At the risk of ruining the interview before it even got started, I admitted to Marcelo Balboa that I haven't watched any of his MLS HDNet broadcasts. I connected the Aristotelian dots for him: 1) Soccer writers are starving artists, or at least starving. 2) Starving artists have no money. 3) High-def televisions cost like 1500 flippin' bucks! Conclusion: No 'Celo.
But I've watched 'Celo do the color commentary on U.S. national team games and now I've watched him work the Olympic games for NBC. I gotta say, the guy knows what he's doing. He's made some small steps forward over the past year and now taken a few giant leaps -- both as a commentator and a soccer guy.
"This has been great," 'Celo said of his Olympic experience. "I've learned more about soccer in the past week than in all my years playing. As a player, I never cared about the other players unless they were going to be an opponent. Now I appreciate the game much more. I'm excited to watch Carlos Tevez's career and find out where the Iraqis end up."
'Celo's one of the most upbeat guys you'll ever met. He's careful with his words, deliberating choosing the best way to express himself so that he both answers question honestly but doesn't go too far. Disappointment and anger -- especially linked to certain past experiences -- may swirl around in his black-maned head. When I asked him about not playing in the Olympics himself, he chuckled and replied, "I was an alternate in '88. They told me I was too young. Then I was too old in '92. I can respect a coach who takes the players that got them there, but don't tell me I'm too young."
Now that 'Celo is too old even for MLS, he's segued nicely into the role of U.S. soccer legend. It's fascinating to sit across from a legend, a legend I saw play in one of the biggest games in U.S. history, the USA-Brazil match in the '94 World Cup. Legends have stories, remembered in minute detail and with full conversations (many of which will never see the light of day). Legends exude a soft confidence because they're beyond been there, done that; legends exploded there, conquered that.
'Celo has an ease with explanation. I think he could probably write a Proustian tome on the passive offside rule. All of which helps him turn Colorado in his ambassadorship, as he now shoots the Rapids into the brave new world of soccer-specific stadium-mania.
And having seen it all, he's disappointed about the USA's failure to get to Athens. (I'm going to leave it at "disappointed." Otherwise I'd rip and tear for another 10,000 words about Mooch, the US soccer inner circle, missed opportunities, gamesmanship -- ARGH! I'm about to let out a James Hetfield shriek, which would probably cause the astounding Greek woman next to me to spill her frappe coffee and pretty much ruin any chance I have. I know, I have no chance anyway, but I have a very healthy imagination.)
"The U.S. needs the exposure of the Olympics," he said. "In the U.S., the national team and MLS are doing a great job. But we need more exposure. Exposure leads to players like [DaMarcus] Beasley going to Holland and [Carlos] Bocanegra going to the Premier League."
He says he hasn't seen any MLS players here, but hopes they're watching the games. MLS is not the Premier League or La Liga or the Serie A. And let's be honest -- it never will be. So don't expect phenom Carlos Tevez in a Columbus Crew jersey anytime soon. (Not that they need him the way they've played the last month.) But there are others here that might be able to do something.
"We're not going to get the Argentines or the Italians," 'Celo said, "but there are some Paraguayans and Malians that could help. And the Australians, [John] Aloisi and [Jade] North. Or the left-sided guy for Iraq, Mulla Mohammed. I'd love to see some of them in MLS."
He's right. These are the kinds of players that MLS needs to look at, the unheralded, the uncrowned, the unknown. This is where you might find the next Carlos Ruiz.
The Olympic soccer tournament is a showcase for the young guns. ('Celo would like it to only be under-23, no overage players at all.) Over the years, players from Romario, Robert Pires, even the great German defender Andreas Brehme, played in the Olympics before leading their teams to World Cup championships. It's a shame that the USA isn't here.
"It's too bad," 'Celo says, his voice dropping just a notch. "Because I think this U.S. team would've done well. I think we would've had a chance at a medal."
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.