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Home Free Back from his European odyssey, Jovan Kirovski is flourishing in MLS

When Los Angeles Galaxy general manager Doug Hamilton signed
Jovan Kirovski in February, he was looking for a striker to
complement the post-up skills of two-time MLS goal-scoring champ
Carlos Ruiz. Judging from the Galaxy's 3-1 drubbing of previously
undefeated Dallas at the Cotton Bowl last Saturday, that's
exactly what Hamilton got. The Burn, which had surrendered just
one goal in its first four games, marked Ruiz with central
defenders Steve Jolley and Cory Gibbs for most of the match,
leaving Kirovski free to roam. The 28-year-old Californian made
Dallas pay for that mistake, scoring twice: once on a header when
he was left alone near the penalty spot and another time on a
nifty turn from just beyond the 18-yard box, the ball skidding
between two defenders and into the lower left corner. "This is
what I was looking for," Kirovski said afterward. "To play week
in and week out. To score goals. To just help a team."

For the better part of a decade Kirovski has been one of the most
enigmatic figures in American soccer. At age 16 he was signed by
Manchester United, and he played in its fabled youth system
alongside David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. Four years later he
seemed on the verge of stardom when he scored five goals in nine
games for the U.S. Olympic team. A $2 million contract with
German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund followed.

But the breakout never came. In stints with five European teams
Kirovski scored just 10 goals and spent the better part of eight
years on the bench. As his club career stagnated, so did his
international career. Though Kirovski played a role in helping
the U.S. qualify for both the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, he failed
to make the final roster either time. "I don't regret it at all,"
he says of his time in Europe, where in addition to Borussia
Dortmund (with whom he won the Champions League in 1997) he
played for Fortuna Cologne, Sporting Lisbon in Portugal, as well
as Crystal Palace and Birmingham City in England. "You're not
going to turn clubs like that down."

Kirovski covets a roster spot for the 2006 World Cup, and he came
back to the U.S. primarily to showcase himself to national team
coach Bruce Arena. He's earned call-ups in both of the Yanks'
home friendlies since his return and will be in the mix when
World Cup qualifying begins in June against Grenada. "We're
really going to find out where Jovan is as a player this year,"
says Arena. "More playing time. That's the bottom line for him.
It's going to help his cause."

Kirovski is certainly helping the Galaxy's cause. With three
goals he's already on his way to surpassing his best season
abroad, when he scored five times in 26 matches for Crystal
Palace three years ago. He and playmaking Austrian midfielder
Andreas Herzog have added punch to an attack that tied for the
league low with just 35 goals last season. After Saturday's win
L.A. was second in MLS with 11 goals. (Ruiz had a league-best
six.) "Carlos likes to stand right in front of the crease," says
Hamilton, "but Jovan would rather pick up the ball and have it on
his feet for awhile. He can run off Carlos."

Beyond the goals, the stat that's most important to Kirovski is
that he has played 535 of a possible 540 minutes this season.
"I'm in my prime," Kirovski says. "I need to be playing every
day. I haven't been this happy in a long time."

COLOR PHOTO: HUY NGUYEN The 28-year-old Kirovski has injected life into the Galaxy attack--and his own career.


Will It Happen for Real?

Plans for a July 31 matchup in Foxboro between MLS All-Stars and
Spanish titan Real Madrid remain up in the air. Real, boasting
such stars as Ronaldo, David Beckham and Zinedine Zidane, is
planning to tour the U.S. in July and August, but with two games
left in the Spanish season the Galacticos are a point ahead of
third-place Barcelona. Only the top two teams in La Liga qualify
automatically for Champions League play next year, so if Real
drops below Barcelona, it would have to play in Champions League
qualifying beginning in August. While that won't necessarily
scupper the MLS game--a league insider says MLS is confident the
match will go on--politics might. One of the candidates up for
the presidency of Real Madrid this summer has vowed to cancel the
tour if he's elected. --M.B.