Zach is back: Thornton returns

make no mistake about it. The 10-year pro out of Loyola-Maryland University is suiting up to be the starting 'keeper for his seventh season with the Chicago Fire, once more out to prove that he is one of Major League Soccer's and country's best goalkeepers.

After a short stint last season with Portuguese side Benfica, a time in which Chicago saw backup 'keeper Henry Ring take the position between the pipes, Thornton returned to the Windy City with renewed intentions to once again be the big man in back. After trading Ring to FC Dallas during the off-season, it became apparent that the Fire's starting goalkeeping job was again Thornton's to lose.

That being said, MLS has proven that it can be a home for some of the best American goalkeepers this nation has to offer, and European clubs are actively taking notice. Thornton's transition from long-time MLS'er to international soccer player may not have been long-lived, but he feels it was the right decision to make -- and one that was beneficial to his career.

"My time in Portugal was probably the best experience I've ever had playing soccer" said Thornton. "Playing for an enormous, gigantic club like Benfica, seeing what that was like on a day-to-day basis was incredible. Playing in Europe, especially at a big club like Benfica with pressure day in and day out to perform, I think has definitely helped me as a player."

For those who may have felt that Thornton did not have an adequate trial with Benfica for a variety of reasons, perhaps they should think again. For Thornton, it was the experience gained overseas that made it meaningful for him and he just let his game speak for itself.

"I knew the situation for me going over there wasn't the best, but as far as the opportunities I did have, it was fair," said Thornton. "There are no excuses to be made. (Benfica) accepted me. I wouldn't say it was just being an American. Any foreigner coming into a club over there had to prove themselves as a player. It's just a matter of whether you can play or not. Once they figure out if you can play, it's just soccer."

With the 2004 MLS season now behind them, Thornton and his teammates are anticipating the new-look Chicago Fire and the 2005 MLS season. The team began training in suburban Lake Forest in February and Thornton feels they have stepped up their preparation this year by taking care of the little things that needed attention.

"I see a bit more commitment from the coaches on down to the players as far as training goes" he said. "I can see a difference; it's a lot sharper and there's more attention to detail, which I think were some problems last year. But we seem to be on the same page right now and the commitment and dedication is there. I'm excited and I think we'll do well this year."

In order to erase the bitter memories of 2004, the Fire have undergone somewhat of a facelift in the off-season by trading away the club's all-time leading scorer, Ante Razov, while also seeing the departure of other players such as Ring, D.J. Countess, Evan Whitfield, Andy Williams, and Dipsy Selolwane. For Thornton, a "Fire Original" from the inaugural 1998 "double"-championship season, it is the leadership from the elder statesmen on the team will make all the difference toward having a winning group in 2005.

"It's myself, Chris (Armas), C.J. (Brown), Jesse (Marsch), and Tony (Sanneh) now," he said. "Jim Curtin's also been here long enough that he knows the right way to do things. We have to be the ones working. The coaches can only put the line-up out there; we're the ones who will have to take care of things and lead on the field."

If Thornton is able to produce the quality of play that made him an alternate for the U.S. team for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan, the pieces will begin falling in place not only for the 2005 MLS season and the U.S. Open Cup, but possibly a spot on the Germany 2006 World Cup roster. Many of MLS's top American keepers will be hoping to challenge both Kasey Keller (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and former Metrostar and current Manchester United 'keeper Tim Howard for the top spot for the Red, White, and Blue. Thornton remains focused on a more team effort, feeling that positive results from his club team could translate into a national team call-up.

"Obviously that (World Cup roster spot) would be great, but I'm just trying to get myself and this team where it needs to be this season. If we can do that with my help, then the national team will take care of itself."

Thornton began playing competitive soccer during a period that could be considered the "dark ages" of professional outdoor soccer in America, the era that stretched from the end of the North American Soccer League in 1983 through the beginning of MLS in 1995. With few American icons to look up to at that time, the budding Thornton looked to pattern his game after former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, the famous Dane who won four Premier League titles and two FA Cups while at Old Trafford.

"I loved the way he played," said Thornton of Schmeichel. "He was a kind of in-your-face goalkeeper, athletic and big. I liked his game."

With MLS entering its 10th season and the Fire celebrating their 8th season in the League, there are now plenty of domestic goalkeeper stars for younger players to look up to. Thornton has some advice for those that are hoping to play each week on Soccer Saturday: "Just kind of take all of it in. Listen to everyone and definitely have an open mind and incorporate what you need to improve your game. Off the field, take care of yourself, obviously. You're young and you only get to be a professional soccer player once, so enjoy it."

Chris Bailey is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com.


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