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Fri, Jan

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Tonight's National Professional Soccer League all-star game is in Rick Titus's backyard. But this trip to the Skyreach Centre has been anything but a short commute for the Edmonton Driller.

"It's been a long road, I've played on a lot of teams," said the 30-year-old from Mississauga, Ont. "Finally I get some recognition and some consistency in where I play, what position.

"I feel really, really good about it."

Titus has been a soccer nomad the last four seasons. His NPSL resume includes stops in Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo and Philadelphia -- not to mention three separate stints in Edmonton.

Outdoors, soccer has taken Titus from Toronto, Montreal, Hershey, Penn., and Staten Island, N.Y., all the way to Beijing.

Titus started his NPSL career in 1996-97 with the fledgling Toronto Shooting Stars, a team that was taken over by the league just days into the season when ownership collapsed.

It turned out to be a shoestring operation. The team made 18-hour bus trips and when the coach wanted to watch game video, someone had to bring their own VCR from home.

Unsure of the team's future, Titus kept his day job in claims adjudication with a pharmaceutical firm.

At the time it was pretty miserable, but the conditions may have prepared Titus for a future trip to China.

The invitation to Beijing came from a former teammate with the Toronto Lynx, Chinese midfielder Lei Gong, who had a friend that ran the team Quan Li. Titus lasted a month there.

The team wasn't very well organized but the final straw was the accommodations -- a tiny box of an apartment that he shared with fellow Canadian Dwayne DeRosario.

"The pipe where the shower water came out of was just to the side of the toilet," Titus recalled. "So you could be showering and going to the bathroom at the same time.

"It was unbelievable."

The soccer wasn't that good either. He reckoned a mid-level A-League team could beat a Chinese club.

Titus also gives a thumbs-down to NPSL stints in Montreal and Buffalo, saying that the inmates ran the asylum with a few select players in control.

But he liked Philadelphia and loves Edmonton, which is now home.

His three stints in Edmonton came about because 1) Montreal bought out his Edmonton contract, after a draft of ex-Shooting Stars following a move from Toronto to the Drillers; 2) After Buffalo, he asked to go back to Edmonton and was invited to a tryout camp. He made the team but left shortly after to play outdoors in China. When he came home, the Drillers front office didn't want him back and sold him to Philadelphia; 3) After finishing out the season with the Kixx, he asked to go back to Edmonton. His timing was spot on. The Drillers were having some contractual problems with Domenic Mobilio, so they traded him to Philadelphia for Titus.

This time round, Titus has flourished under Drillers coach Ross Ongaro, who will coach Team Canada against the U.S. at tonight's all-star game.

Titus's entire line -- he plays alongside Martin Dugas and Nikki Vignjevic -- was named to the all-star game. But Vignjevic, a Yugoslav native who qualifies under all-star rules for Team Canada because he is an import on a Canadian team, has pulled out to play for Yugoslavia in a qualifying tournament in Finland for FIFA's indoor world championship.

The lanky Titus -- six foot one and 175 pounds -- is the line's target man. Like a basketball centre, he'll often play with his back to the net, holding the ball before distributing it to a linemate.

Often he'll end up in front of the net, tipping in a ball or collecting a garbage goal.

Signed with Edmonton through 2002, Titus is having a career year with 19 goals and 45 points.

The Dugas-Titus-Vignjevic line has accounted for 126 of the 14-6 Drillers' 298 points. Vignjevic leads the team in scoring with 32 goals and 88 points, followed by Dugas (17 goals and 46 points) and Titus.

Titus hasn't played for any of Canada's national teams but wants to try out.

"I've seen the team and I personally think I could put together 12 guys who could beat them right now. . . . There's a lot of good young players, but I don't know if they have the experience for national team duty right now."
Titus, who usually plays left fullback outdoors but is thinking of shifting to midfielder, had better hope national team coach Holger Osieck sees his words as showing confidence rather than derision if he wants a crack at playing for Canada.

But Titus, whose nickname Gilla comes from his rap handle of years gone by -- is a survivor. He has turned his life around after falling afoul of the law in his early 20s.

"I made some pretty bad choices around that time," he said. "I caught up with the wrong group doing the wrong things."

Titus uses his past in talks with kids, hoping to help them keep out of trouble.

"We all have some dark clouds in our past, things that we've done that we regret," Ongaro said. "You have to be a man about it and stand up and improve from what you've been doing. And he's definitely done that.

"He's a big ambassador for this club. . . . Just his ability to portray his story to the public and keep working on it has made him a much bigger man."