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Jan 30, 2006

Twellman delivers a statement

Taylor Timothy Twellman was born to play. His family's athletic heritage includes: a grandfather, Jim Delsing, who manned the outfield for the New York Yankees; a father, Tim, and two paternal uncles, Mike and Steve, who played for the North American Soccer League; and a maternal uncle, Jay Delsing, who is a pro on the PGA tour.

In fact, Twellman was an accomplished multisport talent in high school, lettering in baseball, basketball and American football in addition to soccer. He spurned a contract offer from the Kansas City Royals, deciding to make the world's game his career instead.

His work ethic and energetic on-field play paid off in Major League Soccer. Twellman won the league scoring title the first year he played in MLS, marking 23 goals in 2002. In 2005, he again finished atop the league scoring charts, winning the Most Valuable Player award, as well.

While many hailed his offensive talent, former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda, who presented Twellman with the 2005 MLS MVP trophy, was downright prophetic. Twellman, he claimed, was the likeliest person to break his record of 34 national team goals -- the highest ever for a player representing the Stars and Stripes (a mark that includes friendlies, World Cups, et al).

Despite all the accolades a domestic league offers, though, no stage for the sport is greater than the World Cup. The current edition of the quadrennial competition is being held in Germany, and it marks perhaps the best chance for the 25-year-old Twellman to take part.

Though his superb club play could earn him a call-up to the national team, Twellman would have to prove he belongs at the highest competitive level.

Numbers don't tell the whole story in soccer -- a game which can have a thrilling 0-0 match or an absolute snoozer with the same score. Still, statistics are part of any story, and Twellman's numbers were starting to look grim, especially for a forward. Zero goals in 12 international matches. One red card -- for a tackle in a match versus Colombia. Numerous offside calls included a couple of would-be goals called back.

Finally, the first international goal came -- in Twellman's 13th match, an October 2005 World Cup qualifier. Though it was in the Revolution player's home stadium and sealed the win for the U.S. against Panama, nothing else about the goal was storybook. A glaring defensive error gave the ever-opportunistic forward a chance. Twellman barely beat the goalkeeper to the ball that would put his mark in the scoring column.

Still, that initial strike was crucial in lifting an important burden.

"The first one is always the hardest, no matter what you do," observed Twellman. "If you ask any hockey player or basketball player, you just want to get the first one out of the way."

An undistinguished outing versus Canada in a recent friendly didn't help Twellman's effort to mount a good showing, however. With a limited number of games left before coach Bruce Arena chooses a final roster, the clock was ticking for Twellman.

He answered the wake-up call Sunday in stunning fashion, finding the net three times against Norway to help lead the U.S. to a 5-0 dismantling of its European opponent that relegated the bland scoreless tie against Canada to a distant memory.

Two of his goals came off feeds from Revolution teammates, midfielders Clint Dempsey and Pat Noonan. The familiarity helped Twellman find his scoring groove.

"Clint and Pat are a pleasure to play with on both levels," Twellman said. "They know where I am and they hit good balls today."

Twellman is not the sort of player who impresses many at first sight. The forward does not possess incredible speed or precision technique. He is not adept at taking defenders on with tricky dribble moves. At a generously listed 5-foot-11, he is not a particularly big target in front of the net.

Yet Twellman has a true goal-scorer's instinct and prowls the box to pounce on any opportunity. His hunger for the ball was obvious against Norway, as Twellman got on the board early, scoring both goals in the first half, before adding his final one in the second period.

"Three goals was fantastic," remarked Arena.

Perhaps the most impressive of the three strikes was the second, a header that Twellman struck past Norway's larger defenders.

"Todd [Dunivant] hit a great ball, and I was just trying to get into the seam," said Twellman, who couldn't resist going for a little comedy in his recall. "Fortunately, I've got a huge head -- and [the ball] hit the head."

Cracking jokes displayed the relaxed nature that clearly was missing from some of Twellman's earlier national team outings. Often put into games as a late substitute, he had little time to feel at ease. Probably more than any other position on the field, a striker's effectiveness depends on his mental state. Twellman had trouble on the international level doing what he had done successfully all his life -- just playing.

"I had to get comfortable in my surroundings, and my teammates had to get comfortable with me," Twellman explained. "It's a matter of being patient."

Good things might come to those who wait, but first-class delivery is also key.

"Taylor was a recipient of some pretty good service today, and it created some good opportunities for him," Arena said.

"Everyone is starting to realize that my strengths are in the box," Twellman noted.

Twellman still understands that he has room for improvement.

"I don't think I do a great job all the time with being a good target. I'm learning from guys like [Brian] McBride to be that kind of player. Day in and day out, showing not only Bruce, but my teammates, that I'm here and I'm going to work hard."

Four goals are down, leaving 30 to go, though Twellman is probably less interested in breaking records and more concerned with booking his ticket to Germany. His current streak can only improve his chances.

"It's just one of those things where [Twellman] was at the right place at the right time," Dempsey said. "If you look at the Canada game, he only had one shot. Today, the ball just seemed to find him. That's the way it goes for forwards; sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're cold. Hopefully, you just try to find a rhythm."

In the auditions for Arena's roster, Twellman is aware of his role and the value of persistence.

"My job, day in and day out, is to get chances. If the ball goes in the back of the net, great. If it doesn't, [I'll] show up the next day and keep doing it."

The world is on notice -- Twellman is ready to play.

Notes: Another player who seized the opportunity to show well was Todd Dunivant. The left back had a sparkling international debut, notching two assists.

"I want to mold myself into what Bruce is looking for," the L.A. Galaxy defender explained , "and that's attacking players out of the back."

Dunivant was well aware of what was really at stake in the friendly games -- a chance to make the roster to Germany.

"This is a World Cup year," Dunivant said, "and these camps aren't just to look at some players for the future. It's the here and now. I'm looking to take advantage of the opportunity."

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 soccercanales@yahoo.com