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May 16, 2008

New Mexico's Wright a self-made standout

Practice is over, his teammates are gone, but there is Chris Wright alone on the field running sprints.

There is Wright, firing shots into an empty net, over and over again. There is Wright, juggling the ball, maneuvering it on the grass, developing his touch. Wright, a University of New Mexico striker, has always worked hard on his game. The truth is, he's had to.

You can call Wright a late bloomer, an overachiever, whatever. All that matters now is that he's arrived: Wright is the reigning Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Player of the Year. An overwhelming success. However, don't expect him to slow down now.

"I'm never comfortable where I'm at," Wright says. "I'm always trying to get better as a player. I know that, now, I'm in the mind of every team in the conference. I will have to work even harder just to have the same success as last year."

Last year, as a junior, Wright led the MPSF with 12 goals, helping New Mexico to its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance in the past seven years.

This from a kid who couldn't even get a scholarship offer coming out of Jesuit High School in Sacramento, Calif. Sure, plenty of Division I schools were interested in Wright, a midfielder at Jesuit. Stanford, Cal, Santa Clara and UC-Davis were among them.

According to Wright's dad, Phil, who played at Stanford in the mid-'70s and briefly for the Portland Timbers in the North American Soccer League, the coaches thought his son was good.

Just not good enough to play for them.

"They all thought that he wouldn't reach his potential until he was 23 or 24," says Phil Wright, 54, an attorney. "I think that's when Chris will be at his best, too, but I knew he could play at [the Division I] level. Listen, I'm as hard as anyone on Chris, but I knew he could play. He just has this inner drive. I think he gets it from my wife [Alynn, who played soccer at Santa Clara] and I."

Adds Phil Wright: "Now, all those coaches are like 'Damn, we should have listened to you back then.' They wish they can sign a player like Chris."

Wright showed up on the Lobos' radar after Harvard coach Jamie Clark, then an assistant at New Mexico, saw him play at the Disney Soccer Showcase in Orlando in December 2004. New Mexico signed Wright after he visited the campus in Albuquerque the next month.

Out of scholarships, New Mexico coach Jeremy Fishbein could offer only to pay for Wright's books.

"The reason why I came to New Mexico is because I wanted a challenge," Wright says. "I wanted to put myself at the highest level. I knew that they recruited a lot of talented players from bigger clubs with bigger names. It wasn't like I had to prove anything. I just wanted to push myself."

Back then, Wright was a different player, still trying to fit into a body that grew from 5-foot-10 to 6-4 during his junior year at Jesuit. He was awkward and, at times, struggled with coordination. Having not filled out, Wright had trouble in the air and was pushed around by defenders.

Still, Fishbein liked his passion, potential and technical ability. He just didn't know where he would play Wright. Maybe center back, center midfielder or center forward, where Wright never played primarily before.

Fishbein eventually put Wright up top during preseason of his freshman year. He liked how Wright found his way in front of the net. Wright was scrappy and, eventually, could use his height as an advantage.

Wright played 20 minutes per game as a freshman, scoring two goals, while helping New Mexico to the 2005 NCAA College Cup. The Lobos lost to Maryland 1-0 for the championship. Wright kept working hard, staying after practice to work on his game, never giving in. Never giving up.

Soon, the kid started coming on, playing with the recruits who came in ahead of him. Wright earned a starting job as a sophomore and recorded six goals and three assists.

"Chris is an example of a guy who has done everything to maximize his talent," Fishbein says. "It says a lot for his dedication. Chris just did everything to reach his potential; he's smart, he's disciplined, he's organized."

He's also on full scholarship. New Mexico picked up the tab on Wright's education during his sophomore year. It's a half-athletic, half-academic package. Wright is an Academic All-American who maintains a 3.98 grade point average.

He's a Portuguese major and fluent in the language, having trained with Atletico Paranaese's club teams in Curitiba, Brazil, last summer and in 2003-04. Miguel De Lima, a family friend and Brazilian native, hooked him up with the popular team. Wright is also taking all the prerequisite classes for a premed major.

He wants to play pro soccer, maybe in the MLS, maybe overseas, and when his career is over he hopes to go to medical school. For now, it's all about soccer. Wright, 13th in the nation last season in goals per game (0.63), is up to 6-5 and fits into his body.

Now, any ball in the air is his. He has the strength to keep defenders off the ball with his body and goes through two, three and four defenders into the box. Wright is fast and, once he settles the ball, look for a laser on net.

"He's just a scrappy player, real active -- Chris will do anything to score a goal," says New Mexico midfielder Jack Smithson, Wright's close friend. "He's just so much [more] confident than when we first got here. Chris is an example for a lot of the young guys on the team. He makes them believe, because if you work like Chris, anything can happen."

Instead of Brazil, Wright is showing off his big-time game for the Cape Cod Crusaders of the Premier Development League (the PDL season runs through July). He'll return to New Mexico as the favorite to win the MPSF Player of the Year again and could become one of the best forwards in the country. No matter.

Wright is still working as hard as the kid who landed in Albuquerque without a scholarship or starting job.

"You go through times when you don't want to stay after practice," Wright says. "But then you remind yourself what it took to get here. That's what pushes me. I was even out there hitting the ball, running and lifting weights during finals."

Justin Rodriguez covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at jrod_showtime@yahoo.com.

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