MLS: Zach Thornton the Gentle Giant

A stunning start to the 2009 season by Chivas USA has featured the return to prominence of goalkeeper Zach Thornton, a five-time All-Star during his years with Chicago.

The player perhaps most responsible for his team's stunning start to the season is the guy least likely to take any credit.

By winning seven of its first nine games, Chivas USA got off the mark as quickly as does its intimidating goalie coming out to clear a through ball, but ask Zach Thornton about the team's 7-1-1 record and just three goals conceded in those first nine games, and all the humbleness his teammates like to talk about dribbles out. Rather than describe any of many remarkable saves, he'd rather point out a rare flub in the season opener against Colorado.

"The first goal of the season was pretty soft, I have to admit," says Thornton of a rebound that Omar Cummings banged into the net to give the Rapids a 1-0 lead. "That was pretty bad, but other than that, I've always — especially since I've gotten older — tried to just take care of what I'm supposed to and do that well. If you are able to pull off a big save or great save, that's just a bonus. You get the confidence of your teammates that way."

It is Thornton's quiet, honest, low-key demeanor as much as his play that has earned such confidence since he began his career with the MetroStars in 1996 as Tony Meola's backup. Some keepers scream and point fingers when a goal goes in, but that's not the Thornton way.

"At the halftime of that first game," says Chivas USA defender Jim Curtin, a former Fire teammate, "I remember, he came into the locker room and said, ‘Guys, I let you down. It's my fault.' And the guys came back and got two goals for him. Then afterwards he was all excited and said, ‘Thanks for bailing me out. You saved me.'

"He's a guy who's always honest with himself, and other guys see that and respect that. He's a great leader back there."

FIRE SALE. Thornton played just six games in two seasons with the MetroStars before being claimed by Chicago in the first MLS expansion draft.  The team also acquired Mexican international icon Jorge Campos, who was presumed to be the starter, but head coach Bob Bradley didn't quite see it that way.

Bradley installed Thornton as his No. 1 keeper. The move rankled the vast universe of Campos fans, yet come November, Thornton was the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, and upstart Chicago had captured both the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup titles.

 "All the guys had been pulled from other teams — some had been starters, some weren't," Thornton says. "I don't know if that gave us something to prove, but we had all had something in common. We were a close-knit group. We weren't sure what was going to happen, but we took to each other. That was a great team in '98 and for several years after that."

In five of his six seasons in Chicago, Thornton was named to the MLS All-Star team, yet he remembers those years more for the team's near-misses. The Fire fell at the final hurdle in the MLS Cups of 2000 (to Kansas City) and 2003 (against San Jose).

Following a 4-2 loss to San Jose at Home Depot Center, Thornton had just turned 30 and with his MLS contract about to expire, the timing seemed ideal to try something different. For several years, he'd been preparing for the MLS preseason by training with former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel at Blackburn, working through the wet, often muddy month of January.

"He just told me about stuff I didn't know about and invited me to train with him during the offseason for about four or five years," recalls Thornton. "I'd stay at his house and go to training in that serious European environment. I wasn't even playing but I could how sharp and intense the training sessions were. It was great for me."

For his own foray into Europe, Thornton chose a locale sunnier and further south. In February 2004, he signed a short-term deal with Portuguese club Benfica, which counts legendary Portugal and NASL forward Eusebio among its long list of past stars.

"My contract was up and I was free, and I had a great opportunity to try my luck overseas with such a big club like Benfica," says Thornton. "I gave it a shot."

LONG ROAD BACK. He would return to MLS later that year without playing a game. Disappointed by a dearth of playing time, he still regards that brief taste of European mystique as invigorating. "Lisbon is a great city, a lot of history and culture. I'd go to the beach after training, friends would come to visit," he remembers.

"I went to museums, the food's outstanding. As an overall experience, not just soccer-wise, I wouldn't trade it for the world. But even though the training was intense and that helped me, you want to play, and that wasn't working out. I could have gone to another team but I decided to come back."

He sat on the Fire bench for the rest of the 2004 season, then regained the starting spot for the following two years. Despite posting a 1.25 goals-allowed average — the same mark as Pat Onstad of Houston, which won the league title — in 2006, the Fire traded him to Colorado, where he played just 32 minutes in 2007 as backup to Bouna Coundoul.

The Rapids waived him at the end of the 2007 season. New York claimed him but with Jon Conway as the starter he sat stuck to the bench again, at least until Chivas USA goalie Brad Guzan's once-denied transfer to Aston Villa finally went through.

Former Fire teammates Curtin, Jesse Marsch, and Ante Razov had already moved west by the time Chivas USA coach Preki began working his contacts to find a replacement. "Preki sort of asked me what I thought about it, he mentioned it might be something he's considering," says Marsch. "Just based on my history with Zach, I was excited about it, and given the opportunity to come in and compete for a spot again on a good team, I thought he had something to bring."

NEW MENTOR. Preki also consulted his goalkeeping coach, Leo Percovich, who had been hired away from Colorado after working with Thornton during the 2007 season, perhaps the only bright spot of long months spent on the bench and training fields.

"I didn't play much at all in Colorado," says Thornton. "They wanted to go in a different direction, play someone else, so there wasn't much I could say or do about it. The good thing was I got to meet Leo."

Percovich, a native of Uruguay, had played in South America as well as Spain, and came to MLS after training keepers in Europe, South America and Mexico.

"Bouna played almost all of the games and Zach had to wait for his next opportunity," says Percovich. "When he came to Chivas USA, he was not in good fitness, because he had not been playing. But I knew he is a great man and a great professional with a lot of experience."

Both coach and goalie were glad to resume their relationship in Southern California, though the immediate returns weren't stellar. Thornton played eight games for Chivas USA at the end of last season, compiling a bloated 1.80 goals-allowed average and 2-3-3 record. He started both playoff games as Chivas USA lost, 3-2, on aggregate to Real Salt Lake.

Starting in February, Percovich worked with Thornton to channel his size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), speed and athleticism into more efficient goalkeeping.

"We worked on his explosive force and now you see he is not in the six-yard box all the time," says Percovich. "He comes out for crosses, to play the ball outside the [penalty] area with his feet.

"He has very good hands, he has good vision, he's very calm in every moment. Now he has more speed. Before maybe he was like a tractor, but now he is like NASCAR."

Says Curtin, who recalls being flattened — along with Carlos Bocanegra and Alecko Eskandarian — by Thornton in a particularly fierce collision when they played for the Fire, "I can guarantee he makes forwards think, that's for sure, especially on crosses and corner kicks. On some balls they don't want to be anywhere close to the big man."

Along with a string of superb saves, Thornton has marked the 2009 season with clearances and interceptions well beyond the penalty area.

"Zach this year is much better at being ready for those long balls and cutting out breakaways and that stuff," says Marsch. "He's been really good at that and that's something new to his game."

Thornton is barely cognizant of the fact that by logging six shutouts so early in the season, he's certainly capable of breaking the MLS record for doughnuts (15) set by his former mentor, Meola, in 2000 with Kansas City, which beat Chicago, 1-0, that season in the championship game. That score is what he remembers.

"He's still a gentle giant," says Marsch. "On the field he's a competitor but in the locker room he's a great guy. I've had people say he looks like the old Zach, and I say, ‘No, he looks better.'"

(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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