As the U.S. took apart Trinidad & Tobago 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier in September, one could see American forward Brian Ching engaged in a borderline wrestling match with a T&T defender. This prompted a journalist sitting next to me to remark, "Ching, he's not a technician, is he?" In terms of Clint Dempsey-esque on-the-ball wizardry, certainly not. But if this qualifying cycle has revealed anything, it's that Ching is a technician of a different sort: the kind of player willing to do the dirty work that doesn't show up in the box score, but is critical to team success.
"I feel like I understand what I'm good at," Ching said. "Every time I go out on the field I try to focus on those things, and play within myself, especially in big, important games. And not try to do things my teammates don't expect, or things that I don't normally do on a daily basis."
Those strengths include such underappreciated tasks as holding up the ball, bringing the team's midfielders into the attack and moving off the ball to create space for other players. His ability to defend from the front is also a key component of his game, and all these traits were present in the Americans' 3-2 friendly win over Sweden on Jan. 24. Ching won the free kick that preceded Sacha Kljestan's first tally, and then after deftly taking down Danny Califf's long ball in the second half, he delivered a perfect pass for Kljestan's third goal of the evening.
Of course, Ching's primary job is to score goals himself, and while his two goals in the second round of qualifying tied for the most on the team, the conventional wisdom is that he's simply not dangerous enough in front of goal to warrant his continued inclusion in the starting XI. This has led to the assumption that he's merely keeping the position warm until a player with more offensive upside, like wunderkind Jozy Altidore, gets a bit more seasoning.
The fact that the current U.S. side doesn't employ classic wide midfielders who get in lots of crosses doesn't help Ching's cause, as his aerial ability is one of his primary attacking traits. Yet that places an even bigger premium on doing the little things well, which, at present, is what is keeping Ching in the lineup. It's an approach he honed under his two most recent club managers, San Jose's Frank Yallop and Houston's Dominic Kinnear, and refined further under national team manager Bob Bradley.
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|U.S. vs. Mexico
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"I think from the beginning, my mentality has been to do what it takes to win," Ching said. "I think I've learned that through Frank [Yallop] and Dom [Kinnear], and I think they understand that if your team is up, it's more about making things harder for the other team, not giving them opportunities instead of getting stretched trying to get a second goal."
That attitude should come in handy against Mexico. For all the talk about how "El Tri" is shorthanded through injury and suspension, games involving the two rivals are usually tense affairs and rarely reach the level of artistic masterpieces. For that reason, Ching seems the perfect player to have available for such an encounter. The U.S. struggles to keep the ball in the best of times, meaning Ching's physical presence and hold-up play become even more important. And he's ready to do his bit to make life miserable for Mexico.
"We need to not let [Mexico] get comfortable on the ball and get into their rhythm," Ching said. "We have to be a little physical with them, and the cold weather will help."
Sounds like an approach Dirty Harry would be proud of.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at email@example.com.