MetroStars goalkeeper Zach Wells and several of his teammates recently returned from a one-week training camp with Sunderland of England's Coca-Cola Championship. Wells, who only just completed his rookie season in Major League Soccer, used the experience to begin preparations for the 2005 season and to gauge how his abilities compare to other quality 'keepers in one of the most challenging leagues in Europe.
The MetroStars' traveling contingent also was able to attend several Premiership matches during their jaunt, including games featuring Newcastle United, Everton and Manchester United. On the bench for the Red Devils in their 3-0 win against Southampton was Tim Howard, the former Metros' shot-stopper who made the leap from MLS to one of the biggest clubs in the world in 2003.
Wells only saw action in two league matches in 2004, the Metros 'keeper posting one win as he recorded four saves in 180 minutes. However, he is aiming to take his brief European experience and build on it in order to challenge Jonny Walker for the starting spot between the pipes for Bob Bradley's squad in the 2005 season.
"That's always the idea," said Wells. "If anyone said they were happy being a substitute they'd be lying. I would like to think that I was competing for a starting spot last year. Obviously, I was a little inexperienced and maybe a little naïve about everything, but with a year under my belt I think I should be able to give it a better shot this year."
The transition from college soccer to MLS is rarely a seamless move, and many would argue that the challenge is even tougher for a goalkeeper. But few doubt the ability of Wells, who won a national championship at UCLA in 2002. He worked with talented goalkeeper coaches at Sunderland and welcomed the opportunity for a new pair of critiquing eyes to see him and to have a chance to show off the skills he already possesses.
"They have two international 'keepers there, one from Estonia and one from Norway, who are both very quality goalkeepers," Wells said. "They also have a goalkeeper coach who was at Millwall with [U.S. international] Kasey Keller a long time ago. He was able to help me out, help me tweak a couple of things just in the five days that we were there working.
"I think I definitely fit in. I don't know how much I would stand out, but I thought I had a few certain qualities that they weren't used to seeing in a goalkeeper. I think American goalkeepers tend to be a little bit more aggressive, while (Europeans) are more likely to stay in a close arc around their goal. I definitely was not overwhelmed."
Upon returning to the United States, Wells has traveled west to his home state of California, where he will work through the offseason to continue improving his game.
"There's a big group of professionals, ex-pros and college players in southern California," said Wells. "We'll get a group of guys together and train quite a bit, whether it's college players preparing for the Combine or professionals trying to get back in shape.
"I'll get some good home cookin' and come with a fresh attitude next year. Talking to everyone, it seems like every year is a new year and a new chance to prove yourself, so hopefully I can prepare now and come in to play next year and leave no doubts that I deserve to play."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.