Brian McBride was the sort of kid who lived life in perpetual motion. So the moment he put foot to soccer ball at age 8, he knew he’d met his match in sports. He slept with his soccer ball; he dribbled up and down the stairs in his home in Arlington Heights, Ill., driving his mother nuts. “I played soccer like a madman,” he says.
Although he may have his indoor-dribbling problem under control, McBride, 29, still has that same passion. A striker for professional soccer’s Columbus Crew, he’s often called the Michael Jordan of the U.S. game for his gravity-defying airborne maneuvers. His talents go on worldwide display June 5, when the U.S. team takes on Portugal in its first game of the World Cup, the monthlong international soccer orgy, in South Korea and Japan.
This is not the first time around on the world pitch for the 6’1″ McBride. He scored America’s only goal in the ’98 competition in France. “It was just an awesome feeling,” says McBride. (As in France, the U.S. is expected to be KO’d early in Korea.) And McBride remains a bright spot. “We don’t have another player with his capabilities,” says ESPN lead soccer analyst Ty Keough. “He’s taken what God gave him and made the most out of it.”
Yet he’s had to overcome his share of challenges. In September of 2000, while McBride was spending the off-season with an English soccer franchise, he noticed a sudden, dramatic swelling in his armpit after a game. It turned out to be thoracic outlet syndrome, a rare disorder in which compression of the blood vessels causes dangerous blood clots. Though the condition was not life-threatening, it put his career in jeopardy. Doctors performed surgery to dissipate the clot, and after two months he was back on the field. In August 2001 he developed another painful clot in his right arm. This time surgeons removed a rib to relieve pressure on McBride’s veins. “I have never seen anyone quite so sick,” Maddie McBride Bisulca, 56, recalls of her son, who has since recovered so completely that doctors say the disorder will not recur. “He was so courageous and strong.”
But he was not quite ready to quit the sport he adored. His brother Matt remembers visiting him in a Denver hospital and trying to cheer him up. “If you never play another day,” Matt told him, “everything will still be fine.” The attempt at comfort was met with heart-wrenching silence. “You could see it come over his face,” says Matt. “He was just very sad.”
McBride is the rambunctious second of three children Maddie had with husband Matthew, an advertising sales representative (whom she divorced when Brian was 4). “If I didn’t keep the doors padlocked, then he always would find a way to run outside,” says Maddie, who raised the kids on her own, often holding down three jobs. “He just never liked to be still.”
He was also a natural on the field. After stellar high school and college careers—he was a two-time All-American at Saint Louis University—he landed a professional gig in Wolfsburg, Germany, where he was disappointed to find that many of his fellow players treated the sport he loved as a mere occupation. “You weren’t supposed to be happy,” he says. “You were supposed to be doing your job.”
He was thrilled to return to the U.S., where in 1996 the Crew picked him as the first player in the fledgling Major League Soccer’s inaugural draft. Turns out his bout with illness was also an opportunity of sorts. Recuperating from his first surgery back in Arlington Heights, he ran into Dina Barnett, a childhood acquaintance who was going through a divorce. “He was the most caring and loving person I’d ever met,” she recalls of their first meeting. Last February they married, making McBride stepfather to Dina’s daughter Ashley, nearly 2.
Fully recovered, McBride relishes being a dad, but with the heavy travel schedule of his pro team as well as the U.S. national team, he gets only limited time with the family. Still, he is getting back a little bit of what he dished out as a kid. “Ashley’s so active—she’s always running around,” he says. “But if she wants to learn soccer, I’ll help.”
Lorna Grisby in Columbus