Houston legend returns to help shape the future of MLS
At the dawn of a new MLS season, Kris Heneage explains how Houston Dynamo are welcoming back a true legend
It's clear to see why Brian Ching was determined to stay at the Houston Dynamo. As the club nears its inaugural season in the new BBVA Compass stadium, the club's leading goalscorer wanted to weave himself into the club's tapestry just one more time. "From my first days in a league I've never played in a stadium that the franchise could call its own," he said.
Reflecting from a safe distance upon one of the toughest weeks in his professional career, Ching begins to recount the series of events that almost curtailed his dream.
"Having just come off the MLS Cup loss on Sunday, to finding out I was unprotected on Monday, being made aware of Montreal's interest on the Tuesday and then Wednesday getting pickedÃ¢ÂÂ¦ it was an emotional time."
That's surely an understatement: it was a nightmarish week for the Hawaiian forward, starting with losing the MLS's showpiece final to LA Galaxy. The next day, Ching discovered that he was not among the 11 players Houston had chosen to protect from selection by new club Montreal Impact during the expansion draft.
Sure enough, Ching was one of the 10 nominated by the Canadian side, to his horror. Staunchly opposed to leaving the Dynamo, he even threatened to end his career prematurely.
"When I said I would retire, I think it's fair to say that it was an emotional statement," he admits before pausing, as if to take stock of the last 16 weeks. "The two months before I reported to Montreal were difficult. There were some sleepless nights, for sure."
After some soul-searching, the 33-year-old decided not to retire. "It came down to me feeling that I had another year of soccer in me Ã¢ÂÂ whether that be for Houston or Montreal."
In the end, he returned to the Lone Star state, Montreal trading him back to the Dynamo in exchange for a conditional first-round pick in the 2013 SuperDraft. "I think the league saw value in me being back in Houston," he explains. "It was an uncomfortable situation at first. In someone else's shoes it could have been an extremely negative situation."
During his two-month stay in Montreal he would play only one match for the Impact Ã¢ÂÂ against Houston Ã¢ÂÂ but he still has some tracksuits and a backpack from his time in Montreal, gifts from a club he views with great respect and admiration. "The organisation treated me well, like a veteran, like a leader. When the time came to be traded back, a lot of the guys said 'We wish you were sticking around, but we understand.'"
Ching looks on as LA celebrateÃ¢ÂÂ¦ things would only get worse
Ching finally secured his return in mid-February, with Dynamo manager Dominic Kinnear keen to emphasise how pleased he was. What had at first seemed an ugly affair now had what many believed to be the right conclusion, but once again questions were being raised about the trading system.
Unlike other footballers around the world, Ching had no say in the move. While some criticised Houston for not protecting a player the fans adored, others objected towards the expansion-draft system Ã¢ÂÂ but not Ching.
Instead he appreciates the journey the league has undertaken, with the hope that it will continue to flourish. "When I first got into the league there were 12 teams. Then we went back down to 10 teams, and at that point there was one owner that owned five teams," he laughs.
"Now we're looking at the league with 19 teams, with every single expansion team coming in creating a huge buzz and lift. We're really starting to turn people's heads in America towards soccer: that's special to be a part of, regardless of what I guess you could call growing pains."
Ching faces the future with determination
Ching wants to help the US game overcome those growing pains. His restructured Dynamo contract means less money now, but guarantees that when his playing career is finished, one in the club's 'front office' will begin.
"I want to work for the Dynamo when I'm done," he explains. "Part of me getting into the front office is to go about and hopefully try to change things. I've been a player for the last 11 years and I know what players go through, so I want to try and create a better environment for the players."
While joking about needing to pay the bills when he retires, Ching goes on to outline why he wants to be involved in the future of MLS, a league he speaks passionately about. "I'm invested in soccer," he said. "I got into this sport, and it wasn't about the money Ã¢ÂÂ it was about playing the sport I love.
"I see a future in it for me, in helping the younger generations come around and play in a league that's better than the one I played in. That will give me satisfaction that I was part of something bigger than myself, and that I helped to grow something."
With a number of former players having made similar transitions, Ching already sees the benefit of incorporating ex-professionals into the league structure. "Anytime you get experience into those management situations, you understand both sides of the party. When you do that it's more likely you'll come to a better conclusion that makes both sides happy."
Although content to discuss his long-term plans, Ching is more concerned with the present. Houston won't officially host a team in their new stadium till May, and having played on pitches bearing faded gridiron markings, Ching explains stadium ownership is more than just vanity.
"I think a big part of soccer turning the corner is a lot of the teams are starting to control their revenue streams and their own stadiums," he explains: when the Dynamo and Impact open their soccer-specific grounds this season, only three of the 19 clubs will still be playing in arenas not designed specifically or partially for the round-ball sport. "They're getting more TV exposure and I think further down the road here's a lot of markets that could support further expansion teams."
It has been a thoughtful conversation but it has been peppered throughout with Ching's laughter. With his humble disposition, it's clear to see he appreciates the life that he has been afforded Ã¢ÂÂ attributing his relaxed outlook to his upbringing. Now in his adopted home and able to focus on the coming season, his aim is simple: to carry on scoring in that new stadium.
"That would be nice," he agrees with another warm laugh. "Originally I wanted to get 10 goals, but I think I'll just settle for being healthy."