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Elite Brotherhood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A youngest child is born precocious, tracing with tiny toes the muddy footsteps of older brothers.

So it goes for Chris Snitko. Grasping for the jersey the next U.S. Olympic goalkeeper will wear. Hoping one of his older brothers is ready to hand it down. Praying that if he gets it, it won’t be too big.

Snitko, 23, wasn’t actually born a youngest child--he’s a middle child between Tim, 27, and Sara, 19. He became like a little brother, however, to the former UCLA goalkeepers in whose footsteps he followed.

It happened one day when he was 15, a sophomore at Canyon High, and his dad called the older boys to ask if he could play. Snitko showed up wearing his shiny-new, white-as-a-spotlight goalkeeper’s uniform, socks pulled straight up to his knees.

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And there they were. Three college All-Americans in a row. Dressed in tattered, old sweats.

“I was waiting out there on the field and those guys came out. It was an amazing feeling,” Snitko said.

Since that moment, Snitko has been trying to live up to the standards set by those men, who have become like brothers to him.

Not brothers in the “biological” sense. Brothers in the sense of “I’m going to kick your butt so hard in goal today that you’re going to feel like you’ll never be a great goalkeeper.”

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Brothers who hear you have shaved your head in a college prank and ride you so hard you can’t wait for your hair to grow back.

Brothers--Tim Harris, Anton Nistl and Brad Friedel--who form a dynasty of UCLA goalkeepers. Harris has coached in official and unofficial capacities at UCLA since he finished his eligibility in 1983, Nistl played there from 1986-89 and Friedel from 1990-92. All four continue to train together when they can.

“Everyone keeps an eye on Chris because he was the youngest guy and he was a good kid,” Harris said.

Snitko met Harris, Nistl and Friedel on UCLA’s north soccer field that day in 1988 after his club coach suggested he call Harris for training.

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“Early on, his work ethic was horrible,” Harris said. “He was lazy. He didn’t ever really want to go the extra mile and do 15 minutes extra work after practice or get out there a little bit early. His eating habits were bad. His approach to the game wasn’t very serious. It was sort of, well, he just kind of was getting by.”

Snitko was a redshirt behind Friedel in 1991 and didn’t play in 1992, when Friedel won the Hermann Award as the nation’s best collegiate player.

Something clicked for Snitko after Friedel left, he started asking Harris for more training and being more disciplined.

This season, Snitko joined Harris, Nistl and Friedel on the list of UCLA All-Americans.

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He also earned an invitation to the Arco Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista to train with the U.S. under-23 team, which will be the U.S. Olympic team this summer in Atlanta.

Snitko is expected to start for the U.S. under-23 team against Mexico’s under-23 team 7 p.m. Wednesday at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Stadium.

For Snitko, the game will give him an opportunity to play near his hometown, Anaheim. It also will give him a chance to prove to Coach Bruce Arena that he is capable of carrying the United States to an Olympic medal.

When Snitko arrived at the training center in January, he was the No. 3 goalkeeper behind Jeff Cassar and Zach Thornton. But Snitko earned the No. 1 spot last month with a 0-0 shutout against South Korea’s under-23 team in which he stopped three breakaways and 17 total shots, a 2-1 victory over Denmark’s under-23 team and a 1-1 tie against Danish First Division champion Aalborg.

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Each Olympic team is allowed three players over the age of 23, however, and Arena could elect to use an over-age player in goal. If he does, one candidate is Friedel, 24, who was the starting Olympic goalkeeper in 1992 and a reserve in the 1994 World Cup.

If Snitko earns the Olympic position, which will be decided June 19, he will be the third consecutive Olympic goalkeeper from UCLA, after Dave Vanole in 1988 and Friedel in 1992.

“Chris knows all those guys and there’s a unique bond that I think exists between them,” UCLA Coach Sigi Schmid said. “I think there’s some pride now, that, hey, UCLA . . . produces good goalkeepers.”

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Snitko sank into a velvety field at the training center after a recent practice and took inventory: his investments in the stock market, which he follows on his personal computer, were doing well and it looked as if the rain might hold off long enough for him to get in a round of golf.

“I’m happy,” he concluded with a grin.

For Snitko, soccer is serious and the rest of the world is a big, happy diversion. As Snitko talks, his words tumble over each other as if he can’t get them out quickly enough.

The slow life at the training center often sends Snitko searching for an adrenaline rush.

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“I’ve played more arcade games than I’ve played my whole life,” he said.

He downplays his 10 handicap in golf and says he enjoys the sport mostly because it keeps him occupied for a large chunk of time.

When he’s not playing games, Snitko often ponders future forays into the business world. “I always had this dream of opening a bagel shop in Westwood,” he said.

As a child, Snitko used to discuss the stock market with his father, Tim.

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Such precocity is good in a goalkeeper.

Good for public relations--a beverage commercial featuring Snitko began airing on television this week. And good for someone who must step in front of soccer balls careening toward his face.

“I’m not saying that I’m a nut case,” Snitko said, “but I’m a little odd.”

The kind of odd, for instance, that wants to wear the same corroded, Canyon High baseball cap he wore all four years he played the sport.

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The kind of odd that basks in the mystique associated with goalkeepers.

“You’re a hero or you’re a goat,” he said. “You’re in the spotlight. You’re in your own little corner of the field. That’s one of the things I like about it.”

Snitko has played goalkeeper since he began playing youth soccer.

“I was just the biggest kid and the tallest kid and the coaches threw me in [goal] and I stuck with it,” he said.

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Snitko, 6 feet 3 and 195 pounds, uncoils across the box in a single fluid movement, swooping his long arms easily into the high corners. This talent has come in handy in other sports. In two years as Canyon’s varsity first baseman, Snitko never made an error.

“I would just kind of throw myself up like I was going to the upper corner [of the goal],” he said.

Snitko helped Canyon to the Southern Section Division 4-A quarterfinals in 1990 and to the final in 1991.

“He was an outstanding first baseman. He just had awfully quick hands,” former Canyon Coach Hi Lavalle said. “He scooped everything.”

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Snitko’s father might have been drafted by a professional team had he not chosen to attend college. He went to Fairleigh Dickinson at the Madison, N.J., campus, which did not have a baseball team. Chris never took baseball as seriously as soccer.

Snitko also joined the football team as a kicker for a year, following in the footsteps of his brother, Tim, who set a school record with a 47-yard field goal in 1983.

“It was cool [playing football] in high school. You wear your jersey to class and get your goodie-bag from the cheerleaders. But it was just something to do.”

In soccer, however, he was among the best players in the Century League for four years and the best in the Southern Section for three. He shut out opponents a school-record 35 times and gave up an average of 0.96 goals, another school record.

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Snitko chose UCLA even though Schmid told him he would have to be a redshirt as a freshman then back up Friedel the next two years. Friedel gave up his senior season of eligibility, however, to join the Olympic team and Snitko started as a sophomore in 1993.

Friedel’s footsteps were large, but Snitko grew into them. His 31 career shutouts from 1993-95 ranks second in UCLA history, one shutout ahead of Friedel and 10 behind Nistl, who played four years. His 47 career victories rank third, nine victories behind Nistl and one behind Harris, who played four years.

Snitko was the first goalkeeper selected and the No. 5 pick overall, Monday, in Major League Soccer’s college draft. He was taken by the Kansas City Wiz.

So far, training with the Olympic team ranks first for Snitko in his career highlights. Making it to Atlanta would be off the scale.

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“That’s one thing I think about,” he said, settling back into the grass of the training center, “walking in during opening ceremonies, or stepping on the field in front of 70,000 people.”

If that happens, there will be a couple of older brothers yelling loudest.


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