Sham: Pareja provides heart

Dallas Burn skipper Colin Clarke is not a man given over to regrets. That doesn't mean there aren't things he wishes could have been different.

For instance, Clarke wishes he could have coached a young Oscar Pareja.

"You know what you're going to get with Oscar," Clarke mused about his veteran midfield sparkplug after a recent Burn training session. "He plays with his heart. He's been the heart and soul of this team, him and Jason Kreis. I'd have loved to have had him seven or eight years ago. I can't imagine what he must have been like then."

Oscar Pareja turned 36 less than a month ago. As he practically wills his team toward a return to the playoffs it missed last season, Pareja seems to sense he may be playing on borrowed time.

Pareja missed the last five games of the 2003 season after knee surgery. The rehabilitation of that knee lingered into this spring. Normally a workhorse, Pareja played just one minute in each of the Burn's first two games this year, then missed the next three. He played off the bench the next five matches, not being fit enough to return to the starting lineup until game 11 on June 19 against Colorado.

"When I was hurt (earlier this year) I thought, 'That's it for me,'" the diminutive Colombian says. "I was running behind the guys, no match for them."

Pareja is listed as 5-8, and that may be generous. So may be his program weight of 150 pounds. But in immeasurable heart, he's 6-4 and 250. Oscar Pareja is what every mom and dad love about soccer for their kids. You don't have to be a giant, you just have to know how to work and play like one.

His resume is star-studded: 11 caps with the Colombian national team, twice (in 2001 and 2002) voted the Burn MVP, and in '02 recognized as a member of the MLS Best XI. And even at (almost) 36, Pareja had something Clarke knew he needed. The Burn were a clearly-improved side over last year at midsummer, but lacking something in midfield. No one had stepped forward to be the engine alongside holder Simo Valakari. Trying to move all star Ronnie O'Brien inside from the right flank proved better in thought than in practice.

Inserting Pareja back into the starting lineup proved a spark Dallas needed to return to playoff contention, where they remain as the season winds down. It is a season Pareja hopes is not his last.

"About June, I started to feel better. I felt, 'It's OK, I can run now, just like the other guys in practice.' So I want to keep playing. I'm more useful. I don't want to play just to collect the money. I don't want to quit frustrated.

"Earlier this year I thought it was the end. But now that I see I can still play, I want to play at least one year more. I hope it's in Dallas. Otherwise, in MLS or somewhere in South America. But I still want to play."

Is it possible that the desire to keep going has increased at the time Pareja feels his career's shelf life winding down?

"No," he says firmly, fixing you with that steely gaze that has gripped opponents, uncooperative referees and wayward teammates. "Desire has nothing to do with age. At 23, I thought, 'I'm tired. I'll retire at 30.' But now I have the same passion for the games. I still get butterflies."

Clarke has continued to pencil Pareja into the lineup whenever possible, even if the games came too fast to let him play 90 minutes, because he knows he has in his No. 8 another coach on the field. Pareja knows it, too.

"It's natural. It's a part of the game. But that leadership has to be supported by coaches and the other players."

It is, which is why he has frequently worn the captain's armband, an honor he yielded this year to Kreis, who has publicly thanked Pareja for his support. Does he understand what he has done for this year's team? What a silly question.

"I know," Pareja nods. "And I know when I'm not doing it anymore, then it's time."

It should come as no surprise that whenever it's time, Pareja hopes to become a full-time coach.

"I've been a pro since I was 17," he says, "and I'd like to do that at the highest level. But I wouldn't mind coaching youth as well. I'd like to pay back to the community, to give back what so many did for me."

When the Burn obtained Pareja in a trade for Damian with New England in late August 1998, it's probable even general manager Billy Hicks and coach Dave Dir didn't know what they were getting. Sometime soon, time and age and all those knee and groin injuries will catch up with Oscar Pareja, and that coaching career will begin.

But not yet. And when Time does come, it better be ready to be fouled. It better be ready for a fight. Oscar Pareja only looks like a little guy.

Brad Sham is in his seventh season doing play-by-play for Dallas Burn television broadcasts.