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Goal.commentary: Major League Soccer's Renaissance Men

By Seth Vertelney

When the story of the 2009 MLS season is written, it's quite possible
it will be titled “The Year of the Rookie.”  Freshman like Steve
Zakuani, Chris Pontius, Omar Gonzalez, Rodney Wallace and Stefan Frei, among a host of others have immediately assumed prominent roles with their respective clubs.

There is, however, another subplot which has emerged in the season's
first month: The rejuvenation of a  number of veteran former U.S.
internationals.  These players have all reached lofty heights in their
careers, before hitting a crossroads in recent years due to age,
injury or ineffectiveness.  However, the following four players have
all experienced something of a renaissance in the early going of the
2009 season:

Ben Olsen:  Of this list, Olsen was probably the closest to being
completely done with soccer.  As recently as this year's training
camp, Olsen was considering retirement after playing just 15 minutes
in 2008 due to a host of surgeries performed on both his ankles.  The
31 year-old was in and out of the U.S. national team picture from 1998
to 2007, earning 37 caps.  Now, after a lost 2008, Olsen is just happy
to be back on the field.  After making his first start in 17 months in
the season opener, Olsen scored his first goal in 19 months on Friday,
heading in an injury-time equalizer against New England.  Olsen has
been known primarily as an attacking player for most of his career,
but his ankle troubles have forced him into a defensive midfield role,
where his tenacity and distribution have provided a spark for United.

Clint Mathis:  Most fans remember Mathis as a brash, mohawked striker who scored a cold-blooded goal right into the teeth of the Korean crowd to earn the U.S. a 1-1 draw versus South Korea in the 2002 World Cup.  Mathis generated significant interest from top European clubs after that tournament, but didn't make it across the pond until 2004, when he signed with Bundesliga side Hannover 96.  He spent an up-and-down season and a half in Germany before heading back stateside and embarking on an MLS odyssey which started in Salt Lake in 2005 and made stops in Colorado, New York and Los Angeles before finally returning to Salt Lake in mid 2008.  Somewhere along the ride, Mathis lost his goalscoring touch- he has just 11 goals since his 2005 return to MLS after scoring 33 times for the MetroStars between 2000 and 2003.  Now 32, Mathis has found new life as an outside midfielder for Real Salt Lake.  He started every game for RSL during their playoff run last year and has looked particularly spry in 2009, starting each game and thriving as a distributor and playmaker on the flank.

Cory Gibbs: To say Gibbs has had some injury issues is like saying GM
has had some profitability issues.  Gibbs has been so star-crossed, I
hesitate to even put him in this column.  I am actually knocking on
wood right now as I type this.  Gibbs headed straight for Europe out
of college in 2001, spending three seasons in Germany with St. Pauli.
After impressing with the Dallas Burn in 2003, and establishing
himself with the U.S. national side, he returned to Europe, this time
signing with Feyenoord of the Dutch Eredivisie. 

His injury woes began in 2005, when he missed six months with a knee issue.  After rehabbing, he appeared in line to play a prominent defensive role for the 2006 World Cup side, but just two weeks before the tournament started, Gibbs suffered a setback with his knee.  His World Cup was over before it ever began.  In the fall of 2006, Gibbs signed with Charlton of the English Premier League but incredibly, further
setbacks with his knee followed by an unrelated foot injury kept him
out of action for two full seasons.

Gibbs played in exactly zero games in two years with Charlton before signing with the Colorado Rapids in August 2008.  Gibbs has managed to stay healthy since his arrival in Colorado, helping solidify the Rapids' back line and showcasing the talent that makes him one of the league's finest defenders when healthy.  With the Rapids off to a strong start and
Gibbs returning to the national team setup, things are finally
starting to look sunny for a player who hopes he still has a bright
future.

Zach Thornton: "The Beast" is back!  The 35 year-old goalkeeper, an
MLS original, was a mainstay in the Chicago goal for nearly a decade
before he was traded to Colorado before the 2007 season.  After only
playing 32 minutes in a season-and-a-half with the Rapids and Red
Bulls, Thornton was given new life after a trade sent him to
keeper-famished Chivas USA last August.  After Brad Guzan's departure to Aston Villa, Thornton split time in goal with Dan Kennedy and started both legs of the Goats' first round playoff series, which
ended in defeat at the hands of Real Salt Lake.  Thornton became the
default starter this year after a preseason knee injury to Kennedy and
if he continues his recent run of form, he won't have to worry about a
time-split upon Kennedy's return.

After giving up a soft goal in the opening day victory against Colorado, Thornton has been immense, leading Chivas USA to a blistering 4-0-1 start while conceding just two goals in five games.  Success is not foreign to the man they call The Beast- he is a five-time all-star and former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year- but few could have anticipated his seamless transition from a near two-year layoff to a starting role.  Fewer still would have anticipated said transition with these (albeit early) stats: Thornton currently leads the league in wins, is tied for the league lead in
shutouts and sits second in saves and goals-against average.

Seth Vertelney is a regular contributor to Goal.com.