For the second time in as many seasons, teams facing the Houston Dynamo must contend with a rugged forward who towers over teammate Brian Ching and just about everybody else in MLS.
As Yogi Berra so famously said, "It's déjà vu all over again."
Nate Jaqua is once again wearing the bright orange, having returned to Houston following a short stint in Austria with SCR Rheindorf Altach, which he joined last January as a free agent. He says he enjoyed his five-month stay, during which he scored five goals in 10 games, but soon realized all ventures to Europe aren't created equal.
"I had a great time over there," he says. "I enjoyed the team. But I think the MLS is a very good league. People think you go to Europe and you can go anywhere and it's better. That's not necessarily how it is.
"It's great to be here. It's fun being in Houston and fun training every day. I got nothing bad to say about my experience over there. Some of it is personal for coming back, some of it is soccer as well."
Jaqua played a vital role in Houston's repeat as MLS Cup champion last year. After the Dynamo acquired him in midseason, Jaqua scored six goals and added one more in the playoffs. Under MLS regulations, Houston retained his rights within the league and thus had first crack at him when he decided to return.
There's a wrinkle in the new deal, however. Jaqua, a native of Portland, Ore., wants to return to the Pacific Northwest, and thus is likely to be traded to expansion club Seattle Sounders FC upon season's end. Jaqua and the Dynamo are really in the same situation as last year when the club knew he'd most likely head for Europe once his contract had expired, and using Jaqua as a hired gun, so to speak, worked out pretty well.
Houston assistant coach John Spencer says Jaqua's work ethic has made him a favorite among his teammates.
"He's one of the truest, big, honest, gentlemen I've ever met in my 18, 19, 20 years in the game," said Spencer. "The guys love him and he's been great for us last year and obviously a bit of this year."
In his first eight games for Houston this season, Jaqua scored three goals – including two in a 3-1 thumping of Kansas City -- and registered four assists. Sometimes he plays in place of Ching and sometimes they play together, a frightening prospect for any back line trying to stop them.
Jaqua's 6-foot-4 frame suggests a pure targetman adept in the air and not anywhere else, yet he played some wide midfield during his days with the Fire (2003-06), and he occasionally does so with the Dynamo.
"It's nice to be able to see the game without somebody right up your ass kicking you and whatnot," says Jaqua, who gets more than his fair share of late tackles and forearm shivers. "It calms me down a little bit and I think sometimes it helps me play a little bit better out there."
(This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)