Once discarded by MLS, Ante Razov is a red-hot scorer for the
In early 1998, Ante Razov, a former star forward at UCLA, just
about gave up on soccer. No one wanted him--none of the first-
or second-division clubs he had tried out for in Germany and the
Netherlands, not a single MLS team. When Razov's agent had
called the MLS office in '97 to recommend his client for the
February 1998 supplemental draft, league bigwigs refused. Who
wanted an inexperienced player who had been cut twice by the Los
Angeles Galaxy? "I almost went back to school," says Razov. "I
was just waiting, hoping something would happen."
A little over a year later Razov, 25, is a starter for the
defending champion Chicago Fire and the runaway leader in the
MLS scoring race, with six goals and three assists in four
games. He's further proof that MLS (its occasional misjudgment
of talent notwithstanding) can be a developmental launchpad for
talented young Americans. Only three weeks into the 1999 season
Razov became the first player in league history to have three
straight multigoal games, and he's quickly turning into the
anti-Kevin Garnett, a budding star who this season will earn--no
Razov's fortunes, however, have improved vastly from a year ago,
when they could be summed up by the oxymoron unemployed striker.
His odyssey began in March 1996, when he was invited for a
tryout by Croatian club Dynamo Zagreb. Croatia is a special
place to Razov, who was born in Whittier, Calif., to Croatian
immigrants and often spent his vacations in their homeland
visiting extended family. He returned, however, to a country
ravaged by war. The previous year the Yugoslav army had killed
18 of Razov's relatives, including an uncle and his maternal
grandparents. "As soon as he arrived there was this sadness,"
says his father, Mile. "He couldn't bear it." Eight days later
Ante flew back to California.
Although Razov has had supporters--former U.S. coach Bora
Milutinovic saw enough potential to play him against Uruguay in
1995--he never earned the faith of Galaxy coaches, who used him
in only 11 games during the 1996 and '97 MLS seasons. After he
failed to catch on in Europe, Razov's career appeared to be
over, at least until Fire coach Bob Bradley took a chance and
brought him into last year's spring camp as a non-roster invitee.
Razov scored twice in his first scrimmage, earned a starting
spot by May and went on to lead the expansion Fire with 10
goals. Thanks to his surgically accurate left foot and penchant
for positioning himself to score opportunistic goals, he got a
recall to the national team last November as part of coach Bruce
Arena's youth movement. "I knew Ante would be a great player if
he was just given the chance," says Fire midfielder Chris Armas.
"He's fast and strong, and he makes smart runs. Not all forwards
understand the game well. Ante does."
Not that Razov is ready to stand beside Ronaldo and Michael Owen
in the hierarchy of strikers. While noting that Razov has
matured this season, curbing his tendency to drop too far back
toward midfield when he should be attacking the goal, Bradley
says Razov is still learning how to contribute without scoring.
To that end Fire captain and veteran Polish midfielder Peter
Nowak, 34, has taken on Razov as a student. "Ante has a great
future, and sometimes he steps in heaven," Nowak says, "but then
we need to bring him back to the ground."
If Nowak doesn't keep Razov grounded, then his paycheck surely
will. Before this season MLS offered to double his salary if he
agreed to extend his contract for two years, to 2002. Razov
refused, figuring he could earn much more as a free agent after
next season, either in MLS or abroad. That's probably true, but
for now he's thinking twice about going to movies or buying the
latest reggae CD or eating out. "It's a week-to-week thing," he
says, "and Chicago's an expensive city."
Before last Saturday's 1-0 loss to Dallas, Chicago's only defeat
in its first four games, Razov bought an Acura Legend. Used, of
course. The 1992 model is hardly extravagant, but it's a smart
investment: efficient, with an understated style and surprising
acceleration. In other words, it's a lot like its owner.
U.S. Women's Team
KELLER DESERVES A SHOT
Before U.S. women's coach Tony DiCicco announces in mid-May his
20-player roster for the World Cup, he needs to deal with a
nettlesome problem: His team hasn't been scoring much. During
last month's Algarve Cup in Portugal the Americans lost 2-1 to
China and drew 1-1 with Sweden. In a 3-0 win at the Rose Bowl on
March 28, they scored only once in the first 85 minutes against
Mexico, a team the U.S. had routed 9-0 last September.
What's DiCicco to do? Let's say he could bring in a World Cup
veteran who was the second-leading U.S. goal scorer in 1998,
with 14 in 23 games; who had the Americans' best rate of
production last year, averaging one goal every 68.2 minutes she
was on the field; and who in 46 appearances for the national
team has piled up 18 goals, more than stars Mia Hamm, Kristine
Lilly and Tiffeny Milbrett each had in her first 46 games.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Apparently not, because the
player in question is forward Debbie Keller, 24, who wasn't even
invited to the 26-player residency camp in Orlando in January.
Keller, along with Melissa Jennings, filed a $12 million sexual
harassment suit last August against former U.S. coach Anson
Dorrance (SI, Dec. 7, 1998), who also coached Keller and nine
current national teamers at North Carolina.
The immediate issue isn't the validity of Keller's suit; it's
whether she deserves a fair chance to win a spot on the American
World Cup team. Her only participation with the team this year
has been a token seven-day tryout in March, which took place
shortly after Keller's lawyers notified U.S. Soccer that she
would be filing for arbitration to seek to be included in the
full residency camp. (A ruling on her complaint could come in
early May.) DiCicco has said that Keller's exclusion isn't
related to the lawsuit; instead he offers two reasons for her
absence: her lack of speed limits her versatility, and his
desire to give younger, less experienced players a chance
because Keller never established herself as a starter.
Nonsense. Keller's 1998 stats speak for themselves, and she has
enjoyed far more success than, say, forward Danielle Fotopoulos,
who's on the pre-Cup roster despite being only one year younger
and less productive than Keller. (Fotopoulos has scored just
once in seven games with the U.S. this year.) What's more,
DiCicco refused last week to elaborate on Keller's on-field
deficiencies, giving support to Keller's charge that her absence
is, in fact, related to the suit.
It's simple. The U.S. needs an offensive spark, and there's no
reason to believe Keller has lost her touch. She joined the
Danish club Fortuna Hjorring late last month and scored in her
debut, a 3-2 away win against HEI on April 1. DiCicco has
justified his decision by saying he's doing "what's best for the
team." If he really meant that, he'd call up Keller for the
Americans' four games this month before making his final cuts.
U.S. Under-20 Team
THE VALUE OF CREATURE COMFORTS
Never let it be said that the U.S. Soccer Federation allows its
teams to enter a tournament unprepared--at least off the field.
When the under-20 Americans arrived in Kano, Nigeria, for the
World Youth Championship last week, they came with a survival
kit for teenagers: three Nintendo 64 systems, a VCR with two
dozen movies and their own San Francisco chef, who can do
anything from gumbo to barbecue.
Don't laugh. The pad enhancers are welcome slices of home in an
impoverished nation where the athletes have been warned not to
drink the water and where communication with the outside world
is difficult. (The Americans' hotel, shared with three other
teams, had only nine telephone lines.) "None of us are too
homesick," defender Nick Garcia said last week, "and that's a
good thing going into these games."
He had a point. The U.S. qualified for the tournament's second
round by upsetting England 1-0 and then defeating Cameroon 3-1
on Sunday. Perhaps the Americans' success had something to do
with the movie they watched last Friday night at the hotel:
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT The 25-year-old Razov is the only MLS player to have three straight multigoal matches.
COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK The U.S. attack is struggling, but Keller, a proven scorer, hasn't gotten the call.