Poised and creative, Chris Albright powered the U.S. into the Olympics
Chris Albright was still wearing his champagne-soaked uniform last Friday night when he strolled out the gates of Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa., turned to U.S. Olympic coach Clive Charles and popped the question. "Coach," asked the mop-topped Albright, "you got a light on you?" Seconds later Albright fired up an eight-inch-long victory stogie just as effortlessly as he had torched Guatemala two hours earlier, when he set up three goals in an electrifying 4-0 rout that clinched a berth for the U.S. in September's 16-team Olympic tournament.
The triumph was a watershed for U.S. men's soccer, which for the first time fielded an under-23 Olympic roster composed almost entirely of pros, 12 of whom are playing in MLS. Instead of using collegians, Charles was able to call on players such as Ben Olsen, 23, a third-year midfielder for D.C. United; John O'Brien, 22, a third-year midfielder with Ajax in the Netherlands; and Albright, a 21-year-old striker who left Virginia in 1998 after his sophomore season and has improved dramatically in his year with United. "You learn things from professionals that you don't get in a college," Albright says. "At D.C., I'm playing every day with Marco Etcheverry, who's one of the best players in the world."
In a breathtaking display on Friday, Albright showed exactly what he had learned. On the first U.S. possession he nodded a perfectly touched pass to O'Brien, who slammed it home. Seven minutes later Albright stormed downfield on a 50-yard breakaway and unspooled a shot that deflected off the Guatemalan goalkeeper to Josh Wolff, who tapped in the point-blank follow. Later in the half Albright cheekily dummied a low cross from Wolff, freezing the keeper with the decoy and giving 18-year-old Landon Donovan an easy finish for a 3-0 lead. It's a measure of Albright's inventiveness that while he scored two goals in the four-game tournament, he earned his highest praise from teammates for a play on which he didn't touch the ball.
At a time when a dreadful inability to finish plagues the U.S. senior team—the Yanks botched so many chances in losing a friendly to Russia 2-0 last week that it was almost comical—Albright is an American anomaly: a tough striker who's fast and strong and shows poise in the box. "Most of our strikers are one-dimensional," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "Chris can use his strength as a power player, but he's crafty enough to go with players, and he can attack opponents in the air, on the ground or holding the ball."
The 6'1", 185-pound Albright showed a nose for the goal in his national team debut, against Jamaica last year, scoring the first time he touched the ball. Though Arena cautions that Albright is probably a year from being ready to play regularly on the national team, he says he may experiment with Albright at next month's U.S. Cup, the last tune-up before World Cup qualifying begins in July.
While Albright may be a forward of the future, he also has a direct link to the sport's distant past. Like his father, John, and his seven uncles, he grew up in the working-class Philadelphia soccer subculture that once produced half the members of the 1936 Olympic team. As a child, Albright would play every weekend on neighborhood fields, including a grassless pitch next to the Frankford El train in Philly's Fishtown section. "The field was all cinders," Albright recalls. "We'd run around as eight-year-olds, fall down and get up with glass in our knees. It was a nightmare, but that's what you'd sacrifice just to get a game in." Says his mother, Patti, "Every Sunday was a bloodbath. It didn't matter that they were only 10 years old."
Now that he has accomplished his first goal of the summer by helping the U.S. qualify for the Olympics, Albright can focus on goal number 2: becoming a consistent offensive threat in MLS, in which he had yet to score in 11 career games through Sunday. Goal number 3—making the final roster for Australia—should be a chip shot.
MLS and Transfer Fees
Selling Out The Future?
It's becoming clear that MLS will have to make some hard decisions between selling its top young Americans for millions of dollars overseas and keeping them home to help build the league. Last week the Norwegian club Rosenborg was reportedly ready to offer MLS $1 million for Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Adin Brown, 21, while foreign scouts were also buzzing about United's Ben Olsen and Los Angeles Galaxy defender Danny Califf, 20. Though a spokesman for Holland's PSV Eindhoven denied rumors that it had offered $15 million for Chicago Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, 17, it's only a matter of time before he, too, is sought in Europe.