When forward Sunil Chhetri was added to the Kansas City Wizards’ 24-man roster, it barely registered with American football fans.
Back in India, however, Chhetri’s signing was monumental. One of the biggest stars in the world's second-most populated country — 1.1 billion people and counting — became the first player from his country to sign with Major League Soccer, to go through a door the people of India hope will stay open.
“He's a rock star, absolutely,” said Raghu Sardar, an Indian attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Chhetri played his first game for the Wizards. “The people back in India love him. It was really big news.”
The Wizards, like most MLS teams, receive dozens of letters, video links and DVDs each month from players seeking a chance to play soccer.
The Kansas City staff feels guilty about not giving everyone a chance, so they take a look. Chhetri immediately caught their eye, even in the limited video clips they were able to obtain. Find a way to get him to the United States and we'll give him a shot is what they told representatives from the Indian team.
After Chhetri made it to Arizona for a training camp with the Wizards, it was clear he could play.
Blurry-fast feet. Nose for the goal. Connected with the other players on the attack almost instantly. Good instincts, able to adapt to the team's style of play without thinking about it. Quick to get the ball ahead instead of holding it too long. Hits well with both feet, uses his entire body to strike it.
“We learned he's extremely competitive, has a desire to be successful and when you have that, you can get a lot out of a guy,” Wizards coach Peter Vermes said.
“If someone has the talent and they don't have the fire in the belly, so to speak, every day you're struggling to get those guys going. This guy just gets it.” What the Wizards didn't realize was just how big he was back in India.
Chhetri accepts the expectations of a nation, he just won't let them weigh him down.