What if the U.S. had Ocho Cinco?

April, 3, 2007
CINCINNATI, Ohio -- So I've had an interesting couple of days here in the Midwest where I'm in Cincinnati ostensibly to interview the Bengal's All-Pro wideout Chad Johnson (the interview will be up sometime next week). Johnson, better known as "Ocho Cinco" to his legion of fans, is a huge soccer fan, having played the game extensively during his youth.

Following last night's gloom and doom atmosphere in downtown following Florida's defeat of Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament -- the mood at Paul Brown Stadium today was decidedly lighter as I watched the Bengals wide receivers and defensive backs take part in conditioning drills.

I was trying to be inconspicuous, well as inconspicuous as one can be when you're the only non-athlete on a field filled with NFL players with a camera crew in tow, but the moment I broke out the official MLS ball I heard a loud excited voice.

"Soccer, soccer, soccer! Throw me the ball, hey, throw me the ball!" yelled a very animated and cheerful Chad Johnson. After I obliged, Johnson proceeded to juggle the ball with aplomb, showing very deft technical skill before carrying on with his drills. We'd hoped to capture his ball skills on tape but after two hours of practice he was too tired to comply, so you'll just have to take my word for it that he definitely has a high degree of skill.

As I watched the rest of the Bengals practice session, one couldn't help but wonder just how good the U.S. could be if some of its best athletes, guys like Chad Johnson and his NFL brethren, had taken up soccer. In that respect at least the U.S. would be on a level footing with other countries, all of whom have their best athletes playing the sport. Hopefully as the soccer landscape in this country continues to change in the next few years, soccer can coax a few more dynamic athletes away from the mainstream American sports of basketball and football.

If that ever does happen, and I'm not saying it'll happen any time soon, you might actually see a U.S. team one day that could seriously contend for the World Cup. A Chad Johnson-type athlete playing forward with a Brian Urlacher-type playing D-mid -- assuming they had the requisite skill to go along with their undoubted physical talents -- I think that would scare the hell out of a lot of other countries.

Around the horn

It seems that U.S. international Oguchi Onyewu will be looking for a new team this summer after failing to impress on loan at Newcastle. Although he earns high marks for his work ethic and character, Onyewu's peformances have been a little too erratic and mistake-prone for Newcastle's tastes. It's safe to say that his stock has fallen to the extent that high-profile teams like Real Madrid and Chelsea are no longer interested, but expect Onyewu to land with a second-tier EPL team such as a Fulham or Wigan this summer.

With Blanco's signing with the Fire confirmed, everyone is wondering who the next big name will be. The Red Bulls are apparently close to signing Colombian international Juan Pablo Angel and the Wizards are rumored to be interested in one-time Argentinean phenom Carlos Marinelli (once upon a time the "next Maradona" along with a cast of thousands).

Other names that have been floated about or resurfaced are Patrik Berger, Gaizka Mendiata, Thomas Gravesen and Neil Lennon. One imagines the only sticky point would be salary -- Berger and Mendiata would be good signings, bring a touch of flair to MLS but I can't really see the point of adding defensive midfielders like Gravesen and Lennon. Sure both are fine players, but the U.S. system already produces large numbers in the same defensive mold. What MLS needs is to import more attacking players, not defensive ones.

Jen Chang is the U.S. Soccer editor for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes regularly and is a contributer to Soccernet podcasts. He joined ESPN Studio Production in 2004 and earned a Sports Emmy award, before making the move to ESPN.com in 2005.



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