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Feb 6, 2007

Twellman still vying for a national team starting spot

Ever since Taylor Twellman accepted an offer seven years ago from TSV Munich 1860, his luck with the U.S. national team program has been mostly bad. But after missing a couple of Olympic Games and a World Cup, Twellman is among those receiving a fresh start under coach Bob Bradley.

Twellman, who turns 27 next month, has taken the first steps toward being reintegrated into the U.S. team in being named to the 20-man roster for the U.S.-Mexico game Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Looking at Twellman, his pedigree and his statistics, it is difficult to imagine so many things having gone wrong for him at the national team level. Twellman grew up kicking the ball around with his father, his uncles and their teammates in the North American Soccer League. He also excelled at baseball and golf, like a good, all-around St. Louis athlete. But winning the bronze ball in the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup turned out to be a mixed blessing for Twellman; it produced a big payday from Munich 1860 but led to him being left out of the 2000 Olympic picture. And, when Twellman decided to leave Germany in 2001, he relinquished leverage in MLS negotiations and signed at minimum salary.

But in the last five seasons, Twellman has proven his scoring ability, converting 82 goals in 147 playoff and regular-season games. No other U.S. player performing in first division soccer anywhere in the world has come close to that total since '02.

Twellman's problems at the international level have been his own misfortune, including illness and injury, and the presence of Brian McBride in the U.S. plans. McBride has proven to be a class performer; his style is well-suited to the international game and the Premiership, given his ability to hold the ball and make threatening runs. But McBride has moved on, and the U.S. needs a replacement.

Though Twellman is not a McBride clone, he offers a dynamic addition to the offense. Twellman provided a hint of what he can do with the national team early last year in U.S. victories over Norway (5-0), when he scored three times, and Japan (3-2), when he scored once and was involved in the other two goals. Twellman has six goals in 25 U.S. appearances, but he could increase his scoring rate dramatically if given consistent time on the field.

Twellman's accomplishments with the U.S. have been limited as he's had the misfortune of fighting an uphill battle. Twellman contracted undiagnosed sinusitis at the '03 Confederations Cup, attempting to play while suffering from what is essentially walking pneumonia. Then there was a broken cheekbone and nose sustained from a clash with Danny Califf. The '03 season ended for Twellman when he broke a foot while scoring a goal on an artificial surface in Dallas. Needless to say, Twellman got off on the wrong foot as former U.S. coach Bruce Arena was gearing up for the next World Cup cycle.

And, though Twellman regained his health, he never seemed to be in sync with the national team. When Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston, his St. Louis comrades and main suppliers of crosses in New England, emerged with the U.S., Twellman was left out in the cold. It is ironic now that a Noonan knee injury has led to Twellman being called into camp.

Having observed Twellman in hundreds of practice sessions and most of his games with the Revolution, I have no doubt he would be an effective goal scorer in any league in the world and with the U.S. national team. But many other qualities are required of forwards, and Twellman has gained a better grasp of the position's intricacies in the past couple of years.

Twellman has always aggressively pressured defenders in possession, sometimes overdoing it, yet still conserving enough energy to be effective until the final whistle. But Twellman has needed to improve his ability to hold the ball and know when to lay it off, and that has occurred partially through some advice from Revolution assistant coach Paul Mariner, who was a master at such skills in England. Twellman's scoring totals were down last season, but overall it was one of his best seasons in terms of intangible contributions. Last year, Twellman totaled 19 goals in 44 games in all competitions, despite requiring hernia surgery, which was completed after the season in Munich.

Bradley will be looking for another striker of McBride's caliber in the next months. Twellman will doubtless give it his best shot.

"Like all the players, they feel this is a fresh start," Bradley said. "Taylor is playing catch up after having hernia surgery, so we have to think about his role and how he fits in at this time. But he works hard in practice -- that's nothing new. He is a great competitor and he has shown a tremendous ability to score goals in the MLS, and I am excited to work with him and look for him to score goals on the international level.

"Whenever you have a great scorer in a domestic league, there is still an adjustment when they play for the national team. We talk to Taylor every day just about the fact the game goes a little faster and he needs to see things a little quicker and polish up in certain key areas. He seems incredibly receptive and he and [assistant coach] Peter Nowak have hit it off, and I am excited to see what he can do in this camp."

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