Thornton at the top of his game Loyola grad ranks 1st among MLS keepers

July 17, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Edgewood's Zach Thornton must have wondered a couple years ago if he had chosen the right occupation -- pro soccer goalkeeper -- after graduating from Loyola College.

His career immediately began a pattern of ups and downs abrupt enough to try any athlete's confidence. But Thornton has grown from it all and will arrive at RFK Stadium at 3 p.m. tomorrow for a nationally televised game (chs. 2, 7) against D.C. United as Major League Soccer's No. 1-ranked keeper for the Chicago Fire.

Whether he starts, though, in this first trip near home as a regular is in doubt. Coach Bob Bradley said he hadn't made up his mind about which keeper -- Thornton or Jorge Campos -- will start against D.C. United.

When Thornton left Loyola in 1994 after All-America performances in soccer and lacrosse, he was up. As a senior, he had led the nation with 14 soccer shutouts, 11 in a row. He played for the U.S. soccer teams in Argentina and Japan in the Pan American and World University Games, respectively. He was drafted by the new NewYork/New Jersey MetroStars and led its first MLS win, blocking four of five shootout attempts.

Farther up: He started seven times as the 1996 U.S. Olympic team took form.

Then, way down: He was cut just before that summer's Olympics began, replaced by Kasey Keller, an emerging star in England who reached celebrity status as this year's U.S. World Cup keeper.

Down farther: Tony Meola, the U.S. World Cup team's captain in 1994, replaced him in the MetroStars' goal. Thornton rode the bench for two seasons, getting only three more starts, the last a win against D.C. United. Last winter, the MetroStars exposed him to MLS's expansion draft.

Thornton Up: Bradley, an assistant Olympic coach, became the expansion Chicago Fire's new coach and drafted Thornton.

Way up: He's played more minutes in goal than only Meola, who is ranked ninth overall. Thornton is at or near the top in all of MLS's goalkeeping categories except one. In mid-June, he was voted MLS's Player of the Week.

In the stat that matters most, goals allowed, Thornton's 1.00 again leads the pack. He's tops, too, in shutouts with six and is tied with the Los Angeles Galaxy's Kevin Hartman for most wins, 13. Thornton has developed quickly as a sparkplug on MLS's surprise team of the year, which had a near-record 11-game win streak broken last week with him out because of a concussion from being undercut in a U.S. Open Cup win on July 6. The Fire is second (13 wins, 6 losses) in MLS's Western Conference, six points behind the even-hotter Galaxy (15-3).

Nevertheless, this D.C. United game may mark another career ** crossroads. Despite his numbers, yet a third high-profile keeper seems likely to give Thornton more bench time.

This time, it's Campos, the Mexican superstar who has spent most of this MLS season on national-team duty and who was outstanding in the World Cup. Campos rejoined the Fire on Monday.

"It's not something I can control, so I'm not going to worry about it," said Thornton, 24. "I'll just have to keep working hard."

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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