Thornton Pondering His Next Move
CHICAGO (July 7, 2004) - Chicago Fire fans were probably surprised, and more than a bit concerned, when MLS's winningest goalkeeper Zach Thornton decided to play for Benfica in Portugal. Well, he's back...just not with the Fire. Thornton got called in for the U.S. Men's National Team's match against Poland on Sunday, July 11 at Soldier Field, and for the past few days has been remembering his Chicago roots. Between catching up with friends and practice, Thornton sat down with ussoccer.com to talk about how the Benfica opportunity came about, why he took it, how it's going being back in Chicago and where he's planning on playing next year.
July 7, 2004
Zach Thornton: "I took a week in Portugal after the season to tie up loose ends and negotiate a contract. By the time I got back to Chicago, I only had a week or two off before I started a pre-season running program. I've been working on that, getting a little vacation, and catching up with people. I just started training with the Fire last week."
ussoccer.com: Your departure for Benfica seemed to catch a lot of people by surprise. How did the opportunity come about?
ZT: "It happened very quickly. I was with the national team in January, and at the time I was negotiating with the Fire. Dan Gaspar, the goalkeeper coach at Benfica, called and asked my status and whether I was interested in coming over. It was a tough decision for me. I had been in Chicago for a long time, and had a lot of success. Like I said, it was a tough decision, but definitely the right one."
ussoccer.com: It's interesting that you still hold that view despite only seeing playing time with the reserves...
ZT: It was a great experience. Benfica is a huge club, and as far as my soccer career goes it was one of my biggest moments. Beyond soccer, I was living in a different culture by myself, which meant I had to get by on my own day-to-day. It was a lot of fun."
ussoccer.com: Did you know going in what your opportunities to play were going to be like?
ZT: "They made it very clear that they had a number one 'keeper who was young and probably the future for them. He was struggling at the time, and their number two, an Argentine international who had been there for a while, was injured. Unlucky for me when I arrived, the first string keeper starting doing well again and the second string wasn't as hurt as they thought. It would have been difficult for the manager to make a change. We were eight points out of second place, and wound up with a place in the UEFA Champions League and the Portuguese Cup title. I'd certainly rather be part of a winning situation than a sinking ship."
ussoccer.com: Many Americans who have gone on to play overseas describe the daily pressure of playing at a big club. How did you find the atmosphere?
ZT: I'd say pressure is a great way to describe it. I got a taste of that when I trained with Brad Friedel at Blackburn, where you could see guys have to come out every day and perform. At Benfica, there are between 50-200 people, both media and fans, at every training session, and they are watching intensely. There's no light days, especially for a third string goalkeeper and all the other players not getting regular playing time, because you have hard sessions every day. Those types of environments can only you make you better as a player."
ussoccer.com: We would imagine your Portuguese wasn't too fluent when you went over either. Any struggles off the field?
ZT: I learned you have to patient. Once you leave the house, everything can be a challenge. Even getting gas at the station isn't easy. If you don't have patience, you could easily get frustrated."
ussoccer.com: Speaking of patience, tell us about the playing experiences you did have ...
ZT: I played in six reserve games before the end of the season. Then I suited up for the last game of the year with the first team. We had beaten Sporting the week before, and needed a tie or a win to get second place. There were 65,000 people in the stadium that day, and when I walked out on the field for warmups they were cheering for me, and I hadn't played a minute! Despite not playing, I definitely felt a part of the team. With a big club, it's much tighter amongst the players because there is so much outside pressure. The minute I walked in the locker room the guys were great to me."
ussoccer.com: If you don't mind us saying, you're looking pretty svelte these days. What did they have you eating over there?
ZT: You eat a ton of fish. But you have to be careful when you're ordering, because sometimes the whole fish comes out, head and everything. I'm not that European yet! When I first arrived, I wasn't in the best of shape because we were in the offseason. I didn't have a day off for two weeks. After training, I'd do extra running, ride a bike, and things like that. It wasn't like the coach forced me to do it. But the expectations for everyone are very high."
ussoccer.com: Now for the hard question. What's next for Zach Thornton?
ZT: "I have to wait and see. I still have a couple options in Portugal. Hopefully now that the European Championship is over we can work something out in the next week. I would definitely like to go back to Portugal or somewhere else in Europe. But if I come back to MLS, I'll enjoy that as well."
ussoccer.com: Even though you've been here before, you must have been pleased to get the call from Bruce...
ZT: "I was kind of surprised to be called in. I still feel like I can contribute. I can only speak for myself, but it's always an honor to be called into the national team. I always feel good about getting selected."
ussoccer.com: And you get to do it back in your old stomping grounds as well ...
ZT: "I really believe Chicago has the best fans in the league. I had a lot of success here, and I really enjoy playing at Soldier Field. It's great to see the guys again. We haven't missed a beat. It seems like I never left."