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New York Times Features Portland Alum Heath Pearce

2/22/2006

By JACK BELL
New York Times

Whether it was a business decision or a personal decision, Heath Pearce knew that to succeed in European soccer, playing is not the thing, it is the only thing.

"There were a lot of worries when I went to Denmark," Pearce, a 21-year-old defender from Modesto, Calif., said in a telephone interview. "I was leaving my friends and family for a whole new life to live in a different country. It was a chance to start over with a clean slate as a nobody and has been a positive opportunity. Going to Europe was the right step for me, especially the decision to go to a small club. It may have been questionable in some people's mind, but I think I made the right decision because I'm playing every week and that got me on to Bruce's radar."

The Bruce that Pearce was referring to is Bruce Arena, the manager of the United States national team. As Arena prepares his team to play in its fifth straight World Cup, American players are well aware that Arena is partial to guys who play regularly.

Pearce left the University of Portland after his junior year and found only modest interest from teams in Major League Soccer. He took a leap of faith, signing one year ago with FC Nordsjaelland of the Danish Superligaen. With the Danish league in an extended winter break (from early December until next month) Pearce was able to join the six-week national team training camp in California.

Last Sunday, Pearce, a left-side defender, started his first game for the United States national team, playing 90 minutes in a 4-0 victory over Guatemala in Frisco, Tex. His chances of being one of the 23 players on Arena's final roster for the tournament in Germany might be slim, with competition from players like Eddie Lewis, Carlos Bocanegra and Todd Dunivant, but Pearce recognizes that he is making an investment in the future - his future.

"For me to achieve, I need to play every week for my club," Pearce said. "It's not about chasing a contract or being at a club like Manchester United and sitting on the bench and then being loaned out. That is not a good situation. I have to trust my ability and right now I can't be chasing the money. I think most guys would give up the money for a spot in the starting lineup."

Pearce made his second appearance for the United States on Sunday (he came on as a substitute against Scotland in Glasgow in November) and was the youngest starter for the American team. He is quick, agile and strong, and plays a position that is often difficult to fill.

"I think I bring a lot to the table because I'm able to go forward and defend, I'm a modern outside back," he said. "These days the left back has the ball more than nearly all the other players on the field."

In his own mind, Pearce feels he always has got something to prove. When he was part of the under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. (the United States federation selects the top players in the country and sends them to the IMG Academy for intensive training and schooling), Pearce was the only one not picked as a Parade All-American.

"I was left out," he said. "It was really crushing. I was overlooked. It was a difficult situation."

Now he has turned that slight into motivation.

"Obviously, I would like part of the team that goes to Germany," he said. "But I could also be the first player called back after this World Cup for the next go-round. Realistically, I see myself as the future left back, but I also want to make my presence felt now."

At present, the United States has three matches on its schedule through mid-April: against Poland (March 1 in Kaiserslautern, Germany), Germany (March 22 in Dortmund, Germany) and Jamaica (April 11 in Cary, N.C.).

"All I wanted was a chance to prove myself for the immediate future, and I think I've done that," Pearce said.