If things go according to plan, the United States men's national team will be involved in a series of very important matches during CONCACAF qualifying over the next 18 months. A group of America's most talented soccer players will be brought together under the guidance of U.S. MNT manager Bruce Arena to accomplish one goal - qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
But many of the dozens of players Arena will call upon - players from Major League Soccer - will be on another mission at the same time, whether they realize it or not. They will look prove to the world's soccer aficionados that MLS is not just a training center or a launching pad for overseas transfers, but that it is instead a soccer league comprised of talented athletes that will someday compete for the world's most elite players. When the world is exposed to more of the talent developed by the USA's top-flight clubs, international soccer fans will be forced to acknowledge the progress MLS has made in its first nine years.
One of those "Made in America" soccer players that will surely impress the overseas onlookers will be former Chicago Fire and current Kansas City Wizards forward Josh Wolff. A quick and unpredictable striker, Wolff has a remarkable pace to his game and the extremely important ability to create space for himself and his teammates. While the 27-year-old forward has excelled for his club this year, he will also be counted upon to produce as he has in the past for his country during the long road to Germany 2006.
The final stop for Wolff and the U.S. MNT before continuing its journey through CONCACAF region qualifying for the next FIFA World Cup is Chicago's Soldier Field. On Sunday the "Stars-and-Stripes" will play an international friendly against Poland in front of close to 40,000 Windy City soccer fans in the team's first match in Chicago in 11 years. The fans that will come out to support the U.S. national team are the same fans that Wolff got to know very well during the five years he spent with the Fire from 1998-2002. "It is good to get back, a good place to come back to," said Wolff after the national team's training session in downtown Chicago on Wednesday. "I still think they have some of the best fans in the League, and when they come out in numbers they are as good as any crowd I have played for."
Playing in front of large, enthusiastic crowds is nothing new for Wolff, as he got to experience the ultimate for any soccer player - suiting up for his country in the World Cup during Korea/Japan 2002. Like most other soccer players around the globe, Wolff grew up dreaming of one day playing in the world's most popular sporting event.
"Going to the World Cup was certainly one of the biggest goals that I could try for growing up and playing the game," Wolff said. "Now my goal is to get back and be more of an impact player rather than a role player."
Despite limited playing time and his personal feelings of not being an impact player in his first World Cup, Wolff indeed contributed to the unprecedented success of the U.S. team that made it to the quarterfinals in Korea/Japan 2002. Against Mexico in the Round of 16, Wolff got his only start of the tournament, and he made it count by assisting on the USA's first goal when he played a quality ball to Brian McBride, who finished the pass with a precise strike that rippled the back of the net. The U.S. went on to beat Mexico 2-0 and move into the final eight, recording the best finish in a World Cup ever by an American team and shocking the soccer world at the same time.
After a trade sent Wolff from Chicago to Kansas City in January of 2003, Wolff looked to continue the form that made him the Fire's second-leading goal scorer in club history. However, a series of injuries - a hamstring injury, a torn meniscus in his right knee, an ankle injury and a fractured rib - did not allow him the opportunity to showcase his talents in his new home. But this season Wolff has had his chance to shine and, as he did in the World Cup, Wolff has taken advantage of the opportunities presented to him by playing some of the best soccer of his career, recording five goals and five assists in 14 starts.
"This is the first year I have come in healthy for a change," explained Wolff. "I'm not coming off any injuries, so my fitness has been pretty good."
His health over the next year and a half will play a role in his attempt to help himself and the U.S. MNT into their fifth straight World Cup finals.
"It all starts with qualifying, so you need to be a guy that's reliable in qualifying and hopefully that will secure you a spot down the road for the World Cup," Wolff said. "It's a long process and I am going to try and stay patient and see what I can do."
If he is able to stay healthy through Germany 2006 and showcase his talents in front of the world, Wolff and MLS will probably receive some interest from overseas clubs once they witness the depth of his talents. But don't expect him to leave Major League Soccer behind for just any opportunity that comes his way.
"Down the road [playing overseas] would be great. But I still have a couple of years on my contract here with MLS, and the League has been great to me," said Wolff. "I am still a player that is learning and trying to get better and work on my game. If the time comes where I am able to move out and get a shot at Europe it would have to be a good opportunity because the League has been very, very good to me."
MLS fans should enjoy the raw talent and ability of Wolff while they can and hope that opportunity for overseas success will come later rather than sooner. Unless, of course, that chance for Wolff to excel in Europe comes from a phenomenal performance to help lead the USA into uncharted success during Germany 2006.