Local hero Albright embraces return to Philadelphia

Chris Albright

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Long ago, before Major League Soccer even existed, a young boy named Chris Albright played soccer on beat-up patches of grass in the inner city of Philadelphia. At the time, a professional soccer career in the United States seemed far-fetched enough. But playing for a pro team in Philly, inside a stadium built specifically for soccer? That was a dream almost beyond imagination.

So a day after Albright signed with the Philadelphia Union, the MLS veteran made sure to remind reporters just what it means for him to be coming home, where it all began.

“It’s really special,” Albright said on a conference call Tuesday, while training with his new teammates down in Florida. “I can’t say that enough. For me, the whole experience has come full circle and I’m thrilled.”

Albright has come a long way since his days playing scholastically for Penn Charter. He starred at Virginia before beginning a long and fruitful MLS career has included stints with D.C. United, the LA Galaxy, the New England Revolution and the New York Red Bulls.

He’s also earned 22 caps for the US national team (his last came in 2007) and adapted his game from his early days as a promising attacker to later ones spent as one of league’s top right backs.

But the three-time All-Star’s career has slowed in recent years due to injury problems, and the Red Bulls opted not to pick up his option for the 2012 season.

Looking for depth on the back line and a little more veteran leadership, the Union invited the 33-year-old to camp as a trialist and, after liking what they saw, offered him a contract this week.

Philadelphia manager Peter Nowak called it an “easy decision” and is optimistic Albright can stay healthy if the club continues its trend of shuffling the lineup and keeping players fresh.

“Chris will bring championship-caliber experience and help us throughout the season,” Nowak said. “He has enough experience to play all three positions on the back line. So it’s a good thing we can add this type of player. Chris has been in this league for many years. It’s good to have him, especially being our local boy.”

While Philly’s starting back line is just about set with Danny Califf and Carlos Valdés in the middle and Sheanon Williams and new acquisition Porfirio López penciled in at fullback, Nowak said Albright will have the opportunity to push for a starting spot. And Albright will almost certainly be asked to be a leader on a team that has only two other true MLS veterans – Brian Carroll and Danny Califf.

For Albright, though, it’s all about fitting in and helping out the team in whatever ways he’s asked.

“I’ve had a lot of different experiences in the game,” he said. “I’m at the point now where I want to win and I’m excited that I can try to do that for my hometown club. If that means coming off the bench, if that means working with young kids on the reserve team to try to better the whole group, I’m willing to take on whatever role that is. I’ll fit in where Peter wants. There will be no issue and I’ll be easy to handle.”

Albright admitted he had some other options around the league but that ending his soccer career in the same place in his native city was too much to pass up. And even though he’s already played at PPL Park as an opposing player, it will be an entirely different rush of emotions when he steps on the grass of Philly’s home stadium for the first time as a member of the Union.

“For me growing up in Philadelphia and loving the game and playing it all over the area, to have a cathedral for soccer in Philly, it’s special,” he said. “We’re lucky to have that facility and we’re lucky to have those fans that are the lifeblood of the organization.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Philadelphia Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.