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May 10, 2010

Indian star's soccer journey leads to K.C.

Just like that, the Kansas City Wizards became one of the best-supported soccer clubs not only in MLS but the world over. With a single transaction -- the formal signing of India's star soccer player, Sunil Chhetri, in March -- the Wizards gained the firmest of footholds in the second-most populous country on the globe. The club's Facebook page is now red-hot and media requests have poured in at all hours of the night. Chhetri's native country is known more for spicy food and computer technicians than for exporting soccer players -- and despite numbering an estimated 1.1 billion citizens, India has only 20 Olympic medals to its name, the lowest count per capita in the world. Nevertheless, the 25-year-old Indian forward is a Kansas City Wizard. But the signing of Chhetri, lest you be fooled, was anything but a marketing ploy. A team lacking in attacking fortitude, highlighted by Kei Kamara's circus miss against the Los Angeles Galaxy two weeks ago -- which made the foreign press -- has designs on Chhetri's prolific ways. Unlike many of his countrymen, Chhetri has a pedigree in the sport. His mother played for the Nepal national team with her twin sister before she was married at 18 and had to quit. His father, also Nepalese, played in the Indian army. Chhetri said his heritage is an advantage since "[Nepalis] are supposed to be more hard-working." While he played soccer at school and in the streets of Delhi as a child, Chhetri had no grand designs on a career. "I never thought I would make it big," he said. "Football was going to help me get into a good college. That's why I played when I started. Then it sort of got out of hand. But I'm not complaining." He was signed by a top Indian club at 16 and a few years later became a regular on the national team, amassing 16 goals in 35 games thus far. Having established himself as a dominant Indian league player, scoring a goal roughly every two games as a deep-lying central forward, rumors started to swirl about a move abroad, something accomplished by only two other Indians (making Chhetri the third, and the first to sign with an MLS club). First, in 2008, there was talk of English club Leeds United. According to Chhetri, D.C. United also showed interest around that time. Trials with Coventry City and Queen's Park Rangers followed. But Coventry gave him just three days to prove himself, and QPR couldn't get him a work permit. Then Kansas City came knocking. "He's got a lot of good qualities," Wizards coach Peter Vermes said. "He's good on the ball, he has a nose for the goal and is very good with both feet; and given his size, he's great in the air as well." "I was pleasantly surprised with how good he was, to be honest," Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad said. "Obviously, when I think about Indian soccer, they're not really on the world stage. They don't qualify for the World Cup or anything." Not entirely true. India qualified in 1950 -- all the other teams in its qualifying group had withdrawn -- but wasn't allowed to play on bare feet, and so the team opted not to go. "When [Chhetri] first joined us, you could see there was something special about his game and we really thought he could play when he came," Conrad said. "He was wearing yellow Nike shoes, so he stood out a little. He can change speeds and he's quick, and he knows when to play the ball and when to shoot." In two preseason friendlies, Chhetri scored four goals. He was signed soon thereafter. Yet while he made his formal debut in the U.S. Open Cup against the Colorado Rapids, Chhetri has yet to make his MLS debut. Why is that? "It's fitness more than anything else," Vermes said. "A difficult thing for most guys coming to our league from overseas. He wasn't ready for the speed and pace of our game." "I had a talk with my coach," Chhetri said. "To be very honest, it's not about your talent and your speed. It's about understanding what MLS is like and the way my team plays. Initially, I was disappointed because I was new, and in India I was always playing. I thought I would arrive and start playing, but then I realized that I had to be patient." With such a difference in on-field approach, it was almost as if Chhetri had to learn a new sport. While soccer is the second-biggest sport in India, it trails cricket by a gigantic margin. And soccer was really only professionalized properly in 2007, when the I-League kicked off. Prior to that, top-level Indian soccer at its best consisted of a disjointed series of leagues played on a state-by-state basis. The I-League, growing rapidly, not unlike MLS, has expanded from 10 to 14 teams, but play is more static and much less physical than it is in the U.S. -- hence Chhetri's integration lag. "Everything is different, even the way they call football," Chhetri said. "He gets the game," Vermes said. "He's got a good soccer brain and is making the adaptation to the MLS. We just didn't want to put him out there before he was ready." The scrutiny of a media horde assigned to keeping tabs on Chhetri -- today's hot story in an Indian media landscape with a notoriously short attention span -- isn't helpful. "I hardly talk with any of them, because it gets into your head when they keep asking where and why?" Chhetri said. But he does talk to his new teammates, who have taken a liking to the outgoing Indian and have been impressed with his ability. "He has an unbelievable attitude," Vermes said. "You couldn't ask for a better guy. He comes in and trains hard every day. You could tell when he first came over that he was here for a reason, that he wants a challenge outside of his country." "He's done a good job," Conrad said. "I know there's been -- like any player coming in -- a transitional period where he has to get adjusted to the team and adjusted from moving. He's coming from India, where he's recognized as one of the top five athletes in the country. Things probably aren't going the way he wanted to start, but he's going to play a role for us in the future and he's going to take his opportunity with both hands." "He definitely does have qualities to play in this league," Vermes said. But, to state the blatantly obvious, Kansas City is not Delhi, another factor in the integration progress of Chhetri. "It's so different, man," he said. "Everything is different. Everything. To take an apartment was difficult. In India, if you want to take an apartment, there are no strict rules. Here, you need a social security number and a credit history. Here, when you drive, the rules, the side of the road you drive on, and the habits are all opposite. I was used to staying with family, with friends. I won't lie: Things were difficult. But they're better now." "I think things are a little more spread out for him here," Conrad said of sprawling Kansas. "If he'd gone to New York or L.A., there might be some comfort in having a lot of people in small places. There has to be some culture shock for him here." The only thing the areas have in common, really, as Conrad cracks, is that both Kansas and Delhi have cows in the street. Chances are, they'll soon have something else in common too. They'll both be rooting for Sunil Chhetri. And just maybe, he'll be a star for both.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com.

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