MLS: Knocking on the Door

For the veterans, preseason is simply about getting in shape for the real season. For many others, like the four players Soccer America followed in Florida, it's about realizing the dream of being a professional athlete.

Getting A-League lessons

JOHN WILSON. A year later, John Wilson is able to say that being released by Kansas City was the best thing that could have happened to him. At the time, however, less than three weeks after being the 14th pick in the college draft, it didn't feel that way. "It's tough because you come out of college and you're so excited to be drafted - I didn't think I would go that high - but I didn't really know what it was all about," Wilson said. "It just wasn't meant to be." But Wilson knew his situation was unlike most of his draftmates. A left-sided attacker for his entire career at Clemson, Wilson was advised by coaches and MLS scouts that the best (and probably only) chance he had of making it in the league was at left back. And that is where Ron Newman tried him, but the Kansas City coach felt he wasn't ready. Wilson went to the A-League's Charleston Battery and spent a season studying how to play in the back. He also developed a stronger work ethic. "I think John has changed his attitude toward training since Clemson," Tigers assistant coach Todd Bramble said. "I've seen him on campus just about every day since his season ended - even cold, rainy days - running, lifting and working out with some of our guys." That dedication is part of what attracted Bob Gansler, who replaced Newman after last season started. Gansler invited him out for two brief training stints before selecting him ninth overall this year. "I am of the persuasion that a player who goes to the A-League, hones his skills and develops a professional attitude should be more ready than a player coming right out of college," Gansler said. "In John's case, it was doubly important because he is re-schooling at a new position." Wilson played the second half of the Wizards' preseason 1-0 overtime loss to D.C. United at left back and did well defensively, but he looked hesitant with the ball. In a scrimmage against the U-20 national team, Wilson played some left midfield and earned a free kick that Francisco Gomez converted for the Wizards' goal in a 2-1 loss. He was not fully satisfied with his performance in training. "I'm feeling more comfortable this year because I know the guys better, but I'm putting a little pressure on myself because I know I have another shot," Wilson said. "I'm the type of person, when I come into a place, it takes me a little time to get going. You're ready to go and do good things, and when you have a bad day, it kills you more than it would a veteran." Wilson keeps reminding himself that there is no hurry and Gansler sounds patient. "He has the athletic qualities that we were looking for to improve our back line," Gansler said. "He's made headway. It's still a new position for him, but I think he'll make his way."

Fighting bench time

MATT CHULIS. Making the roster is not a concern for Matt Chulis. The U.S. Olympic team defender knows he has a stake planted in Columbus. Where that stake sits on the Crew landscape is another matter. Chulis, the ninth player taken in last year's college draft, played in just four MLS games last season. It was a tough transition for a player who started all 92 games that Virginia played during his four years there. "Everybody wants to be a professional soccer player, and I am very fortunate to have that opportunity," Chulis said. "But no matter who you are, sitting on the bench sucks." Comforted by the fact that few college players make an immediate impact their first year in the league, Chulis still managed to enjoy last season. "I love the fans, we have great ownership, great coaches, great practice facility and a new stadium," Chulis said. But Chulis entered his second training camp still trying to prove something to Crew coach Tom Fitzgerald. "Matt is a good defender, he is good on the ball, but he lacks some pace," Fitzgerald said. "He is pretty much a known commodity ... he gives us depth and experience off the bench. I know if I put him in there, I'll get 100 percent from him." The phrase "known commodity" might not be the best thing Chulis could hear from his coach. It shows that while many players in training camp are trying to make a good first impression, others like Chulis face an even more difficult task of changing an existing impression. Fitzgerald prefers to play with three defenders but feels he must to go to four if he plans to use Chulis to cover for his lack of speed, which he doesn't think will change. Chulis played a solid 55 minutes in the Crew's 1-1 preseason tie with San Jose, but Fitzgerald's reservations were revealed in the 79th minute when he had to haul down Scott Bower and was cautioned. "Growing up, I was never one of the fastest kids, but I was one of the smartest," Chulis said. "Doing that has enabled me to get to this level, and I think if I continue doing that, I'll be fine. ... I don't need to be told I'm not as fast as Brian West. Hopefully, I'll be able to read the game and put myself in positions where I don't have to be in a foot race." Chulis' first MLS start was against D.C. United in Washington. He was the lone central defender and played all 90 minutes of a 1-0 loss. "I think I really played well that game," Chulis said. "That's when I realized I can play in this league. I realized to myself 'I can do this.'" This year, with Thomas Dooley gone to the MetroStars and Todd Yeagley recovering from groin surgery, Chulis hopes he gets a longer look. Unfortunately, a slight hamstring pull kept him out of the Crew's second preseason game and a scrimmage against Lynn University. "You take out a big-timer like Thomas Dooley and, of course, there will be opportunities," Chulis said. "I've just got to get my chance and make the most of it."

Veterans lend a hand

STEVE SHAK. Steve Shak had five days to prove something to Sigi Schmid four years ago when he tried to walk on to the UCLA men's team. Five days was the "extended tryout" Shak received because Schmid had seen him play before. Joining the MetroStars' training camp as the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, Shak is not the no-name long shot he was that first year at UCLA, but he is trying to approach it the same way. "I felt like the players at UCLA had something I wanted," Shak said. "They had a scholarship, and I didn't. They were starting, and I wasn't. There were so many good players that it forced me to become a better player. You have to either rise to the occasion or you're not going to make it." Although it was under a different regime, the MetroStars cut their top college pick, John Wolyniec, last year. Shak watched as Wolyniec tried again this year, this time with Chicago. "Nobody is guaranteed anything," Shak said. "Sure, I could get cut, but I'd like to think I wouldn't let that happen. If I did, I'd be just like John, giving it another shot." Shak played center midfield along with Dooley and Mike Sorber in his first game in a MetroStars uniform against Dallas. "There were players who I was playing with and against who I grew up watching," Shak said. "Jason Kreis and Chad Deering, who I was playing against in midfield, have both been with the national team. Those are people that I look up to. Being on the field with them is very motivating." Shak's high energy level was evident in the amount of running he did. He ranged from touchline to touchline and occasionally sprinted forward looking for a through ball. In the eighth minute, he set up the game's first goal by sliding a pass into the penalty area that Dooley ran on to and scored. Somehow Mark Chung got credit for the assist, but Shak did not seem to care. "I only scored two goals in my whole college career, so just getting a point in my first game is amazing," Shak said. "But my job is basically to play good defensively, get the ball to Thomas and do the dirty work. I'm not going to be the playmaker." It's too early for Coach Octavio Zambrano to even guess where he might end up using Shak this season, but he was pleased with what he saw in the first exhibition. One of Shak's biggest challenges in the first week of training was overcoming nervousness. A visit from team captain Tab Ramos the night before the opening day of practice simultaneously made him feel welcome and gave him butterflies. During the first day of training, the team played an eight-vs.-three possession game. "Like most possession games, you go in the middle if you make a mistake," Shak said. "I spent a lot of time in the middle that day." After practice, someone mentioned that a rookie should get the water. Shak was nearby the large plastic jug, so he hefted it on his hip and started toward the gate, limping for its weight. Thomas Dooley came along behind Shak and grabbed the other handle. "The oldest and the youngest," Dooley said, smiling.

Bookworm ready for change

AMOS MAGEE. Milling around Majors & Quinn used bookstore is just one thing that Amos Magee will miss if he earns a spot on the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Working with the Minnesota Thunder's inner-city youth program is another. Being close to his family is a third. In fact, Magee would be quite content to continue living in the Twin Cities, where he grew up. But first he must keep a promise. "I set a goal for myself a long time ago to play at the highest level possible in our country," Magee said while surveying a preseason match between Chicago and Colorado. "Right now, this is it, so I aspire to be here." So when Tampa Bay selected Magee in the fourth round of the MLS SuperDraft - 42nd overall - he packed his bags for what he hopes will be a period of regional adjustment. "I'm a Midwest boy; I'm not sure how I'll handle the South," Magee said jokingly. "But from everything I hear, Tampa's a nice place." Although his soccer salary would increase in MLS, Magee's total income would likely drop without the secondary sources he has in Minnesota. He is an assistant coach at his alma mater, St. Paul's Academy, which produced Tony Sanneh, Manny Lagos and Leo Cullen. He coaches club soccer and works part time at Majors & Quinn. "That's more for enjoyment than money, though," Magee said. "I walk around in anonymity, quietly shelving books and reading them. ... It's a nice sort of solitude." The Los Angeles Galaxy took Magee in the 1998 supplemental draft but cut him after training camp. Magee began playing with the Thunder nine years ago when the team was semipro and he was still attending Division III Wesleyan University. Last season, he scored 10 goals in 27 games while helping Minnesota win the A-League crown. At age 28, this may be Magee's last chance at MLS. "I've always been kind of a late bloomer, so I look at every season as a chance to get better," Magee said. "I'm a much better player than I was two years ago." Getting cut in Los Angeles was no great surprise to Magee. "I'm sure part of it was a lack of confidence," he says, "but I think they were pretty set with their team attacking-wise, so they really needed me to come in and set camp on fire, and I didn't do that." This time, Magee is trying to make a team that is far less established and is looking to make improvements. On the opening night of preseason, Magee scored a classy goal, luring Colorado veteran Marcelo Balboa across the top of the box before drilling a low shot into the left corner. Four days later, he played 80 minutes against New England, starting alongside Raul Diaz Arce up front before moving to right midfield. He was fouled seven times and made several clever passes. Mutiny coach Tim Hankinson remembers a day in 1994 when Magee did set the field on fire. Then coach of the Charleston Battery, Hankinson saw Magee and Lagos dissect his defense for two goals apiece in the league semifinal. "For him, it's just been a persistent fight to be in the major league that is very similar to the way he plays the game - kind of a relentless worker," Hankinson said. "We felt it was worth drafting him to find out, and I think he's done very well and has a good shot of making it." by Soccer America associate editor Will Kuhns
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