THE COTTAGE PROFESSOR
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
With Brian McBride seemingly headed for a Fulham Player of the Year repeat, it's clear the 34-year old still has plenty to offer.

Earlier this month, after the former US star ruined World Cup 2006 teammate Oguchi Onyewu's Newcastle debut with a winner, Cottagers boss Chris Coleman exclaimed: "He is probably the best 700,000 anybody has ever spent!"

The coach that answers to "Cookie" won't soon have to imagine what it would be like to lose battering ram #20. For the second time in 10 months, Fulham have beat back MLS hounds to sign their top gun to a contract extension.

While other forwards his age are in steep decline or enjoying retirement (anybody seen Christian Vieri kissing his ring lately?), McBride simply goes about his business with impressive focus. Often working alone up top, the veteran has appeared in every single Premiership contest for over two years straight.

You read that correctly... Bake, oft-injured in his 20's, has worked 76 consecutive Fulham matches since watching from the Liverpool away bench on February 5th, 2005.

"You prepare yourself by concentrating on what you have to do out on the field."

Setting aside the positives from his obvious clubhouse influence, the man who said the words above has turned himself into one of the most valuable players in what is arguably, top-to-bottom, the best league in the world.

That's right... McBride keeps getting better, even as he enters his mid-30's. Never the quickest forward around, the St. Louis University product still manages to go kamikaze into every aerial challenge and his link-up support practically keeps the Fulham offense alive some days.

But those were already his noted skills, what's new and improved? His off-the-ball runs have become smarter and more unselfish the longer he's been in the Premiership, which includes a half-season starter stint with Everton.

It should be no wonder that McBride has learned more ways to get open against EPL defenders, as strikers are meant to think of how they will get the next shot to goal - but he has become incredibly devious when it comes to pulling opponents away from an attack portal.

His finishing has also become more troublesome to netminders; McBride's next league goal will equalize last season's total of nine and he added three strikes in four FA Cup games. It's really an unholy shame that the 'Nats only set him up with one good chance to fire in Germany last summer.

With the likes of Kolo Toure, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry often hanging all over him, the American has still put half of his 60 shots on frame this term. The delivery is more composed and he aims for sneakier spots, often forcing big saves - his four 2006/07 assists don't include the three Fulham goals banged home from a McBride rebound.

What's more, the Illinois native has picked up steam as the season enters its final third; he has eight goals and three assists across two competitions since November 29th.

Despite his deserved rep as a fantastic player in the air, YA colleague Sean O'Conor correctly pointed out to me that his ground game has become splendid. Sure enough, every touch has a purpose, every pass has an applied weight, every flick a wicked spin.

"Put your head down and work as hard as you can because there is always someone better out there."

And what of his influence? McBride had surpassed Claudio Reyna's status as "the US player everyone respects" long before Captain America flew to New York. Its difficult to find anyone in Europe to say anything bad about McBride, and I've had several coaches intimate they'd love his presence in their young groups.

Talk of his leadership qualities are unchallenged, even outside of England. Not too long ago, a Dutch journalist bemoaned to me his view that speedy and powerful Fulham youngster (and Young Oranje strike starlet) Collins John was surely suffering from an over-sized head because 'he still hadn't learned a damn thing from the American'.

You want an example of the dedication observers wish every player had? Anybody who attended or watched the aforementioned Fulham victory over Newcastle can tell you that, upon his 80th minute removal, 34-year old Brian McBride could be seen chugging away at a stationary bike like it owed him Vegas money.

"I enjoy analyzing the game... solve problems and get that across to my teammates."

We recently passed through what will soon become a time-honored winter tradition among stateside soccer fans, many of whom wish against all odds that every significant American player should start (if not, play exclusively) in MLS. I call it the "January hand wring" and it happens when several young Americans opt for Europe during the transfer window.

People start wondering whether playing overseas really helps our young players improve, some even getting angry at the "Eurosnobs" that got away to foreign money. A small segment attempt to prove, generally with bumbled logic and over-analyzed stats, that young MLS Yanks do in fact receive the best possible seasoning.

They insist that the benefits gained from training with and playing against top competition are mere hype, that the failings of Jovan Kirovski and John Thorrington tell all. And yet... McBride is proving that a hard working student of the game can show great growth when forced to get it done against the world's best - even after he's turned 30.

Seriously, can anyone argue that he isn't playing the best soccer of his career this season?

Of course, McBride hasn't become quicker and he hasn't become any tougher... toughness was never lacking in him. He has observed and experimented and trained, and most of all, he has become smarter.

He's taken a few English lumps (or should I say, a few more lumps?), he's picked himself off the English ground and he's come back better every time. McBride's example should be a beacon to every American forward coming through the various ranks - which brings my whole point to a boil.

"I have my degree in secondary education, so who knows what is going to be ahead for me? But I hope it is in soccer somehow."

US Soccer needs to contact him NOW about an eventual position as their multi-level forwards coach. If they don't, it's only a matter of time before somebody with a fatter payroll does. McBride wants to teach, so let's offer him a classroom.

The federation certainly doesn't need to lay the foundation for a coaching position the second any of our favorite sons drops a late-career hint like the one above, but this is a special case in more ways than one.

The National Team pool now shows developing depth at almost every position on the field, with one glaring exception: Forward. We have plenty of prospects trying to learn and young veterans trying to get solid, but no obvious strike choices.

The battle will be intense over the next World Cup cycle, if only because there is no front runner this time. Instead of worrying when "the next Brian McBride" is going to come along, why don't we go about creating virtual clones, with the man himself as the mad scientist?

Who better to counsel Eddie Johnson about struggle? Who better to talk to Conor Casey about coming back productive from a long injury lay-off? Who better to tutor teen phenoms Johann Smith and Preston Zimmerman? Brian McBride finds the way, then shows the way.

One doesn't need to elbowed in the schnozz to understand that Sunil Gulati could do the program a world of good for years to come if, while working his way through a head coaching tangle, he took a little time to put an idea in the head of Fulham's best player.