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Apr 20, 2006

Still hoping to be noticed

During the United States' opening qualifying match for Germany '06, Jovan Kirovski entered as a 21st-minute replacement for Conor Casey as the U.S. took a 3-0 win over Grenada in Columbus, Ohio, on June 13, 2004. Kirovski could not have known that would be his last appearance with the national team.

Almost two years later, the qualifying process long since completed, Kirovski remains conspicuous by his absence among those in contention for the final World Cup roster. Once considered the future of U.S. soccer, Kirovski, who turned 30 last month, has disappeared from the international picture since returning to MLS.

So, what caused Kirovski's persona non grata status? Was it something he said?

"It's a mystery to me," Kirovski said during an interview at the Colorado Rapids' training facility in suburban Denver this week. "I am just concentrating on what I am doing here, scoring goals and taking things one game at a time. Hopefully, somebody takes notice."

The obvious follow-up in a Kirovski inquiry concerns his teaming up with Clint Mathis, a World Cup 2002 success story who deteriorated into expansion team fodder, then expansion team reject.

Kirovski noticed his interviewer searching for a label for the two Rapids players and replied:

"You mean 'troublemakers'? Maybe Clint and I are tougher to deal with than some other players. It takes a good coach to deal with us. But I don't think of myself as a troublemaker. I am a normal person, you can ask anyone here."

Indeed, the Rapids might have accomplished a steal by acquiring Kirovski and Mathis (in exchange for a draft choice and forward Jeff Cunningham). The trick is for coach Fernando Clavijo to coddle Kirovski and Mathis, or do whatever it takes to extract the best from them. Clavijo does not consider this a particularly difficult undertaking.

"I like to judge people on my own," Clavijo said. "Sometimes, players get reputations. But every situation and every team is different, the personalities of players are different.

"After you get to know Jovan, you don't know that he has had any problems. He is a great kid. I don't know what's not to like about him."

Clavijo is hardly naive about players' pasts. Nor is Clavijo simply setting up a clearing house for problem players. Clavijo first met Kirovski while Clavijo was playing for the San Diego Sockers and Kirovski was an eager young prospect attending games with his Republic of Macedonia-born parents.

Kirovski was 15 when he went to Manchester United -- he was among the first Americans to be recruited by an elite European club -- and he spent nearly half his life playing in England, Germany and Portugal. Kirovski returned to the MLS last year, playing just up the San Diego Freeway from his hometown.

Kirovski scored for the Los Angeles Galaxy in a 3-2 win over New England in his MLS debut and totaled eight goals in 2004. But after 24 games last season, the relationship soured between Kirovski and Steve Sampson, his former coach with the U.S. team, and he was traded to the Rapids.

The fact that Kirovski was considered to be worth only a 2007 draft choice in the deal indicates he was not in great demand.

"Some coaches are afraid of personalities and taking chances," Clavijo said. "What's to be afraid of? A player's temperament? The most important thing is can they can help the team and help win games.

"It's a risk, but it's a calculated risk. It was the same with Jeff Cunningham last year, and Jeff did extremely well -- we just needed something different this year. And Jovan and Clint have been outstanding."

Kirovski has taken three shots on goal in the Rapids' opening three games, scoring on a free kick (against Houston), in the run of play (against Columbus) and on a penalty kick (against Dallas). He has emerged as the team's leader after Colorado had a shaky start, losing two starters to injury in the opening minutes and Pablo Mastroeni to a late red card in a 5-2 loss to Houston in the season opener.

Kirovski has been performing in a central midfield role, although he always has been considered a forward. He has the technical ability to perform in nearly any attacking position.

"He holds the ball," Clavijo said of Kirovski. "He is a different kind of striker than Taylor Twellman. He is more of a typical nine and a half. He gets people involved, passes, distributes well, makes everyone around him better. [Jean Philippe] Peguero is more physical. [Kirovski] is more poly-functional, an offensive midfielder or a third attacker when we have a midfield diamond."

Kirovski is performing far from the high-profile venues of Europe and far from his Southern California home.

"L.A. was great, being an hour and a half from my home," Kirovski said. "But I was not happy going to work, and that's important. I didn't see eye to eye with Steve Sampson; I wasn't playing where I thought I should play; and I wasn't playing in the team when I thought I should have been. I am not a young kid anymore and, at this stage of my career, I don't want to be playing in a lot of different positions where I am not comfortable.

"It's important that your coach has confidence in you, and Fernando has a lot of confidence in me and lets me express myself on the field."

Kirovski went to Europe four years before the MLS was established and found himself in the role of young prospect, then a reserve on some top teams, including Borussia Dortmund's 1997 Champions League winners, then a journeyman with Crystal Palace and Birmingham City.

When the U.S. met Germany in Dortmund last month, Kirovski viewed the match on television while the Rapids were training in Spain.

"The atmosphere is great; they get 70,000 for every game," Kirovski said of Borussia Dortmund's stadium. "We went to a game with Barcelona, and the atmosphere there made me miss it. Every game in Europe means something, and there is that pressure of the team going down or going up, there is money riding on every match. The game is a lot quicker. It's a lot different here, but we're getting there.''

Kirovski scored the first of his nine national team goals in a 3-0 U.S. win over Jamaica in Kingston on Nov. 22, 1994. The Grenada game in 2004 was Kirovsky's 62nd for the U.S.

"Nobody was surprised that Germany beat the U.S., 4-1," Kirovski said. "[Coach] Jurgen Klinsmann was under fire. Everyone thought Germany was going downhill the last time [2002] but they got to the final. They always find a way, they are always solid. They were the best team in the world for so long, but now they are redoing everything, but they are playing at home and they will be there again in the World Cup.

"For the U.S., getting through the group stage last time was unbelievable and it will be tough to try and repeat that. But they have a chance. Anybody can beat anybody. If they get an early goal, they can counterattack. We have enough players playing in Europe that they could get through the group."

If Kirovski no longer is a factor on the international scene, he is a top performer on the domestic stage. And he has something to prove.

"We know we can do better," Kirovski said of the Rapids' start. "We didn't play all that badly against Houston, but we had two guys injured in the first 20 minutes. I moved into midfield, but I try to get into the box and get opportunities because it's important that not just the front guys score.

"I am taking it game by game, but I want to go out and win every time and win a championship in Colorado."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.