Balboa is steady with shaky Leon #1

U.S. national team Steve Sampson went to Mexico City to watch one of his central defenders and saw him play center forward.

"I've been pushed up to play as a third forward in about four or five games," said Marcelo Balboa, whose Leon team has frequently found itself in desperate situations recently. "If we're behind late in the game, I'll move up and then they'll play man-to-man on the backline.

"I'm taller than most defenders, and I can run around, dribble a little bit, and try to make things happen. Against Chivas, we were down 1-0, then I went up and we tied the game."

Sampson saw Leon lose 2-1 to Atlante, which took advantage of goalkeeper errors. Balboa played forward for the last 20 minutes.

"He's not a natural forward," said Sampson, "but he's not uncomfortable up there. In fact, the last 20 minutes, Leon, with Marcelo as forward, Leon attacked more effectively than during the rest of the match."

Balboa's record 109 U.S. appearances have been in defensive positions, usually as sweeper or as a central defender, like in the World Cup, with Alexi Lalas at his side. But in high school, he played forward and scored 100 goals.

"Yeah, I got a plaque in my room at home for that," said MLS-bound Balboa. "Scoring was fun, but I always knew I would be a defender. I played sweeper for my club.

"But I tell you what, I'm going to teach my kid to be a center forward. I like that position. That's where you have freedom -- to dribble, to create."

Balboa has scored three goals this year for Leon, and would have gotten a start at forward if an injured attacker hadn't recovered in time. He's a little unsure how he'll be used in the future, because coach Guillermo "Wendy" Mendizabal and his assistants were fired Feb. 19. Brazilian forward Tita was scoring at a formidable rate early in the season -- and grabbing headlines by celebrating with his son, a ballboy, after each strike. Then he took on a leisurely attitude and club officials blamed the coach.

Leon had finished the first half of the season tied for first in Group 3 with Cruz Azul. But it picked up only two wins in the next eight games. It's in a close race for a playoff spot with Pumas, which has improved as Leon floundered.

Staying at altitude

If a new coach doesn't provide the inspiration Leon needs to reach the playoffs, Balboa's last game will be on April 14 against Celaya. That would make him available for the Colorado Rapids' second game, against Columbus April 21. The top two finishers in the four groups and the two best third-place finishers qualify for the playoffs. Wild-card play ends April 21, quarterfinal play April 28, semifinal play May 5, and the final will be completed by May 12.

"I'd say we have a pretty good chance to reach the playoffs," Balboa said, "but everything's up in the air because all our coaches got fired."

Colorado coach Bob Houghton hopes to welcome Balboa as soon as possible. "I look at Marcelo as being the most experienced American defender and as a leader," Houghton said. "I plan on using him in the midfield. With Roy Wegerle playing near the box, Dominic Kinnear distributing, and Balboa dominating the defensive area. I think he's a ball winner."

Houghton also appreciates Balboa's goalscoring ability, and wouldn't be surprised if Balboa "chipped in" six goals in 25 games.

Sampson said having Balboa play in midfield would be beneficial for his national team play, because he imagines that in the long-term there will be a lot of switching positions during games.

Balboa said, "I look forward to playing where ever the coach believes I can contribute."

Balboa also hopes to return to Leon and play on loan from MLS.

"I don't ever want to get out of shape," Balboa said. "I can see myself taking a two-week break and coming down here. The altitude is the same in Leon [about 6,000 feet] as in Denver, so that part of the transition won't be a problem."

(By Mike Woitalla, a senior editor of Soccer America.)

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