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Mar 10, 2006

Revived in Europe

Days away from giving up the game, Brian West decided to give professional soccer one more go. The once-bright star of the Columbus Crew gave himself a final chance at playing in Europe -- knowing if he failed to catch on, he would hang up his cleats for good.

In Germany, a chance encounter led him to a small Norwegian lumber town, where he rediscovered something he thought he had lost -- his passion for the game. Now the speedy American midfielder is hoping his regaining of form with Fredrikstad F.K. of the Norwegian League could lead to a transfer to one of Europe's top clubs.

Blessed with blistering pace, the former Virginia Cavalier began his MLS career in 1998 with the Columbus Crew. One of the league's first P-40 players, West broke into the Crew's starting lineup in 1999 and made his first international appearance for the Stars and Stripes on April 26, 2000, at the age of 21.

Capped seven times between 2000 and 2002 and a driving force in the attack for the Crew, the attacking midfielder's futures -- domestic and international -- looked promising. He figured in the lead-p to the 2002 World Cup, earning five caps that year including two in the Gold Cup. However, he was left of the final roster.

After that disappointment, his form began to decline and one thing became apparent. His love for the game had left him.

"If you lose your passion for the game, you'll never reach your potential," West said. "I had fallen into a rut and I needed a change."

The change would be drastic. At the age of 25, he decided to give Europe one last shot, setting up tryouts with a few teams. If he failed to find a club, he would return to America and accept a consulting job he was offered in Columbus, starting his new life as a nine-to-fiver with no regrets.

"If things didn't work out when I went for trial overseas and I didn't find the right opportunity -- it's something I was in all likelihood going to do," West said. "Of course my life would have been different, but I would have adjusted."

Like any potential jobseeker, his break came through hard work an a bit of luck. West was in Germany trying out for some second-division Bundesliga teams when he ran into Jeff Cunningham's agent, who speaks Norwegian. Soon after, he arranged a trial with Fredrikstad F.K., a tradition-rich team that recently won promotion back into the Norwegian first division after nearly 20 years in the lower flights.

In January 2004, a match was made -- West agreed to a two-year deal with the club. He packed up and moved to Fredrikstad, a quaint, working-class town in southeast Norway with numerous waterways, red-thatched roofs, and a strong contingent of soccer fans.

The club's fans, who found his exciting style of play a welcome antidote to the structured and systematic nature Norwegian football, took to the American right away. They named him the team's co-MVP and he credits their support for helping him rekindle his passion for the game.

"Coming to Fredrikstad where the stadium at capacity only seats 10,000 plus, and feeling the energy and emotion from the crowd the whole game is inspiring," West told YanksAbroad.com last year. 'Having 2,000 fans travel by bus six, seven, or eight hours just to support their team is priceless to a player."

West's renewed vigor was apparent in his first season for the Aristokratene (The Aristocrats). His four goals and eight assists earned him a spot in the Tippeligaen's top XI and played a vital part in helping his club avoid relegation.

In August of 2005, West re-upped with the club for an additional three years. Although he loves the city and its fans, he understands that the Tippeligaen is not a destination for elite players and is open to the possibility of a move elsewhere in Europe.

"I have really enjoyed my time here (at Fredrikstad). Not only is it a great place to play soccer, it's also a place to be seen by other leagues," West said. "The Scandanavian leagues are a good stepping stone to the other leagues in Europe."

Even a return to the MNT for the World Cup doesn't seem entirely out of the question. West's main asset is his speed, and he could be someone who could come on in the second half and apply instant pressure to an opposing defense. Unfortunately, the nagging injuries that hampered his club form last season have also prevented him from joining the U.S. national team in recent months.

"Every time I get an email message from Bruce (Arena), he asks about my health," West said. "The last few times, I have had to say I was injured. The last time was before the (Scotland) match and for the January camp."

Although he is generally recovered from those injuries, West was left off the roster for the United States friendly against Poland on March 1. At this time, a return to the national teams seems unlikely. Instead, a healthy West will focus on helping his club team prepare for its season opener on April 10.

Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at andrewwinner@gmail.com