The knight of Columbus

MLS: Young, speedy and elusive Brian West, a Centennial graduate who is adapting just fine to playing on the wing, has developed into a surprising playoff star for the Crew.

November 07, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Ben Olsen, D.C. United's flashy, wunderkind midfielder, made the papers and TV for his winning goal in last Sunday's 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference playoffs.

Brian West, who learned soccer in Columbia and has seen Olsen's fancy step-overs and related trickery more closely than most, was replaced at RFK Stadium by a Crew substitute in the 63rd minute, tired, unsung, hardly a factor offensively. Funny, only nine days earlier, his heroics had plopped his picture in the paper.

Note this, though: The elusive Olsen didn't get the ball much until about five minutes after West left, thanks in part to West's speed and defensive positioning -- grueling work fans often overlook.

Adapting to such subtleties of playing on the wing is a new experience this year for West, always a front-runner before. But adapt he is doing, changing from bench-riding youngster to substitute to starter -- and playoff star -- for the Crew.

"Brian's coming along, just like we expected him to," said Crew coach Tom Fitzgerald. "He has tons of speed, he's getting better technically, and tactically, he's developing. I expect him to be a very important part of our team for a lot of years to come."

Though West had just two goals in two seasons going into this year's MLS playoffs, he set up the game-winner in Columbus' opening, first-round game against Tampa Bay, then scored the 1-0, series-clincher against the Mutiny on Oct. 22.

He and Olsen are likely to experience more of one another when Columbus faces elimination in the Eastern Conference finals at 1 p.m. today in its new stadium.

Fitzgerald, whose team is loaded with more physically imposing talent at forward, said he moved the 5-foot-9, 155-pound West back because "his speed out wide is much, much better for us. I [also] think that's where he's going to end up playing for the Olympic team, and it's important for him to develop in that scheme of things."

Which surprised West, a forward on the U.S. Under-23 national team, the core of next year's American entry in the Olympics in Sydney, Australia. He'll find out more about midfield when Olympic team training begins Jan. 5 in Chula Vista, Calif.

"I know he can play wide," said Clive Charles, the Under-23 coach. "But he's played forward for us. How he'll be used is just one more thing we'll look at in January. But Brian's a great kid with lightning speed, and I expect him to do well for us."

West, 1996 All-Metro Player of the Year, was lethal as a forward at Centennial High for then-coach Bill Stara, whom he called "a great teacher." At forward for Virginia, a year behind Olsen, West put in 13 goals and passed for 24 more in 46 Cavaliers games.

"Playing this new position, midfield, getting back and playing defense -- it's a lot more running than I'm used to," West said. "That, and reading the game better -- when to pressure and when to lay back -- and having the stamina to do it all."

But he's delighted to be starting, important if he is to make the full national team, his dream two years ago when he turned pro after his sophomore season in Charlottesville. His decision gave him an entry-level paycheck plus escrowed money that lets him nibble away at a college degree -- and he is one of few "Project 40" players, those who swapped college eligibility for MLS contracts, to do so.

"I still have about a year and a half left," said West, majoring in information systems at Ohio State. "I'm going to have to slow it down next year [because of the Olympics,] but the goal is still to finish." Plus, he promised his parents, who live in Laurel, he'd get his degree.

Pro ball, West said, "has been a pleasant surprise, definitely fun, even though it's hard staying motivated over such a long season. I'm only 21 and I'm starting. I'm improving my game. I can't imagine doing anything else for a living."

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