23 Aug 2012
- Written by Brian Straus (Sporting News)
- Hits: 503
Among the 13 players who appeared for the Columbus Crew in the 2008 MLS Cup final, only four remain.
One, goalkeeper Will Hesmer, has been sidelined all season with a hip injury. The others—Chad Marshall, Eddie Gaven and Danny O'Rourke—have watched a club that won a league title and back-to-back Supporters Shields get dismantled.
Teams in transition need players who are humble and hardworking and have high-level pedigree, and in Chris Birchall, the rebuilding Crew found both. Born and raised in the quiet suburbs south of Stoke-on-Trent in England's West Midlands, Birchall has put together an improbably impressive career that, fittingly, has had its brush with Hollywood.
Speaking to Sporting News recently, Birchall laughed when asked if he was soccer's Forrest Gump. That comparison has nothing to do with the midfielder's intellect. Birchall, 28, is engaging, witty and "very smart," according to Columbus coach Robert Warzycha.
Instead, it's a reflection of the fact that, like the fictional shrimp baron, Birchall has parlayed his dedication, positive disposition, daring and luck into soccer experiences that even he has trouble explaining.
Gump, from the backwoods of Alabama, somehow wound up playing football for Bear Bryant, meeting President John. F. Kennedy and playing ping pong in Beijing.
Birchall, an anonymous player toiling in the English third division, wound up starting for a foreign country at the 2006 World Cup and winning an MLS championship alongside his nation's most iconic player.
"Especially when I go home for Christmas or when I went back and was training with [my old club Port Vale last spring], people are just asking me about it every day. They couldn't believe I'd been with L.A. Galaxy for three years," Birchall said. "I grew up in Stafford and Stoke, and especially from a town like that, people just can't believe I've played football with David Beckham. It's bizarre for them. They can see him on TV!"
When Birchall tells the story of his improbable career, most anecdotes are accompanied by an "I almost couldn't believe it" disclaimer.
His life veered from the predictable in the spring of 2005 as he was finishing his 12th season at Port Vale, the local club he'd joined when he was 9 years old. Shortly after learning he was eligible to represent Trinidad and Tobago because his mother was born in Port-of-Spain (her parents were there working for a newspaper), Birchall was invited to train with the Soca Warriors ahead of two World Cup qualifiers that June.
"I can only imagine what they were thinking. 'Who's this white guy coming over? He's not from the country,' " Birchall said. "I would be the same. But the guys really took to me in training. Wherever I am, at a new club or a new team, I just try to be as polite as I can and hopefully the personality comes out and they like who you are.
"That was the one time in my life I've been homesick. I was in a training camp for two months. I'd never stepped in the country before."
Birchall had trouble with the local "lingo," and he missed his family back in England. But Trinidad's Dutch coach, Leo Beenhakker, realized Birchall was an asset.
"There were a lot of skillful players, but there wasn't really the fight and the graft. I think that's what I added and that's what really settled me in. I knew what my job was. It was to fight in midfield," he recalled.
Birchall started both qualifiers and helped Trinidad eventually earn a berth in a playoff against Bahrain for the 32nd and final spot at the 2006 World Cup. On Nov. 12, 2005 in Port-of-Spain—with his parents in attendance—Birchall scored on a late, long-range blast that lifted T&T to a 1-1 draw with the favored Bahrainis. In that iconic moment, with Hasely Crawford Stadium rocking, he transcended his modest roots and stood out for reasons that had nothing to do with his color or his accent. Four days later, Trinidad beat Bahrain in Riffa and was on its way to the World Cup for the first time.
Birchall said the seven-month wait was agonizing and that he was convinced that "something was going to happen. Something was going to go wrong."
But on June 10, 2006 in Dortmund, Birchall was in the starting 11 as Trinidad faced Sweden on the planet's biggest stage. The Soca Warriors were heavily outshot and played nearly a full half with 10 men, but they held on for the draw. Five days later, Birchall and Trinidad kept mighty England at bay for more than 80 minutes before succumbing 2-0.
"I don't think any of them recognized me," he said of the likes of Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. "They probably heard the story, but I'd just been playing in (the third division) with Port Vale. ... They probably didn't have a clue who most of us were."
Birchall couldn't even find an English compatriot willing to trade jerseys after the match.
"They wouldn't swap," he said. "You don't want to go over and make a fool of yourself."
Birchall's World Cup experience made him an attractive commodity, and following the tournament he moved on to second-division Coventry City. But there was just one season of stability. As Coventry burned through coaches, Birchall wound up bouncing around the U.K. on loan to several clubs.
The English might not have appreciated his World Cup contributions, but Bruce Arena did. The U.S. national team's coach that summer had taken over at the L.A. Galaxy in the summer of 2008 and valued the grit and commitment he'd seen from Birchall in Germany. L.A., straining under the expectations and friction that followed Beckham's blockbuster signing in 2007, needed the sort of role players that help establish championship foundations.
Birchall signed in 2009 and started a combined 41 MLS games in '10 and '11 as L.A. surged to the top of the league. He was on the field at The Home Depot Center last November when Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan combined to create the goal that would clinch the Galaxy's MLS championship.
"Just to be on the same field as those three, I'm thinking to myself, 'Should I really be here? Am I good enough to be out here with these guys?' But the way that team went last season, we were all in a certain position to do a certain job," Birchall said.
He wasn't able to reach an agreement with L.A. to return this season and headed back to Staffordshire, expecting to re-sign with Port Vale. But the club's financial issues scuttled the deal, and soon another coach who'd noticed Birchall's peculiar knack for making the most of his opportunities came calling—Warzycha.
"You love to have a guy like him on the field," the Columbus coach told Sporting News. "He works so hard. He plays with his heart. It doesn't matter who he's playing against. Whether he's playing for the reserves or at the World Cup, his intensity is the same. I always admired him when he was with the Galaxy."
That intensity can be a problem—Birchall said L.A. teammates occasionally were offended by his training-ground tackles ("Sometimes they need to be reminded of what it's about," he explained)—but it also has taken the unassuming player forged in the depths of the English game to within touching distance of soccer's elite.
Birchall said he loves Columbus. It reminds him of home.
"Ten, 15 minutes outside of the city, you're in the suburbs and there's some nice countryside and that's similar to what it's been for me in Stafford and Stoke growing up," he said. "It's a lot more laid back, a lot more friendly people. I've really been taken back by the generosity of the people in my neighborhood. I'm loving my time here."
On Wednesday night, Birchall started his 10th consecutive match for the Crew, which beat Toronto FC and is now 3-1-2 over the past six games and 9-8-6 overall. He has become a central midfield fixture for a club seeking continuity and now is looking for the same in his own life.
Trinidad already has been eliminated from the 2014 World Cup, and Birchall's wife and young son are making a home in Central Ohio. Even Forrest Gump settled down by the end of the movie.
"I think the guys and the coaching staff are surprised how much I like the city and how much I've settled in," he said, adding that his contract enters an option year in 2014. "I hope I stay here."