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New Zealanders blazing trail through MLS

Major League Soccer has become the league for "footballers" from New Zealand, and as one Kiwi departs -- Ryan Nelsen, leaving MLS Cup champion D.C. United for English Premier League side Blackburn Rovers -- at least two more are ready to take his place.

Defenders Tony Lochhead and Cameron Knowles, who came to the United States to play college soccer after starring for New Zealand's under-17 national team, await Friday's MLS SuperDraft in Baltimore after showing off for league coaches and general managers at the 2005 Player Combine at The Home Depot Center.

Lochhead, an All-American defender at NCAA Division I runner-up California-Santa Barbara, is a good bet to make an MLS roster next spring, unless he opts for Europe.

The path may prove more difficult for Knowles, who starred at Akron but might lack the needed pace to battle MLS strikers week after week. A third New Zealander, UC Santa Barbara forward Neil Jones, also is available to MLS teams, although he did not participate in the Combine.

"A few Kiwis have invaded the league," Lochhead said. "There seems to be quite a lot of kids coming over and playing college soccer here, because it's a great opportunity."

Lochhead, Knowles and Jones are seeking to follow in Nelsen's footsteps, and those of Columbus Crew midfielders Simon Elliott and Duncan Oughton. Nelsen, widely considered the league's best defender last year, and Elliott joined the MLS ranks following outstanding college careers at Stanford. Oughton arrived after starring at Cal State Fullerton.

"Ryan's awesome," said Lochhead, who has played alongside Nelsen on the backline for the full New Zealand national team. "I think he's probably the ultimate. We kind of look up to him, try to copy what he's doing. All those guys, they're leading by example, so why not follow in their footsteps."

"It's a good opportunity for us to come over here for college -- (college soccer) is something we don't have back home," said Knowles, a central defender with size and grit. "If you want to play at a good level, a lot of guys are coming over here for college and then skipping into the league, you know?"

Whether Lochhead and Knowles -- and Jones, for that matter -- can "skip" into MLS isn't certain. Lochhead seems to stand the best chance. He's New Zealand's starting left back, and his admirers praise his defending, his ability to see the game, and his knack for attacking on the flank.

Knowles is a prototypical center back, and Jones is a big forward who supported All-American Drew McAthy -- another forward available Friday -- in UC Santa Barbara's attack.

Lochhead, Knowles and Jones were teammates on New Zealand's U-17 national team in 1999, when the world championship was held in their homeland. Their performances -- those of Lochhead and Jones, at least -- in a first-round loss to the USA (with Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey, among others) lured interest from UC Santa Barbara, one of the nation's rising college men's programs. Knowles sat on the bench during the tournament after fracturing his leg two weeks before the event's start, but videotape of him playing in preparatory matches led to a scholarship offer.

Lochhead signed with the Gauchos, but Knowles hesitated, and Jones signed instead. When Knowles decided he would like to play in America, an offer arrived from Akron.

His move to Ohio led to some good-natured ribbing from Lochhead, who was playing in one of California's most beautiful cities on a campus that has its own beach.

"I spent 15 years at a beach before I came over here," said Knowles, who is from Auckland. "The beach is nothing new, you know?"

Knowles was happy with his performance at the Combine, but the same can't be said for Lochhead.

"It's an exciting opportunity," said Knowles, a four-time All-Mid-American Conference defender and the Zips' captain last fall. "There's no better time to have this opportunity, with the league expanding (to 12 teams with the additions of CD Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake)."

Lochhead, a four-time All-Big West player and a second-team NSCAA All-American last fall, said he struggled with difficult conditions at the Combine. The first two days of games were played in heavy rains, and Tuesday's final day of action was played in sometimes strong winds.

"I think it was disappointing, but what can you do?" said Lochhead, a left back who also can play centrally, of his performance at the Combine. "I think most teams have already made up their minds. For me, it was good to get back to playing again after having a month or so off, not playing, like, proper football with top guys. It was good to get back to playing a full 90."

Lochhead said he will head to Europe after the SuperDraft to see what options are available.

"I'm not too worried where I end up as long as I get a good opportunity," he said. "Seriously, I don't mind (where), I just want to play. ... My agent, Lyle Yorks, set up a few things in Europe. I think after the draft I'll head over there, do a few trials and stuff, and then see if anything comes from that. If not, I'll come back here and play.

"Who knows? It's all up in the air. We'll find out in the next month. It should be an exciting month."

Scott French, a veteran soccer journalist working for the Los Angeles Daily News, is covering the 2005 adidas MLS Player Combine for MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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