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Syrian soccer star focuses on goals during tense times

Fadi Afash is one of the Timbers' leading scorers

A teammate walks by Fadi Afash after Portland Timbers soccer practice at PGE Park. He makes a noise like an explosion and gestures as if to signify a rising plume of smoke.

'These guys always give me a hard time about my country,' Afash, who's from Syria, says with a laugh.

'It's good-natured,' the teammate says.

Afash, who emigrated to the United States in 2000, seems far removed from his native country, which borders Iraq, where real bombs dropped in recent weeks. He is preparing for the May 1 season opener at home against Seattle.

The Timbers hope to make the A-League playoffs for the third consecutive year. Coach Bobby Howe's club has several new players, including two goalies vying to start. With Afash and McKinley Tennyson up front, Portland will score goals.

Afash, 29, doesn't immerse himself in Middle East politics these days, but he does worry about tension between his country and the United States. Syria harbors anti-American sentiment. Terrorists and top Iraqi officials reportedly have crossed an unguarded border. The United States claims that Syria makes chemical weapons and has an oppressive security force. Radical Arab fighters who train in Syria have fought coalition troops in Iraq.

'I don't want the U.S. to attack my country,' says Afash, who tallied 18 goals in 20 games with Portland last season. 'I don't want a war.

'If war happens, the U.S. would attack Syria, and a lot of Syrians would get killed, and some military people from the U.S. would get killed. I don't want my U.S. friends to get killed. I don't want my people and family over there to get killed.

'If they can deal with it in negotiations, that would be great.'

Afash says the Syrian government will not make enemies of the Americans. President Bashar al-Assad, 37, 'is a very intelligent man,' Afash says. 'There's been government conversation between Syria and the U.S., and it went very well. It'll be fine. No war.'

Afash grew up in Aleppo, in northern Syria. He spent five years in Damascus while training with the Syrian army national team. He didn't have time to get involved in politics because he trained every day, but he clearly aligns with the Muslims who favor a peaceful resolution.

Interestingly, Afash says he is Sunni Muslim Ñ the same sect as Saddam Hussein. It is the majority religion in Syria but the minority voice in government. The Alawite-dominated Baath Party rules Syria. Afash trusts al-Assad and the Syrian government.

'We're trying to build our country,' he says. 'I don't think we're involved in a lot of stuff,' such as sponsoring terrorists, building chemical weapons and harboring Iraqis. Terrorists and Iraqi sympathizers are fringe individuals, he says, and the Iraqi-Syrian border has been way too easy to cross until now.

Afash does not say disparaging things about the United States. 'That's the way it should be, he's in somebody else's country,' Howe says.

Soccer has been Afash's life since he and his buddies kicked stones or crushed Coke cans in the streets because they couldn't afford a ball and didn't have access to a field.

Afash played in several All-Arabic championships, but he never faced Iraq. He doesn't know whether the stories are true about Uday Hussein, Saddam's oldest son, beating Iraqi soccer players who lost matches.

Afash grew up emulating his brother, Muhammad, perhaps Syria's greatest player of all time. At 39, Muhammad still plays for the national team, which he has captained for 10 years. He also plays professionally in Greece.

Another brother coaches in Lebanon, one sister lives in Toronto and another sister and his mother live in Syria.

'I'll go visit my country after the season,' Afash says.

He spent four months in the United States in 1998 for knee surgery. He moved here in 2000 and played for lower-level teams from Modesto, Calif., and Utah, and indoors for Sacramento. 'Incredible nose for the goal,' Howe says. 'Quintessential goal scorer.'

In Utah, he had some legal trouble, failing to get a doctor's release and inform authorities when he went off workers' compensation for an injury. Afash hopes the problem won't affect his green-card status. He can apply for a 10-year card in May 2004.

'If I get a chance, I would be happy to become a U.S. citizen,' he says.