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Apr 30, 2006

Playing not to get hurt

Journalists can be a cynical lot. Heck, some members of the chattering class work in cynicism the way Van Gogh worked in oils or Jessica Simpson works in silliness.

So here's one sometimes-cynical journalist's big porridge of mea culpa -- although it comes garnished with a hint of "I'm still not completely convinced" and spicy dash of "Let's keep watching."

I waded into the MLS season wondering about certain, name players. I wondered about the mindset of fellows who may be staking out the "Foreign Travel" section in book stores and commencing to read up on Germany.

We all know a few players around MLS who can feel quite good about their chances of being among Bruce Arena's chosen 23 next week.

So that begs the question: If they are certainly Germany-bound, and considering that a World Cup is far and away every soccer players' grandest desire, don't we have to wonder just a smidge about their mindset as they play in front of 9,000 (announced crowd: 17,500!) in some early season MLS game?

See, there's the cynicism.

Oh, most of these guys are good professionals. They care about their teammates. They hither at the thought of letting down the club and the fans, and they certainly don't wish to be accused of "big timing" a locker room mate who isn't in the World Cup mix. But in their quiet moments, what are they thinking?

When Frankie Hejduk goes into the corner to dig out a loose ball, is he looking over his shoulder just a little more carefully?

Will Eddie Pope be quite as quick to stick one of those long legs into a precarious spot?

Can Taylor Twellman or Clint Dempsey be blamed if they don't make human ballistic projectiles of themselves around the other team's goal with quite the same ferocity?

And when you talk to MLS coaches privately, the word is out that a few MLS players in the national team pool seem to come up injured -- or get themselves ejected -- right about the time internationals are right around the corner.

And what about MLS coaches? Could they be blamed if "World Cup" drifts randomly into the mind's nether reaches?

Three weeks ago, John O'Brien was dressed for manager Bob Bradley as Chivas USA visited D.C. United. O'Brien had been signed just a few days earlier, but Bradley had designs on getting the valuable midfielder some minutes.

But the RFK field was slick, and Bradley leaned toward caution. He kept O'Brien on the bench that day and admitted that the wet field was part of the rationale.

Obviously, Bradley has his own team's interest to protect at Chivas USA. He needs O'Brien healthy. On the other hand, Bradley knows how important O'Brien is to the U.S. World Cup effort and to the greater U.S. soccer establishment. In terms of generating a national buzz, nothing even comes close to what a stirring World Cup dash can do for the sport.

By the way, none of this in an issue that is unique to MLS. Look right to the top of the global soccer totem poll. With the Premiership crown all but tucked away, can Chelsea's Frank Lampard, John Terry, Hernan Crespo et al be blamed for peeking ahead just a bit? Nein.

I considered all this as MLS kicked off almost a month ago.

So here's the mea culpa: Now, after Round 5 of MLS play, I have to say my cynicism seems somewhat unfounded. I've seen evidence of all this only in little helpings here and there.

No one has served up a big ol' plate of apathy just yet -- not that I've seen.

You could possibly make a case for Eddie Johnson. But Johnson really hasn't looked dangerous in U.S. appearances either. So if he doesn't have that scoring touch, it's probably not because he's holding back. Indeed, he just hasn't regained his speed and, more critically, that all-important striker's confidence since foot and toe woes scuttled his good scoring run 10 months ago.

Johnson knows that second forward spot, next to Brian McBride, is there for the taking. But Arena sees the MLS games. He's all too aware that Johnson, with just a single goal so far against MLS defenses, may not have the stuff right now to get the best of Ghana's Sammy Kuffour and or Italy's Alessandro Nesta.

Outside of Johnson, I haven't had much cause to be overly suspicious.

Landon Donovan certainly looked interested during the waning minutes of his team's victory over Chivas USA. His daring, late-game burst won the game for Steve Sampson's team, as Cornell Glen finished the job following Donovan's terrific industry.

Eddie Pope looks refreshed with Real Salt Lake, even if the club around him remains an absolute mess.

And truth be told, my theory has worked completely opposite of what I originally suspected in some cases. Ben Olsen, still perhaps holding a thimble full of hope, is certainly giving Arena something to consider with his tight performances for Peter Nowak. Brian Ching? It's probably too late. But four goals in one game sure says, "Hey, look at me! I'm still trying!"

Having said all that -- let's just keep watching a little longer. We have Tuesday's big announcement, then one more round of matches before Arena convenes the golden 23.

And I still suspect that, with so much on the line, we may just see a player or two bail out of a challenge here and there.

Three MLS coaches I asked about this all said they didn't worry about their own players, trotting out the old truism about the surest way to get hurt: to think about not getting hurt. Fair enough.

But they all privately confessed to wondering about certain players on other clubs.

So, it might seem, journalists don't have the market completely cornered on cynicism.

Steve Davis covers soccer for The Dallas Morning News and ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at stevedavis@dallasnews.com