As part of his recurring series of interviews on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley spends some time with Brian McBride, one of the greatest players ever produced in American soccer and the first-ever draft pick in MLS history. McBride, 41, played eight seasons for the Columbus Crew before a six-year stint in the English Premier League. He came back to MLS to play for his hometown Chicago Fire for parts of three seasons before retiring. Brian now works for Fox Sports as an analyst for the UEFA Champions League and the Europa League.
BRADLEY: The league is about to hold its 18th draft on Thursday and you were the first-ever pick in the history of the league. So, what are your memories of that day? Did you know going in you were going to be No. 1?
McBRIDE: I did. It actually started the day before. What made it interesting is that first year, there were two combines before the draft. There were tons of players. In the morning, the coaches would watch what they thought were the elite players. The other guys would play later in the day. Never once was I in the morning game.
So, the day before the draft, I was getting together with my soccer friends from high school. I was with my buddy Mike Steele when the phone rang around 5 pm. And it was Tom Fitzgerald and Timo Liekoski from Columbus. And they said they were going to take me with the first pick. That night became pretty special.
BRADLEY: So, you flew to New York knowing your fate…
McBRIDE: Yes, I flew into New York the next day, not knowing what the draft was going to be like, but knowing that I was going to be the first pick and I couldn't tell anybody. So, there wasn't any anxiousness for me that maybe the players might be feeling this week. It was just exciting.
BRADLEY: Did you have a team in mind that you hoped would pick you? You are a Chicago-area kid but the Fire did not exist. What were you hoping for?
McBRIDE: I was just hoping to get drafted, and I thought I would, but it was weighing on my mind for a while why I wasn't playing in those morning games at the combine.
BRADLEY: So that phone call the day before must have been a huge relief.
McBRIDE: Back then, our contracts were pretty measly. I think we all basically signed ahead of time for $27,000. And we knew there would be bonuses that tied into where we were drafted. So everybody wanted to go in the first round, because it meant $10,000.
BRADLEY: A bonanza!
McBRIDE: Yeah, that was the greatest part of it. That's why the night before was so fun!
BRADLEY: Obviously, the draft is much different now. Its purpose has changed over time, from picking a whole team to making really key acquisitions. What is it now?
McBRIDE: I think teams now look for players who fit their style. Before, I think it was just about finding the best available player and trying to work with that guy. Now, most teams have not just a style of player, but they have a set group of players, so they're just looking for a slight tweak when they enter the draft.
BRADLEY: Do you remember what it was like, in '96, sitting there and seeing your whole team being put together before your eyes? Teams were literally forming on the board in front of you.
McBRIDE: Yeah, of course. We were so anxious to see who else was going to be playing for Columbus. We were filling out an entire team. We knew our first four guys, our allocations, were Doctor Khumalo, Brian Bliss, Paul Caligiuri and Brian Maissoneuve. But beyond that it was, who are we going to take in the draft? You were hoping for certain players and friends. For me, it was exciting to see us draft Shane Battelle, who turned out to be one of the toughest guys lost to injury in MLS and U.S. Soccer history.
BRADLEY: What are your impressions of the league 18 years later?
McBRIDE: It's great, to see money getting put into not only the foreign players, but also to the best players in the US. What it does is it opens so many doors for Americans. It doesn't mean you can't go overseas, but it gives players a sense they may not have to.
BRADLEY: What is the biggest area of improvement you've seen on the field?
McBRIDE: Understanding of the game is key, and I've seen growth in the league in that area. Where before maybe you saw a lot of guys just putting their heads down, now I think you're seeing a better understanding of how the game is supposed to be played. As much as we want to see attacking soccer, I think it's important that in MLS we've seen improvements in the way the game is being played positionally, and I see the soccer brains improving.
And those things need to keep improving. I think athletically, physically, we are elite. Now, the speed of play and the thought process needs to continue to grow. I think we've seen improvements, but there's more room to grow, of course.
BRADLEY: So, as one of the most accomplished American strikers ever, who do you see as the best strikers in MLS right now?
McBRIDE: I think the complete striker is Robbie Keane. I think he's head and shoulders above, as far as his complete game. His movement, his touch, his ability to fight and work for his team. That type of player is always going to be exceptionally valuable in this league.
And if I’m talking about the soccer brain, I've got to mention Mike Magee. He's not crazy quick. He's not slow, but he understands positioning. He understands getting the ball off his feet when he needs to, taking extra time if he has it. I have really been impressed with Mike, especially when I got to see him more here in Chicago.
BRADLEY: Which begs the question, will we see Magee on the US team in Brazil?
McBRIDE: Jurgen Klinsmann is going to make his final choices based on what he thinks is missing. Having somebody you think you can rely on to do the right thing in the right situation is invaluable. And with Mike, you get that, and that means you have a guy who's in the right spot. And there are not many times when Mike is in the right spot that he misses. So I definitely could see him making a good push for a spot on the roster.
BRADLEY: Keane, obviously, has been a champion for Mike's cause…
McBRIDE: Yeah, Mike's not a flashy guy. He's definitely a team guy, but he seems to be growing into a guy who knows he needs to step up, because he's being counted on.
BRADLEY: Is there anyone in the league who most reminds you of yourself?
McBRIDE: Yeah, it's funny, Papa Yeags [former Indiana University coach Jerry Yeagley] pulled me aside at the MAC Award. And he said, "You've got to keep your eye on Will Bruin, down in Houston." He said, "This guy is exactly like you." And I was thinking, "Will is bigger than I am," but I think anybody who comes out of Indiana, you know you're getting a guy who's never going to relax. He'll always do the work he's supposed to do and he'll cause problems up top.
So, I started watching him a little more and I think he's got the physical abilities. I think his mobility can be upgraded and I think that will improve his standing in the league. That work off the ball. If he adds that extra bit of movement, that will really raise his game. He's got good feet. I would like to see him in the box just a little bit more. But I like his game.