 2-0 cushion in the first half.

"It's a little bit more natural for me to be facing the goal because I like to run at people," says Jaqua, who totaled six goals in his first two seasons combined for the Fire. "I'm starting to get better at being a post-up player. I'm 6-4, so I really have to be able to use my size and be able to play as more of a target up top.

"But I also like playing out as a right mid because you can face the field a bit more. I think playing as a midfielder last year gave me more confidence since I was around the ball more. It carried over for me as a forward, I guess."

That confidence has been noticed not only around the league, but overseas as well as several teams have been monitoring his progress in Scandinavia, Germany and Belgium.

"They love his size, speed and ability to play a couple of positions," said his agent, Patrick McCabe, while in Holland at the World Youth Championships. "They also like his fighting spirit on the field."

Jaqua is perfectly happy in Chicago and still has another year left on his contract with MLS after this one, but he knows he has options in Europe in the future if he keeps up his strong play.

In addition, several other teams around MLS have been trying to acquire Jaqua for some time now.

"Over the last year or two, I've gotten more inquiries about Nate than any other player," says Wilt. "There've been some good offers and some very good players mentioned in those offers, too. But I've consistently told teams that we want to keep developing him and that we need him for two different positions since he's a forward yet can give us depth at midfield. There's not a lot of guys like that around the league."

Indeed. The patience Chicago showed with Jaqua has paid off, too, since it allowed him to watch Razov and Ralph over the past two years. "Ante and Damani are both tremendous forwards, and I learned from both of them," he says. "No matter how the game was going they were always trying to find a way to get some advantage to find the back of the net. It didn't matter what minute it was in or what the score of the game was. That's what I try to do."

So far, so good.

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