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Jul 28, 2006

Tough shoes to fill

It was about as quiet a retirement as you will ever find in the world of international soccer. Brian McBride, the U.S. national team's top target man for the past decade, decided he had played his final game for the United States. There was no ceremony, no press conference. Just a release saying that the second-leading scorer in U.S. soccer history was finished. The news wasn't exactly a shock but what is surprising, and somewhat disturbing, is the void the 34-year-old forward leaves behind. Forward is the thinnest position in the U.S. national team pool and there just aren't many appealing options as the team heads into its next World Cup cycle. Landon Donovan appears better suited as a midfielder, Eddie Johnson still hasn't developed and no other player has stepped up to make a real case that they deserve consideration as the U.S. team's lead forward. What players could step in and replace McBride, not just as a target forward but also as a reliable goal scorer? Here are some candidates: Kenny Cooper. The FC Dallas striker and former Manchester United player is the most appealing forward prospect in MLS right now. Don't agree? Consider he has scored seven goals and three assists in 18 games for FC Dallas, showing aerial ability comparable to McBride and solid passing skills. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Cooper is an ideal target forward who should only get better with experience. After all, he is just 21 years old. Cooper hasn't earned a national team cap yet, but you can rest assured that whomever takes over as U.S. coach will call him in. Brian Ching. He didn't get on the field at the World Cup but Ching still made quite an impression by simply making the World Cup roster. He is great in the air but he can also strike a good ball. Ching's passing ability leaves a lot to be desired and his first touch isn't exactly world class. That said, he is solid and has a penchant for scoring in the clutch. At 28, Ching is probably pretty close to his full potential, which should still be enough to make him a factor in the next round of World Cup qualifying. Eddie Johnson. It is hard to forget just how impressive Johnson looked during his 45 minutes against the Czech Republic in the World Cup, but that memory fades with every lackluster performance with the Kansas City Wizards. Johnson, 22, needs to go to Europe before his stock drops any further and before he wastes any more time in his development as a player. He has all the physical tools you could ask for in a forward, but there continue to be question marks about his work ethic. He showed in the last World Cup qualifying campaign that he can dominate CONCACAF competition. Conor Casey. The forgotten man among American forwards, Casey fell out of the picture after suffering a torn knee ligament. Considered as close a facsimile to McBride as there is in the national team player pool, Casey has the size and strength to be a national team starter and very likely would have been on the 2006 World Cup roster had last summer's knee injury not sidelined him. Currently playing for Bundesliga club Mainz, Casey just turned 25 and should only get better once his right knee fully heals. Taylor Twellman. Critics of Bruce Arena love to mention Twellman's name as that of a player who could have helped the U.S. team in Germany. Don't believe the hype. The 26-year-old Revolution striker is a quality MLS forward but he is a step slow for the international game. His flurry of goals last winter in friendlies against Japan and Norway led some to believe that Twellman could be a starter, but those matches were against under-strength teams. If Twellman continues to produce in MLS, the next U.S. coach surely will give him a look. Will Twellman produce? It is far from the foregone conclusion Twellman lovers swear it is. In terms of forwards who could help pick up the scoring slack, Landon Donovan leads that list and might wind up having to play forward given the national team pool's wealth of midfielders and dearth of proven international goal scorers. If anything, the inevitable struggle to replace McBride should help some people appreciate just how good McBride was. His failure to score in this summer's World Cup made it easy for some to forget just how many important goals he scored for the United States, including game-winners against Portugal and Mexico, easily the two biggest victories in modern U.S. soccer history. McBride's departure from the international game didn't receive much fanfare but U.S. fans will spend the next four years realizing how significant his farewell really is. Youri a goner? The sight of Youri Djorkaeff attending a World Cup match in Germany a month ago when he was supposed to be in France attending to personal matters left a bad taste in the mouths of many Red Bulls fans. That sight actually might be the last time those same fans see Djorkaeff. The French star has yet to return to the Red Bulls after telling team officials he needed to deal with a family illness. He has missed six straight games and is set to miss the team's road game against Houston on Saturday despite the team stating last week that Djorkaeff would come back in time to face the Dynamo. Djorkaeff stated in the spring that he planned to retire after this season. You have to wonder whether he really wants to come back. The Red Bulls, who are now back in the heart of the Eastern Conference playoff race, need to make a decision on whether they want to wait around for Djorkaeff to come back or if they will tell him to just stay in France. If Djorkaeff does retire, the Red Bulls will have some salary cap space to sign a forward. It's a move they would have to make if Djorkaeff retired since Haitian forward Jean-Philippe Peguero is on his way to Danish club FC Brondby. Is a Djorkaeff return still a possibility? The team still would take him back at this point but if Djorkaeff doesn't come back in time for the Red Bulls upcoming friendly against FC Barcelona on Aug. 12, you can pretty much close the book on the Youri Djorkaeff era. Game Previews Colorado Rapids at FC Dallas There are two things we know about the Rapids. They are money at home (7-1-3) and they are awful on the road (1-5-1). Look for that trend to continue as Dallas rides its recent hot streak and solidifies its hold on first place in the West. FC Dallas 2, Rapids 1. Columbus Crew at Chicago Fire After opening Toyota Park with a three-match winning streak, the Fire is struggling in its new home. Chicago's three-match home winless streak should end on Saturday against a hapless Columbus squad that played well against Everton on Wednesday but still is riding a 10-match MLS winless streak. Fire 1, Crew 0 New England Revolution at Kansas City Wizards The Wizards continue to be one of the league's great enigmas. They have one of the most talented rosters in MLS but they continue to play like their players just met in the tunnel on the way to the field. Look for their losing streak to reach eight games against a Revs team that will be eager to make up for its last home game, an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake. Revolution 3, Wizards 2. New York Red Bulls at Houston Dynamo Houston is one of the league's best home teams while the Red Bulls have just one road win all year. Seems easy enough a game to predict, right? Not so fast, my friend. The Dynamo are coming off a mid-week loss at Colorado, and must now play a game in 90-degree weather against a rested Red Bulls squad riding a three-match winning streak. Houston will salvage a point, but it might not have enough gas to secure a win. Red Bulls 0, Dynamo 0. D.C. United at Real Salt Lake Can anybody stop D.C.? Real showed some life in its 3-3 tie against Chivas USA but won't have much luck stopping United's dynamic attack or cracking its stingy defense. D.C. United 2, Real Salt Lake 0 Last week: 2-5 Overall: 32-44

Ives Galarcep covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.