Michael Owen  U.S. soccerJosh WolffBen Olsen



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It Seems To Me . . .

Comparing Wolff, Olsen and Owen.

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Saturday, September 19, 1998) -- The Chicago Fire's young forward Josh Wolff has had himself a terrific September. Last week, after scoring three goals and adding an assist, he became the first Project-40 player to earn Major League Soccer Player of the Week honors as chosen by the Professional Soccer Reporters Association.

As related by the Chicago Tribune's Bob Foltman, at the post-match news conference following a two-goal, one assist performance by Wolff, Fire coach Bob Bradley was asked to compare Wolff to Liverpool's 18-year-old emerging superstar, Michael Owen. Bradley replied, "Michael Owen is in Liverpool and Josh Wolff is here. They look a little alike. Sometimes there are little glimpses of things (in Wolff) that remind us of Michael Owen.''

During the last half of the MLS season I had been thinking along those same lines, but more about Owen as compared to D.C. United's Ben Olsen, who has not only won a regular position in United's midfield, but has become an important cog in Bruce Arena's attacking scheme.

I have been thinking about Olsen and Owen in two different contexts, both of which are just as valid if you are comparing Wolff and Owen. The first is actually a continuation of what we have examined before in this column. Are United States colleges really preparing players for professional careers -- to use the popular expression -- at the highest level? The second is whether MLS is the place that Olsen and Wolff should remain much longer.

Some things to me seem abundantly clear. First, Olsen and Wolff, and a handful of others like Brian Dunseth and Joey DiGiamarino, represent the future of U.S. Soccer. Second, both Olsen and Wolff are much better players today than they were last season in college, or when they reported for training camp in January. Anyone who has watched the two would say they have learned more, and matured more as players, in one MLS season, than they were able to over their entire college careers. Just looking at the two seems to answer the question once and for all, whether playing with professionals is better preparation than playing in college even at the national championship level.

Comparing Olsen and Wolff with Michael Owen is obviously not a fair comparison because Owen is not simply a good young player, but a genuine prodigy. As he showed in France, and more recently with his hat trick against Newcastle United, at such a very young age he is already a mature and gifted finisher. A more interesting comparison would be Olsen and Wolff with a player perhaps not well-known here in America, Aston Villa's 18-year-old striker Darius Vassell. Last week in a UEFA Cup match against Stronsgodset of Norway, Vassell came on with seven minutes to time, scored twice in injury time, and led Villa to an improbable 3-2 win.

In terms of basic talent the three players, Olsen, Wolff and Vassell, are probably quite similar. Vassell has had better schooling and more experience in competing at a higher level. But even so, Villa coach John Gregory says it may be another season or two before Vassell will be mature enough to be in the starting side, but he is sure it will happen.

Which brings us to the second question: for young players of high quality, should they stick to MLS, perhaps emerging very quickly as stars, or once they have learned about as much as they can given the level of competition in MLS, should they pack their bags and head for Europe?

I know what former U.S. coach Steve Sampson's answer would be. Although he never came out and said it directly, by his actions and decisions it was very clear that he believed a player would be much better off sitting on the bench in Europe than starting, or even starring, in MLS.

I predict that if not this year, then next, Olsen and Wolff will both be faced with this decision. It seems self evident that if they can go to Europe at a high level and play, they will be better off, and so too will be the U.S. national team. But from both a marketing perspective, and from the standpoint of putting the best possible product on the field, MLS will be better off if they stay and become marquee players.

I know one answer is let them go for a couple of years, let them develop in Europe, and then let them come back to star in MLS and the national team for years to come. To that I can only answer with two words: salary cap. If young players like Olsen and Wolff become European-level starters, MLS will never be able to afford them until their value falls as they age and slow down.

This is a real dilemma for MLS and for U.S. Soccer.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.