Entering his sixth season in Major League Soccer, Chicago Fire defender Tim Ward has been around longer than most realize. Hailing from Waukesha, Wisconsin, Ward celebrated his 23rd birthday on Sunday in Guadalajara, Mexico during the second leg of the Fire's 2010 preseason tour.
Ward's career has been one marked with injuries and a lack of club stability. His 2009 campaign was cut short after breaking a toe in his left foot and as he walks into his second year with the Fire, the former U.S. youth international is looking forward to a 2010 season with a new manager and a new approach to fitness.
"It's been a tough preseason with a new coach and new training philosophies," said Ward from Guadalajara. "That doesn't mean that the work we've done so far hasn't been useful. Specifically, "el Profe's" approach to conditioning involves the ball a lot more than any other fitness coach I've worked with. It makes training more enjoyable and I think it's been much more effective for our group as a whole."
A full back who is comfortable on either side of the backline, Ward was part of U.S. Soccer's residency program in Bradenton, Florida from 2002-04, before spending one year at Saint Louis University. Following his freshman season, Ward signed a Generation adidas contract with MLS, eventually being selected 12th overall by the MetroStars in the 2005 SuperDraft.
Acquitting himself well as an 18-year-old rookie, the wing back earned a starting role early in the season and was named to the 2005 U.S. World Youth Championship team before picking up an injury that kept him from participating in the tournament. He returned to the lineup in July, playing a total of 13 matches that year before being traded to the Columbus Crew in the offseason.
With the experience of coming into the league at a tender age, Ward has tried to impart some influence over the rookies who are coming into their first season.
"Your first year as a professional, especially the preseason, is very difficult," remarked the defender. "Guys are on the road for months at a time and everything happens very quickly -- it's a shock to the player's system at first. Now that I've been through it a number of times, I try to make the younger guys feel more comfortable, helping the guys know what works and what doesn't and how to approach training and warm-up matches."
During his time in Columbus, Ward appeared in 17 matches across two seasons and was again named to the US World Youth Championship team that participated in Canada. Injury free this time, Ward played in three matches during the tournament, including the 2-1 upset over Brazil, helping the team to the quarterfinals here they bowed out to Austria, 2-1 in extra time.
"That 2007 team had a ton of good players - guys like Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Danny Szetela -- we were strong all over the field. It was really disappointing to go out in the quarterfinals because we felt we had the talent to win the entire thing, which would have special to do so close to home. Things happen though and you have to move on."
Returning to Columbus, Ward saw spot playing time and was traded in the close season to the Colorado Rapids. Spending 2008 in Denver, the Wisconsinite failed to see the pitch in first team matches and was waived by the Rapids at the end of the season, eventually being picked up by the Fire in March 2009.
Looking to prove himself again, Ward regrouped last season and appeared in 25 matches across all competitions for the first team, before picking up the aforementioned toe injury, which eventually ended his season.
"I was anxious over the offseason to get back to playing. My fitness has improved everyday during preseason and I think I've put in two solid performances in our friendlies the last month. Going forward I feel very good about my role in the team and looking forward to the season."
Head coach Carlos de los Cobos has played Ward on the right side of defense in both preseason matches against the Arizona Sahuaros and Chivas de Guadalajara and while he's been on in the field, the Fire haven't conceded a goal. The full back is the type of guy who just wantsto play and help his team in whatever position he's needed.
"I've played all across the backline and even feel comfortable in a defensive midfield role," said Ward. "I think my versatility is one of my strengths and if it helps us get over the Eastern Conference bump in the road and into MLS Cup, I'm happy to play wherever the manager needs me to be."
Ward will be needed this Wednesday, March 3 when the Fire make their Guadalajara curtain call in a friendly with F.C. Atlas, at the club's Atlas Colomos training facility. The match will mark the end of the Fire's preseason stint in Mexico as the team will head to Jackson, MS on March 4.