He was the top goal scorer in MLS at week's end, the kind of experienced sniper the national team could use after getting only one goal in three games at the recent Confederations Cup. So why is the Chicago Fire's Ante Razov missing from the 18-man U.S. roster for the upcoming Gold Cup? That question only became more puzzling last Saturday after Razov's magnificent game-winner (his sixth goal in the Fire's last four matches) gave Chicago a 2-1 home victory over the MetroStars and first place in the Eastern Conference.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena surely was watching the nationally televised game when Razov turned around rookie defender Kenny Arena—yep, Bruce's son—before sending a 20-yard leftfooted laser past goalkeeper Tim Howard. No matter. Said Bruce Almighty last week, "The four forwards on the [Gold Cup] roster"—Landon Donovan, Brian McBride, Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff—"have done enough to be there. Ante's on our radar screen, and I'm sure he'll have his opportunity at some point. Let's face it, we don't have any strikers who have particularly stood out of late."
True, but based on recent form the 29-year-old Razov, whose nine goals for the season led the league by two, deserves a look ahead of Wolff (two goals in eight games for the Kansas City Wizards). Though Wolff is faster and three years younger, Razov's lethal left foot and solid scoring rate in previous appearances with the national team—six goals in 22 games—are reason enough to give him another shot. Not that Razov is kvetching. "I'm not bitter about anything," he says. "I'm having fun and doing well."
Indeed, over the past month Razov and rookie Damani Ralph have become the most dangerous duo in MLS. Last Saturday the Ra-Ra Boys struck the net in the same game for the fourth straight outing, an unprecedented feat in the league's eight-year history. "I'll talk to him a lot about things, like playing with fewer touches in the middle of the field so he doesn't get beat up," Razov says of Ralph, a Jamaican who was a second-round pick out of Connecticut and is the early favorite for MLS Rookie of the Year. "He's trusting what I tell him."
The wise-elder role is a new one for Razov, but it was essential after Chicago blew up its roster in the off-season. Needing to jettison $1 million in salaries to reach the MLS limit of $1.7 million per team, new coach Dave Sarachan dealt four key contributors: forwards Wolff and Hris-to Stoitchkov and midfielders Dema Kovalenko and Peter Nowak. "I felt like they gave me a crash helmet and said, 'Good luck,' " Sarachan says. "There were key players I needed to have on board, and Ante was one of them." The two had met on the national team—it was Sarachan, Arena's former assistant, who last year had to tell Razov that he didn't make the World Cup roster—and now Sarachan was asking him to be a leader.
If that includes winning his first MLS scoring title, then that's fine with the Fire. You'd think foes would realize Razov's right foot is as vestigial as a curmudgeon's smile, but there he was again on Saturday, faking right and then cutting left on his winning strike. "Force him right!" one Chicago teammate mockingly screamed at the Dallas Burn last month after Razov scored on a lefty blast. "Do you not know?" It's a shame Razov won't be in position to inflict similar damage at the Gold Cup.