Among those positions cited as among the weak spots in Major League Soccer, outside back consistently receives low marks.
Despite a steady if unspectacular improvement in the general quality of play, outside back remains problematic, especially in the category of American players. Crew defender Frankie Hejduk has played in three World Cups, and Jonathan Bornstein of Chivas USA won MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 2006, but after those two the pickings get rather slim, despite the power and prowess of Toronto FC's Marvell Wynne and a few other candidates to crack the national team.
Steve Cherundolo of German club Hannover 96 is normally the USA's first choice at right back, with Hejduk a capable alternative, but at age 33, Hejduk's national team future may be short. Since his excellent rookie year, during which he played as much midfield as left back, Bornstein struggled through a rocky sophomore season and was sidelined with a knee injury last spring.
"In the modern game, it's a real two-way player," says Heath Pearce of playing on the outside."They get up into the attack and help the attack."
Getting into the attack comes naturally for Pearce, who played left back this year in friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina and the initial World Cup qualifier against Barbados. Last year, he faced Colombia, Brazil, Switzerland and South Africa.
"Those are all valuable games," says Pearce, 24. "Going to Africa to play a game in Africa was a new experience for a lot of us. Playing a game in Europe against a European team is another international challenge that is unique. The Argentina game had a great atmosphere and it was great to play at home with a lot of our fans there. It's been an amazing ride so far and very influential on me as a player."
CONVERSION. Picked as a teenager out of Northern California to attend residency camp in Bradenton, Fla., Pearce was nearing the end of his stint and recovering from a broken leg when coaches John Ellinger and Tom Durkin called him in for a chat.
Tough decisions loomed for Pearce. He hadn't been heavily recruited by college coaches, and the broken leg had dried up most of that minimal interest. He also had another sport to consider.
"When I was in the recruiting process, Portland was it really, besides John Hackworth when he was at South Florida, I really didn't have any interest from anybody else," says Pearce, a forward at the time. "The idea of a full ride was out of the question. I was coming off a broken leg, after which the interest disappeared.
"I was getting more letters as a football kicker in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades than I was getting for soccer. So my options were limited. I had to make a choice when I was given the opportunity to move away to residency. Football was something I was going to have to sacrifice. It wasn't that difficult a decision in the end but I also did have aspirations of kicking in college as well."
Ellinger and Durkin convinced him his soccer aspirations would be better served by playing left back, which even then had been targeted by U.S. Soccer as a position that needed strengthening. His negligible defending experience notwithstanding, Pearce bought into the idea.
"I played little bit of left back during my recovery from the broken leg," recalls Pearce. "I paid more attention in the games that I watched to how the left-back position works."
Portland's interest hadn't waned and during his recruiting visit it took about two seconds for Pearce to recognize an ideal situation. Cherundolo had left Portland early to make a move to Europe, and Pearce heard much the same speech from the late Clive Charles and assistant coach Bill Irwin as Cherundolo had.
"The moment I walked in to talk with Clive Charles I knew immediately that I wanted to go there," says Pearce. "He sat me down with Bill Irwin and they said, 'You know what? You're going to come here, you're going to get good grades, and we're going to prepare you to be a professional. And when you're ready, we're going to let you go and help you on your way.'
"I'm sure many people would have thought it crazy at that point for me to believe I could be a professional or want to be a professional, but that's what I believed in and those were my goals when they said that to me, I knew that's what I wanted to do. That's exactly the way it turned out and I can't thank them enough for that.
"I went to Portland as a left back and under Clive everything was sort of under the microscope. Any lack of knowledge I had then they made sure that I learned. It's been a learning curve from then."
Pearce's route to Germany wasn't as direct as that of Cherundolo, who broke into Hannover's first team fairly quickly and helped it earn promotion to the Bundesliga. Pearce headed first to Denmark to play for FC Nordsjaelland in the town of Farum (population: 18,500) and a small stadium (capacity: 10,000).
After two seasons Pearce signed with Hansa Rostock, an eastern German club situated on the Baltic Sea, the quintessential "elevator'" team that keeps bouncing up and down between the top tier and the second division.
Rostock hovered in mid-table until spring, when it sunk into the relegation zone from which it couldn't escape. Pearce's first season resembled the team's history of heights and depths, with runs of steady play interrupted by disagreements with the coach and long stretches on the bench.
BACK IN THE PICTURE. Pearce debuted for the national team in November 2005, when he came on as a sub against Scotland in Glasgow. He played four games in the runup to the 2006 World Cup without making a serious threat to cracking the tournament squad of 23, with Eddie Lewis and Carlos Bocanegra eventually sharing time at left back against Czech Republic, Italy, and Ghana.
In the first game of 2007 against Denmark, Pearce slipped a sweet through ball for Kenny Cooper to score the third goal in a 3-1 win. Yet Bornstein had started the match and also scored a goal, and Coach Bob Bradley named him to start the next match against Mexico, a 2-0 win in Glendale, Ariz.
Prior to that match, Pearce was quoted as declaring himself "the best left back for the U.S." Bornstein played 12 games last year, including five of six Gold Cup matches, yet Bradley named Pearce to his squad for the Copa America in Venezuela, and he played the last group match against Colombia.
Less than two months after joining Rostock, he traveled to Chicago to play against Brazil in early September and played 86 minutes as a starter. Callups for games in Switzerland (sub) and South Africa (starter) followed, and last February Bradley summoned him for a friendly against Mexico though he didn't play.
Rostock coach Frank Pagelsdorf fined Pearce when he was late for a training camp leading up to resumption of Bundesliga league play following the winter break.
"It was pretty much a communication thing," says Pearce, who says Rostock has informed him it wants him back for the upcoming season. "It's water under the bridge and has been taken care of. It was a big misunderstanding coming back late to training camp."
When he returned, Pagelsdorf declared Pearce wouldn't play for him again, yet by March the American had worked his way back into the lineup and eventually played 19 of 34 league matches. With Bornstein injured, Pearce started the late spring friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina, and started the initial qualifier against Barbados.
"Heath [Pearce] continues to grow in this role and I think these games were particularly important for him because he came off a season where he didn't see consistent playing time," says Bradley. "We certainly begin to feel that in the latter parts of 2007, his play at left back has been solid for us and that the continued time for us is going to pay off and I think that's clearly been the case."
While refining and honing his performances on the field, Pearce admits there's been some maturation on his part off the field as well. Bradley stresses professionalism and camaraderie every time the players come into a camp; a rough first season in the Bundesliga and playing against some of the world's top teams have accelerated Pearce's grasp of how much commitment and desire is necessary at the top level. Being low-key and humble doesn't hurt.
"They've helped me grow up in a lot of ways," says Pearce of Bradley and his staff. "For Bob to give me the opportunities I'm obviously very thankful. They've helped me become a better player and a better person off the field. They help build people and hope that reflects in the way they play.
"The way I'm asked to play here allows my strengths to work to my advantage. In the back four at Rostock, you stay on the back line, always. We play sort of on the grind for 90 minutes. Here you trust in each other's abilities to play more fluid soccer with more passing and mixing things up. I'm able to get out into the attack a lot more, which I think is one of my qualities, to use my speed in both the offense and defense."
In Hejduk and Cherundolo, Bradley has two experienced veterans with vastly different qualities; Hejduk's frenetic, relentless energy and spirit, and Cherundolo's poise and crossing touch. Pearce isn't as fast as Hejduk, but has pace, and the ball he played to Cooper hints at a passing touch few U.S. defenders can match.
The outside back is often isolated against an attacker, much as is the case in the Bundesliga, where games are often decided by who wins more of the mano-a-mano matchups. The international game isn't so cut-and-dried, yet in moving to Germany Pearce has built a foundation to challenge Bornstein and others to claim a position long regarded as a black hole.
"On the national team level, I don't think I've been able to find the comfort level to play my style," says Pearce. "I tend to play passive and to be honest I was quite nervous and tried not to make mistakes, to go unnoticed rather than be noticed for doing bad things.
"I don't think I'm anywhere near where I'd like to be but I'm moving in the right direction because of my opportunities with the national team and the time I'm able to spend with these guys on and off the field."
(This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.)