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 Friday, December 13, 2002 19:34 EST

Touch of Gray

By Marc Connolly [ESPN.com]

Kelly Gray has always been a hard player to figure out.


Kelly Gray's versatility has made him a valuable player at every level.
From the youth level on, his plethora of skills and talents on the soccer field have had coaches second-guessing themselves on where to play him.

If the team lost by a goal, they spent a sleepless night wondering what would have happened if they had played Kelly up front. Yet, had he played striker in a loss, they'd anguish just the same over what effect Kelly would have had if he had played in the back instead.

Frankly, that's the reason why the 21-year-old has played so much in the midfield throughout his career -- to have him as many places as possible during a match.

"When I was younger, I was always a forward," said Gray, back home in San Jose after spending a few weeks in Europe with the Nike Project-40 team playing reserve squads from the German Bundesliga and Dutch Honor Division. "But then my high school coach thought I'd be a really good defender. From there, my club coach would mainly play me at forward, but then sometimes in the defense."

Since then, he's had some of the best soccer minds in this country searching for his best position.

It was L.A. Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid that saw Gray play as a defender and told his coach Wolfgang Suhnholz for the U-20 National Team.

Yet, at the same time, Clive Charles was playing Gray in the midfield and at forward for his Portland Pilots. Many times, he switched on the fly throughout the game.

Wherever Gray lined up, he excelled. When he was up top or in an offensive position in the midfield, whether it was in college or with the U-20s, he racked up points.

At Portland, he was in the team's top three in scoring his final three seasons. In his two years with the U-20s, he was second on the team in goals scored (12). Not a bad stat considering that players such as Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Kyle Martino were amongst his teammates.

This sort of versatility helped make him the fifth overall selection in last year's MLS Draft, when he was picked by the Chicago Fire.

Bob Bradley, now with the MetroStars, was forced to fully utilize Gray's abilities and use him like an expensive Swiss Army Knife since his star-studded side was riddled with injuries and depleted with National Team call-ups throughout the 2002 season.

It seemed like every time you saw Gray in the lineup, he was in a different spot.

"I think the only positions I didn't play were goalkeeper and left mid," said Gray, who scored two goals and had five assists in his 25 games played. "I even played up top in one or two games."

That all seems to be changing now, though. Now gearing up for Olympic Team camp in January and his second season with the Fire, the two coaches involved in his life both see him as -- are you ready for this? -- a central defender.

Glenn "Mooch" Myernick, the 2004 Olympic Team coach and assistant to Bruce Arena with the National Team, played him as a central defender and as a defensive midfielder in each of the six games he played with the Project-40 side overseas.

"While I think that versatility is certainly a plus for him, I think he needs to find a position that suits his qualities and start to refine those abilities in one area," said Myernick, who coached the Colorado Rapids from 1997-2000. "I think he needs to have the game in front of him. I see him primarily in the middle of the back, and it doesn't matter with him whether it's in a back four or a back three. He sees the field very well and is good in the air."

In Europe, the 6-foot-2 and lanky Gray played as either the lone centerback or as a defensive midfielder in a 3-5-2 in the first five games, and then was paired with San Jose's Eddie Robinson as central defenders in a 4-4-2 for the final match of the trip against PSV Eindhoven, who Gray said was the toughest opponent by far.

"I started the trip with 22 guys, but had a couple of injuries and Nick Downing left to be in Joey Franchino's wedding," said Myernick, whose squad went 2-3-1 during the intense 10-day trip. "Between injuries and playing three days in a row, we needed to share the minutes amongst the guys, so I ended up playing Kelly in both spots. And he did well in both spots."

What will be intriguing is what will happen with the Fire. In the past, this club was known for its 3-5-2 under Bradley. Perhaps Sarachan will switch to a 4-4-2 and use Gray with budding National Team standout Carlos Bocanegra.

"It'll be decided once we get into preseason," said Gray, a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year in 2002. "If we're not cutting it with three in the back, then we'll throw four in the back. I'm not really worried about it. Hopefully, I'll find my spot somewhere, but I am hoping it's as a centerback or as a right back."

After pausing for a moment, Gray countered that thought.

"I really don't care where it is," he said. "I just want to be on the field. With the Fire, my big goal is to get myself a starting spot at a position and not just being thrown into wherever we need help. If Mooch sees me at centerback, and I know Dave Sarachan sees me there too, then it'll be a really tough job to win a spot at that position. I'm just hoping that I'll be given a shot at it."

One might think that Gray is one of those young players in MLS that's on the cusp of getting into the National Team picture such as Brad Davis, Edson Buddle and Santino Quaranta.

With Arena expected to bring in more new faces to his camp next month, Gray thinks his best shot is through impressing Coach Myernick in early January.

"I'd love to get called into it, but to tell you the truth, I don't know what Bruce is thinking in terms of me," said Gray. "A lot of it will have to do with how I play in this upcoming Olympic Team camp."

Myernick agrees.

"Kelly's road to being looked at in the National Team picture runs through Chicago and the Olympic Team first," he said. "He needs to prove himself on a more consistent basis with the Olympic Team. He has the potential to get a full look by the National Team, but I think he has some proving work to do first."

Gray realizes this, as well, and has his mind set on being in the Olympics as much as anything, perhaps as the team's captain since he is the current armband-wearer of the U-23 team and recent nominee for U.S. Soccer/Chevy Young Male Athlete of the Year for his performance in the three-game Madeira International Tournament in Portugal last February.

"When I was younger, it was always the dream of being on the National Team," he said. "I'd lie in bed and imagine wearing the jersey. Once that was realized (in 2000 with the U-20s), the Olympics have been a dream of mine. I'll do whatever I can to be on that final roster."

Even if that means being shifted all over the park once again.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at shaketiller10@yahoo.com.

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