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Aug 22, 2008

McBride quick to make his mark in MLS

CARSON, Calif. -- It's not often that a striker with the quality and professionalism of Brian McBride says farewell to two important teams in a season before joining a third.

Yet though he had an offer from England's Fulham to remain there, McBride decided to return to his home country to play. He celebrated his return to the U.S. by suiting up for his nation (though he has otherwise retired from international play) and representing them in the Olympics. The U.S. men's Olympic squad came agonizingly close to advancing out of group play, but was unable to reach that goal.

"It was definitely disappointing to play well and then to not advance," said McBride.

As one of three overage players allowed by Olympic rules, McBride came out of national team retirement to take one last good shot at that elusive trophy. With a tie, a win and a loss, the U.S. failed to advance. McBride then returned to Chicago.

"It's been a whirlwind," McBride. "Now it will be about focusing on this run with the Fire."

Though he obviously needs more time with his teammates to develop chances and cohesion, McBride made a definite impact in the "MLS Primetime Thursday" match versus the Galaxy (a 1-0 win for the Fire). He received a pass, settled the ball well and flicked a short little layoff pass to John Thorrington for the winning goal.

"Some of what he did throughout the night, like holding the ball up, gave Chicago possession in their attacking half which made a difference over 90 minutes," said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena.

Many players get jaded after years in the game, losing their joy for the magic of ball movement to create a shot. McBride shows no signs of such cynicism.

"It was fun," McBride said of the match. "I'm getting a lot more familiar with players. That's something I should still be able to do coming in."

Fire coach Denis Hamlett was more effusive with his praise.

"This is only his first game and a half with the team," said Hamlett. "It's going to take some time for him to know our players and vice versa. The guy is a true competitor.

"He battles for balls and throws his body into plays. He set up the goal tonight. The ball was played into him. He held it and brought John [Thorrington] into the play and John finished it well."

One concern for the Fire is how long McBride can hold up, healthwise, as a contributor for the club. After all, McBride is 36. His position and the fearless way he plays it, beats his body up regularly. His face has been split and bloodied so many times, that parts of it have lost feeling. Since Fire playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco is only a year younger, it's possible that Hamlett may only get one glorious year to help the two set up a partnership for the ages.

Hamlett didn't see it that way.

"It doesn't matter how old you are. As soon as these guys step onto the field, they're competitors and they're winners. To me, that's the most important thing. That's what Cuauhtemoc brings and what Brian brings," said Hamlett. "We welcome that on our team because that will make our team a much stronger team, because you have two guys that love to compete and want to win."

McBride defers to all his coaches, but he also provides an example that younger players can aspire to. The three-time World Cup participant is a role model of professionalism.

When asked about his game-winning assist, McBride went out of his way to praise his teammates instead.

"There's a lot to be said of the shape defensively of the guys in the back and how well they played," said McBride. "We've shown we can move the ball well. There's just that last little bit in the final third."

By all indications, McBride is the same classy guy he was when he left the league. He may not have changed much, but the league he left behind perhaps has.

"The infrastructure is completely different -- better," said McBride. "Everything is progressing. I think from what I can see from my team, there's more depth. U.S. Soccer and MLS have done a great job of bringing that along with residency and the reserve league. They're making sure that young players have a chance to work with professional coaches, to play with professionals. Everything is moving in the right direction."

The Fire may be moving on a good course, but national team stars returning to the U.S. after stints abroad have been a mixed bag of results.

John O'Brien played only five minutes with Chivas USA. Claudio Reyna retired in his second season back in MLS. Clint Mathis never made good on the promise his talent indicated.

Whether or not McBride has a few more years in his legs may depend on forces he cannot control, like reckless defenders. But when he leaves the Fire, it will be on his own terms.

"I'm concentrating on the length of my contract here," said McBride. "At the end of that, we'll take a look at it. If the Fire want me and myself and my family want it, well, then we'll worry about that. ... Right now it's just about this year and a half. We'll see from there."

One option that McBride has slammed shut is the idea of playing elsewhere in MLS. There's little doubt that McBride has landed in the ideal situation. The Fire are contenders in the Eastern Conference and Chicago is his hometown, with both he and his wife having close connections to the area.

"I love being part of our team and playing soccer," said McBride. "I'm not going anywhere."

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.

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