Chad 85 isn’t hanging around to see how the strike ends. He’s off to soccerball.
Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco builds another buzz with MLS tryout
Go ahead and laugh at Chad Ochocinco’s recent announcement he’s going to try out for Sporting Kansas City this week. This marriage, after all, could be just another one of the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver’s publicity stunts combined with the soccer club’s grab for attention.
Know this, too: Many in the soccer community are laughing right along with you. But underneath it all, there’s some curiosity to this situation that goes far beyond that of the opportunity to watch what could become a fiery train wreck.
“All of us who have been involved in the sport always talk about what it would be like if Michael Jordan or one of these great athletes from another sport grew up playing soccer,” University of Missouri-Kansas City men’s soccer coach Rick Benben said. "Someone with that kind of strength, size and speed, what would he look like on the soccer field? I’ll be very curious.
“It might grab the attention of a number of fans who might not necessarily pay attention otherwise. Even for someone like me, that would be the thing. I know the guy is a great athlete, but he hasn’t played the game for a long time. So can he really play at the highest level of our game?”
Benben isn’t the only one wondering. That’s one reason why this experiment is viewed with more tolerance in soccer circles. While so many of this country’s top athletes gravitate to the basketball court or, like Ochocinco, the football field, soccer isn’t about to reject one who wants in, no matter how eccentric or publicity-hungry he might be.
“We’ve made great strides in our nation in closing the gap and becoming more competitive in soccer around the world,” Sporting KC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin said. "But we have to remember that most of these other nations, these power nations, are playing with all their premier athletes.
“There is an intriguing aspect to thinking and dreaming about having Deion Sanders, Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson as wingers running down the flanks on a soccer field. The athleticism of some of these guys is certainly superior to any of the competitors they’d be facing around the world, and that’s not taking anything away from the athleticism the game of soccer demands.”
Soccer has been a passion of Ochocinco’s, back to the time he went by his given name of Johnson. He played soccer before attending high school in Miami and kicked for the football team. He successfully kicked an extra point for the Bengals in a 2009 pre-season game.
Ochocinco counts several professional soccer players as friends. He is frequently seen wearing soccer jerseys.
“I played soccer before football and I was good,” he told Sports Illustrated in a 2006 interview. "That’s where I get my quick feet. My feet are unbelievable. When I got to high school, I had to choose between the sports because they were in the same season.
“I chose football because I saw more opportunity, but it broke my heart. I still follow soccer; I watched every minute of the World Cup. I like to think I play football like Ronaldinho, with the trick moves and the anticipation.”
This might be taken more seriously by the public if not for his penchant for self-promotion. His publicity stunts through the years have ranged from changing his name to the Spanish word for eight five -his Cincinnati uniform number is 85 -to being a celebrity contestant on Dancing with the Stars last year.
Sporting Kansas City has said Ochocinco has assured the team he’s serious about his latest endeavour, something he’s free to pursue with the NFL embroiled in a work stoppage because of labour issues. If that’s the case, nobody sees the harm.
“You see already the amount of attention it’s gotten,” Zavagnin said. "I’m sure people are questioning whether this is just a publicity stunt or actually being taken very seriously. From our end, we’re not going to waste our time during our season to bring in somebody we feel will be counterproductive to preparing for games.
"We’re taking this seriously and we hope he comes in with the same intentions, and from what we understand, he is coming in with the mindset of putting in a good performance and competing for a spot.
“If the mindset of the player coming in is with a professional attitude and his commitment and effort is at a premium, then I think it will be received in a very positive way. But if the player comes in and treats it like a circus, then I think people will get tired of it pretty quickly. The coaches will, too.” Ochocinco’s presence has the chance to be divisive in the Sporting KC locker-room or at least a distraction. The regular season began with Saturday night’s match against Chivas USA in Carson, Calif.
How Ochocinco fits into a locker-room filled with people who have dedicated their professional lives to soccer will depend on his attitude.
“You don’t get to the top of any sport or have the kind of career he’s had in any professional sport without taking your job seriously, without wanting to compete in everything you do, without working hard,” Sporting midfielder Davy Arnaud said. "As long as he’s coming in and working hard and taking it seriously, which I know he will, the guys will be perfectly fine with it.
“The coaches are always looking to improve the team, so we’re used to this. He’s just another guy that’s coming in to try out, just with a little more attention and a little more buzz about it.”
Ochocinco is a superior athlete to many of Sporting KC’s tryout players. But that will carry him only so far.
“You have to be able to do it all at this level of the game,” Arnaud said. “It’s not enough just to be a good athlete.”
Ochocinco also hasn’t played in an organized soccer game in more than 10 years.
“From a purely athletic standpoint, there’s no question about his ability to get up and down the field,” Zavagnin said. "We don’t even have to bring him in to know he’d pass with his speed. It’s just whether he can adapt to the game over the course of 90 minutes and where his endurance level is.
"The physical component is only part of it. I think we’re all interested in seeing what his abilities are with the ball, his technical ability and his awareness within the game. His abilities to connect with other players on the field will be something we’ll be able to evaluate pretty quickly.
“Soccer is unique in that you’re not working for six seconds and then resting for a minute. It’s a continuous activity for 45 minutes, then you get a 15-minute break and play another 45 minutes. Any elite athlete playing in another sport that would come out and train with our team will understand those demands rather quickly. I don’t think Chad will be the exception to that.”
So more than likely, Ochocinco’s pro soccer career will meet the fate of Michael Jordan’s attempt at baseball. Even then, what’s wrong with that?
“I don’t think anything bad can come from this by any means,” Arnaud said.
“People are talking about soccer and the league and Sporting Kansas City. It can’t be a bad thing when people are talking about it.”
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