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Jun 21, 2009

Trio of MLS stars following in their fathers' footsteps

New England striker Taylor Twellman has had quite a soccer career -- from his breakout MLS season in 2002 to his MVP season in 2005 to his bicycle-kick goal against Chicago that sent the Revolution to the 2007 MLS Cup. In all, he's played in 176 MLS games and made 30 appearances for the U.S. national team.

But ask his father, Tim, to recall his son's most memorable game, and the elder Twellman goes back to the beginning.

"My dad's last season as a pro, I played at the halftime game," recounted Taylor Twellman, who was just 4 or 5 years old at the time. "It was the first goal I ever scored -- and it was on my own team. I celebrated the remainder of halftime running around waving to everyone in the stands, so that's my dad's favorite story to tell about me."

That's the thing about fathers. They know how to keep you grounded. But it's not just learning about humility -- although Twellman cites that as one of his dad's greatest virtues. It's about being there from the first goal to the last minute of a player's career.

And Tim Twellman knows what it takes to have a successful soccer career. He played the game professionally for almost 10 seasons and has relayed those lessons to his son over the years.

"My dad would always say to play as if it was going to be my last game, and I never understood that when I was younger," Taylor Twellman said. "Now that I'm older, I do. You can never take for granted the luxury of having God-given abilities to play."

It's a message that's hit home this season in particular as the forward continues to battle a neck injury. In moments like these, Twellman draws on his father's experiences.

Tim Twellman played in the North American Soccer League at a time when American players were the exception, often riding the bench or seeing limited minutes in backup roles. His first six months with the Minnesota Kicks, Twellman didn't even dress. He stuck it out, giving his all in practice and fighting for his spot. A year later, he played in 25 of the team's 30 games.

"The perseverance my dad had is what stands out in my mind," Taylor Twellman said. "Nothing really knocked him off. … He could easily have quit after his first year of not playing at all, and then he ends up playing pretty much every game after that. There's just a lot of perseverance stories that stick out for me, and those are kind of what I reflect on when I'm going through a rough patch."

Having a father with experience to draw upon has been vital to Dallas FC's Kenny Cooper as well. Cooper's dad, Kenny Sr., played a decade in the NASL as a goalkeeper for the Dallas Tornado before making the transition to coaching the game at the professional level. The nearly four decades' worth of soccer expertise has served Kenny Jr. well.

"I don't know if there's anything that I'll go through, or have gone though, that my dad hasn't gone through himself," the younger Cooper said.

The forward has benefited from his father's knowledge of what it takes to get to the top.

"Because he knew that I had a passion for soccer, I think my father certainly tried to teach me the lessons that were important to him in becoming a professional and staying a professional," Cooper said.

Those lessons often focused on the intangible, as opposed to the technical, aspects of the game.

"When I was trying to become a professional, my father was -- and still is -- very big on preparation and dedication and desire and drive, all those things," Cooper said. "They're things that are important in my soccer, but also my life."

In many ways, it's about having been there, done that, been successful and passing it on.

That's what Tony Igwe has tried to do for his son, Revolution defender Amaechi Igwe. Tony Igwe played in the 1968 Olympics with the Nigerian national team, then captained the squad in several World Cup qualifiers in the 1970s. He was also a three-time All-American and member of the University of San Francisco's national championship teams.

"If you played in the Olympics, you've had an experience that not that many people have had," Amaechi Igwe said of his father. "He knows what it takes. He knows how hard you have to work, and all that hard work definitely paid off. … I can't say enough what it means, having somebody who has been there. When he tells me something, I have to listen, even if I don't want to hear it."

While the New England defender knew growing up that his father had a successful playing career, the level to which his father excelled has been put into perspective as Igwe has risen through the collegiate, professional and youth national team ranks.

"Playing in youth national team tournaments is very difficult mentally and physically," said Amaechi Igwe, who played with U.S. youth national teams in the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. "For him to be a captain of the full national team, he had to be a great player and, obviously, a great leader.

"I see all these guys playing with the full national team, and now I'm a professional, but I still I feel like it's a pretty big step for me to play on the full national team. For him to have been there and captained the team and just gone to everything and win college national championships, it just blows my mind."

The admiration goes both ways. All three players -- Twellman, Cooper and Igwe -- say their fathers' unwavering support has helped lead them to this point. Whether in the stands or across the country, that faith in their sons' abilities and the appreciation of their accomplishments is evident.

"It might sound corny, but just remembering the look on my dad's face when I became a professional," Igwe said, "how happy he was for me and how proud he is of me for making it this far. He definitely sees a bit of himself in me. I know when he watches me, he sees a bit of himself in me, and I know he hopes for the best for me."

Both Twellman and Igwe wear their fathers' former numbers -- Nos. 20 and 2, respectively. It's a tribute not just to what their fathers accomplished, but also to how they hope to build on it.

"My dad wants me to get to the level he was at and achieve more," Igwe said. "He never let me be satisfied with myself. … He always wanted to push me further. It's not just about soccer. It's about always wanting to achieve more and always wanting to do better and always wanting to be a better person. That's what I really respect about the way he brought me up and the way he molded me into the person I am today."

Fitting, given that today happens to be Father's Day.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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