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Aug 24, 2009

Thornton finds the fountain of youth

Alecko Eskandarian wants you to know that Zach Thornton stinks. Teammates last season and part of this season until a trade sent Eskandarian to the Galaxy, the two had adjoining lockers when they were both a part of Chivas USA. According to Eskandarian, things were great until the Chivas keeper's gloves began to smell from constant use. Eskandarian, intimidated by the hulking presence that is Thornton, tried his own solutions. He set up odor deflectors, sprayed air freshener every day and even set up a barricade to block the smell. After weeks of trying everything imaginable, Thornton turned to "Eski" and said, "Hey, my gloves stink, right?" From that moment on, Eskandarian claims the locker room never smelled again. That might be the only thing about Thornton this year that stinks. Thornton has been one of MLS' best goalkeepers, an original throwback player who was drafted by the MetroStars during the league's inaugural season in 1996. Thornton's longevity is impressive, as he is the only goalkeeper still in the league who was a MLS original. Since that time, Thornton won an MLS Cup with the Chicago Fire in 1998 and has collected eight caps with the national team. Five times an All-Star, Thornton may well one day see himself standing at the podium of the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. With a storied career already under his belt, it really says something when you consider that 2009 might be the best season in his career. Many thought that Thornton, who turns 36 this October, was ready to slip into the elder-statesman role within the league. Affectionately nicknamed "The Beast" due to his size, the 6-foot-3 Thornton has trimmed down to 225 pounds in an effort to extend his career. What has resulted has been a revival. The past few seasons have been difficult ones for Thornton, who joined Chivas USA in August last season to fill the void left behind by the English Premier League-bound Brad Guzan. Thornton struggled with his fitness last season, having played only once in 2007 while with Colorado, and then seeing no time in a backup role with the New York Red Bulls in 2008. "I came into this year hungry to prove myself," Thornton said. "I wanted to go out there and help this team more -- I was committed to doing everything I could to help this team win, and I knew I needed to do more myself to help us achieve our goals." It might be odd to say, but the 14-year veteran, who also had a stint in Europe, has to be considered the front-runner for the comeback player of the year award. Consider the numbers. Last season, not one goalkeeper finished the season with a goals-against average lower than one a game; Houston's Pat Onstad finished with top honors by conceding 1.03 goals per game. Through 18 games this season, Thornton is giving up a paltry .83 goals per game, tops in the league. He is ahead of keepers like Onstad and Kasey Keller, who started over Thornton on the Olympics team in 1996. He has eight shutouts on the season, second-best in the league . His value is clearly showing.

MLS Primetime
Saturday
Chivas USA vs. Los Angeles
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com

"There is no question that we look at Zach as a leader on this team, that he is a player who is vitally important to the success that we've had so far this year," said Chivas USA defender Carey Talley. In addition to earning comeback honors, Thornton is also the top man to beat for the goalkeeper of the year award. He might also be a lock for the league's Best 11 at the end of the season, and perhaps a strong argument can be made that he is a viable MVP candidate. Few players mean as much to their team as "The Beast." "He obviously has plenty of experience, and he is a leader on whatever team he is on," Eskandarian said. "I have to say there is absolutely no way Chivas would have been in first place in the first half of the season without 'Z' making huge plays game after game." It's been a gritty Chivas USA defense that has given opponents few opportunities this season; but it has also been Thornton -- in the top five in the league in saves -- who has been spectacular at times. "I think that both are the reason why Zach is enjoying such a good year," said San Jose's goalkeeper Joe Cannon, when asked if it was the Chivas USA defense or a revived Thornton that is responsible for this season. "Preki has always stressed defense, but in saying that, they've had to rely on several top-class saves from Zach this year." Yet what really impresses is that Thornton has become a much more agile and nimble goalkeeper. His technique was always strong, but this off-season he spent time working on his fitness and speed in an effort to improve his overall game. What this meant was that Thornton logged extra minutes after practice, improving his footwork and adding more mobility to his résumé. It has made the physically imposing keeper all the more impressive. "Playing against him, the first thing that stands out obviously is that he is an intimidating presence back there. Any time there is a 50/50 ball over the top of the defense, you definitely have to keep one eye on 'Z' to make sure he won't go into linebacker mode and put a Ray Lewis tackle on me," Eskandarian said. "But with that said, he is a very smart goalie. He is physical when he needs to be, but lately I think he has really matured as a goalkeeper." And now, a 12-year veteran of the league who has won awards and titles might just be the front-runner for a few more honors this year. Quote of the week "I want to apologize to the fans for the results this season." -- Former Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who resigned last week. Osorio, who became the team's head coach after the 2007 season finished, ends with a 12-27-13 mark with the Red Bulls. Stat of the week Call him the Cal Ripken Jr. of MLS. Kansas City's goalkeeper Kevin Hartman has now played in 102 consecutive matches, an MLS record. This includes an unbroken span of 9,180 straight league minutes played. In addition, Hartman recorded five saves this weekend, now resting at 1,200 saves for his career. He is the first goalkeeper in MLS to reach this mark. Ammann behind the wheel Mike Ammann has been making a lot of noise lately, and he'll be revving up his engine again. If you have the chance in mid-September, and you can tear yourself away from college football and the rush to get into the MLS playoffs, then head on out to Millville, N.J., to catch a former MLS star on the road. The VW Jetta TDI Cup will run the weekend of Sept. 11-13 at the New Jersey Motorsports Park, and Mike Ammann will be one of the drivers. It's a doubleheader with one race Saturday and one Sunday. Plus, VW is an MLS sponsor. Quick kicks • In its 2-0 loss to Chivas USA on Saturday, Toronto FC registered 13 shots. Not one was on goal. Which leads to this. If Toronto FC fails to make the playoffs again, it will rest squarely on an offense that produces, but not enough when needed. The boys to the north are close to silent in the last minutes of the game, having scored only twice this year between the 76th and 90th minute. During that time, they've conceded 11 goals, the highest number given up in the league. • Brazilian forward Maicon Santos, in his debut with Chivas USA, nabbed an assist on a beautifully crossed ball which found Sacha Kljestan in the 51st minute. • With his resignation last week, Juan Carlos Osorio ends his tenure as the New York Red Bulls' head coach, the eleventh in franchise history. That is the highest number of coaches any franchise has had in league history. • Fit to be tied: Saturday night's 0-0 tie between Los Angeles and D.C. should be no surprise. Both clubs are tied for tops in the league, with 11 equal scores among them. 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 at KDyer@RutgersInsider.com

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