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May 31, 2009

Ching brings a blue-collar work ethic to the U.S.' front line

It has become the morning-after ritual. Following nearly any U.S. national team game of note, one can log onto message boards discussing U.S. soccer and expect at least one constant. Win, lose or draw, there will be a lot of hand-wringing, and most of it will center on Brian Ching. When his name is announced Wednesday as a starter against Costa Rica, American fans probably will slap their foreheads collectively. "I really try not to think about it, because I learned a long time ago no matter how good you are, people are going to criticize you," Ching said. "I bet there are people out there who criticize [Cristiano] Ronaldo, so I try not to pay attention to what fans say. What matters most for me is that when I play, I help the team win." Houston Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear has won two MLS Cups, both with Ching as a vital part of the lineup. A former national team player himself, Kinnear said he can relate to the pressures and expectations placed on Ching but can't fully understand why he faces so much criticism. Kinnear says unequivocally that a team can't consist solely of high-profile players, and that a place exists on the national team roster for someone like Ching. "His strike rate is pretty incredible," said Kinnear, who compares Ching favorably with former national team striker Brian McBride. "Sometimes I troll the message boards a bit -- I don't make a habit of it too much -- and I am surprised by what these people have to say. I don't think most of them could coach any soccer team, judging from what they have to say. I laugh because these fans don't get the chance to see a player every day." Kinnear said fans always seem to enjoy picking on one player and that the Dynamo forward seems to be that player right now. The problem with Ching is that he just isn't a sexy player. For the first time in its history, the U.S. team has some intriguing options in its attack, and Ching's workmanlike effort doesn't fit this new mold. He lacks the excitement of some of the attackers on the team. From the stands, it is easy to label him as ordinary. Except to those who have to defend him. At 6-foot-1, Ching has the size of a prototypical holding forward and is perhaps one of the most physically dominant forwards in MLS. Perhaps the most imposing in the CONCACF (Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football ) region.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Costa Rica
Wednesday
At Costa Rica
9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2

U.S. vs. Honduras
Saturday
Chicago
8 p.m. ET, ESPN

"There aren't many players like him in CONCACAF," said Costa Rican defender Gonzalo Segares. "He is big and strong and physical the way he plays, and it's tough for many to slow him down." Segares, who has played against Ching in both MLS and at the national team level, said the player is one of the toughest to stop in the region. He notes that the forward holds the ball and maintains possession very well, shielding and protecting so that an attack can be sustained. The Costa Rican international conceded that any time he goes up against the Dynamo striker, he knows he won't walk away happy. "I know I will be sore the next day," Segares said. "I will be limping and bruised." Ask those who have played with the Dynamo forward, and they'll say that "Chingy" does the little things that make life easier for his teammates. In the locker room and on the field, he is known as the player who throws down his body for the team. He also is praised as a cerebral player whose effort elevates the performance of everyone around him. "You look at a guy like 'Chingy,' and he is someone who isn't afraid to mix it up," McBride said. "But he isn't just a physical forward. He is a very smart player on and off the ball, and that is what makes him a great fit for [U.S. national team coach] Bob [Bradley]." In many ways, the rise of Ching in the national team picture mirrors McBride's play. Once labeled as one-dimensional, McBride is now the stuff of lore. His similarities with Ching are striking. "[Ching is a] big-game player," said former national team forward Eric Wynalda, the second-leading scorer in national team history. "Great option off the bench if the game didn't suit him as a starter. A lot more talented than people think. Maybe people shouldn't think as much as they do." In fact, Wynalda has no problem comparing Ching with McBride, saying that fans have treated both similarly. Wynalda said unequivocally that in this regard, "U.S. fans are too picky." He sees Ching as a valuable asset on the field and a player who is a perfect complement to the other pieces around him. "Every forward who drifts in and out loves a constant partner like Brian," Wynalda said. "A great hold-up guy who uses his strength well. It is why he plays well with the little one." The little one? "Landon [Donovan]," Wynalda said. Ching doesn't come with a lot of pedigree or hype. After the L.A. Galaxy drafted him in 2002, he eventually moved to the USL's Seattle Sounders for more playing time. After impressing with the Sounders, he worked his way back into MLS, where his play with the San Jose Earthquakes and the Houston Dynamo earned him three all-star game appearances. One of Ching's chief attributes is his skill as a target man. Bradley likes the forward's ability to hold the ball under pressure, as he exhibited during the team's dramatic 2-1 win over Mexico in the 2007 Gold Cup final. His ability to lay off a deft pass and run off the ball are the small things that make him a perfect fit for Bradley and vice versa. Not to mention that the U.S. has posted an 8-0-1 mark in games when Ching has scored. "I think what Bob has brought to the team is a shake-up of attitude," Ching said. "Personally, I thought that some players got to comfortable under [former U.S. national team coach] Bruce [Arena]. Not knocking anyone, but when players know that they are going to play regardless of how they perform, it's natural for some to not perform at their best. "Bob has done a good job of having a focus for the team and always reminding us of it and pushing us towards it." And pushing is something that Ching and the rest of his teammates will need to do, as this week's matches against Costa Rica and Honduras could prove to be major stumbling blocks en route to qualifying for next summer's World Cup. "I think this is going to be the hardest back-to-back games that we have in qualifying," Ching said. "We will need to match their intensity and commitment, stay organized and take advantage of our opportunities." Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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