By Ridge Mahoney
Well, it’s about time.
Nearly 18 years after it kicked off its first season, MLS will stage its first testimonial match Dec. 13 when the Dynamo honors stalwart forward Brian Ching. He confirmed his plan to retire at the end of the 2013 season and disclosed his intent to commemorate it with an actual soccer game.
Teammates and foes, past and present, will gather at BBVA Compass Stadium to tell stories, exchange insults, and kick around the ball in homage to Ching, a pioneer – the league’s first Hawaiian-born representative -- who overcame fearsome facial injuries to play more than a dozen pro seasons, win a few titles and represent his country 45 times.
Hopefully, this will be the first of many such occasions. It’s a bit strange as to why such a match hasn’t yet been staged in the past by an MLS team, since in nearly two decades of play there’s been no shortage of players who have inscribed their abilities and accomplishments into the record books, and captivated fans by their exploits and skills.
I can think of dozens of players who deserved to be so honored, yet all those speeches and ceremonies and the occasional old-timers game staged never converged into one of the game’s best traditions. As the custom goes, in addition to gifts and accolades, proceeds from the game are given to the player to provide a financial foundation for the next phase of life.
Not every player merits a testimonial and there aren’t many staged nowadays. There’s always the chance of injuries, and for many teams the calendar is already overcrowded. Many top-flight professionals bank plenty of money during their careers, though some have donated proceeds from games played in their honor to charities and other worthy causes. Occasionally, teams have staged testimonials for ex-players whose money and luck have run out, or those struck down by illness or misfortune during their playing days.
The Ching testimonial will raise funds for his charity work. The House That Ching Built -- which is sometimes used in reference to BBVA Compass Stadium --is actually the name of his charitable organization. In conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, it generates funds, materials and services to build new homes for Houston families.
“I’ve been blessed to be able to partner with Houston Habitat,” said Ching at the official announcement of his retirement on Tuesday. “It’s been fantastic to see how much this project has changed the lives of the first two families that benefited from The House That Ching Built. As I celebrate the end of my playing career, I once again have an opportunity to make a positive impact on a third family.”
Recently, D.C. United honored one of its greats, Jaime Moreno, in a ceremony inducting him into its Hall of Tradition. A fine occasion it was, yet in another era, he’d have pulled on the black jersey one last time to thread some passes and fire off a few shots alongside Jeff Agoos, Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Eddie Pope, Tony Sanneh, Richie Williams, etc. Maybe there’d be a Jesse Marsch sighting. The Barra Brava would certainly use the occasion to get pumped up, especially considering how dismal has been the regular season.
If any player deserves a testimonial, it’s Brian Ching. His stats are good – he is 11th on the all-time MLS scoring list with 82 goals – yet his spirit and courage are great. Big, strong, fearless forwards are fair game for brutal marking and rugged abuse. Ching, 35, can at least retire on his own terms, unlike many of his colleagues, such as Kyle Martinoand Taylor Twellman, whose careers were cut short by their injuries.
Ching has suffered a torn meniscus in both knees, toughed out at least one broken rib, ruptured an Achilles tendon, tore a hamstring, been concussed. Twice his face has been shattered in collisions; once during his collegiate career at Gonzaga (requiring four plates and 12 screws to repair) and then again while on loan from the Galaxy in the A-League. He was playing for a minor-league team called the Seattle Sounders at the time.
Yes, he goes back a ways in the annals of U.S. professional soccer history. Playing for the Galaxy in a friendly against Chivas Guadalajara – not the Americanized version – he once steered home a cross from Paul Caligiuri. How more American can you get?
Kasey Keller’s retirement game near the end of the 2011 season was a real game as well as an unforgettable occasion, and a crowd of 64,140 came to see him accept gifts and speak for about 90 seconds as well as help the Sounders beat the Quakes, 2-1. He brought his A-game to his own party, and without his fingertip saves and sliding blocks, San Jose would have spoiled the evening in a competitive sense.
A testimonial might not suit every deserving player. Maybe asking a 40-plus keeper to put on the pads and fight off fizzing shots and bounce off artificial turf in his testimonial is the wrong thing to do. (Of course, he could also pull rank, hand the gloves and pads to somebody else, and lurk up front in an offside position to slam home the crosses certain to come his way.)
But a December kickaround with Brian Ching for a worthy cause is definitely the right thing to do, and here’s hoping it’s a tradition that quickly takes root in MLS.