Pundits around Britain will no doubt be discussing Fulham’s great escape in the upcoming weeks. Seemingly dead, the London side strung together some improbable results, particularly away from Craven Cottage to escape relegation on goal difference. Was it Jimmy Bullard’s return from injury, the timely striking of Dionmansy Kamara or even the managing of Roy Hodgson, a man left on the dust bin of British football but one of the few English managers of the last 15 years to really make it outside of the U.K? Truth is it was all of the above and something more: American Grit.
Fulham is after all the closet thing we have ever had or will ever have to an “American team” in Europe. The Cottagers have now for years been buying players from MLS, and for years have done enough with what they had to avoid relegation. It all started in 1999 when Fulham bought Marcus Hahnemann and Eddie Lewis from MLS in a push to move to the Premier League. The side had just been promoted to the old first division at the time. Lewis stayed with the team until they were finally promoted in 2001 to the Premier League, and that was the start of Fulham’s now eight year run in the top flight. Since then the club unlike many in Europe has not hesitated to scout and ultimately purchase American players from MLS clubs.
That’s why despite downplaying the significance of Fulham’s survival effort several months ago, I have felt the last few weeks Fulham had to escape relegation to keep going any positive momentum the US has created perception wise in Europe. Fulham’s failure could easily be pinned on its American contingent. Today Fulham’s success can just as easily be credited to the character of its American legion, led by none other than arguably the greatest and most important footballer our nation has ever produced, Goalkeeper Kasey Keller.
Keller hasn’t played for the most glamorous clubs or for the most titles. In fact Keller has never once played in a Champions League match. However, he is as I have stated repeatedly before, perhaps the best keeper I have ever seen and if I had to pick a stopper for any odd one off match it would be him, even 38. He’s a keeper that has played at smaller clubs and excelled at those clubs. Four of the clubs Keller played keeper at are now in lower divisions than when he minded their nets. That’s how important he has always been to the teams he has played for. Keller is one of the great goalkeepers internationally of the last fifteen years. No greater star than Romario was so dazzled by Keller’s performance against Brazil in 1998 that he actually said “it was truly an honor to be on the field with him.”
Brian McBride also a gritty veteran, now going on 36 is equally significant to Fulham’s great escape. McBride was always to me a bit of a mystery. Why was a guy who was so critical and outstanding for the US National Team, also so average and injury prone at times in MLS? It seemed McBride’s injury problems hurt him in MLS but also seem to have ironically lengthened his career once he went back abroad. (McBride played in Germany for another American loving club, Wolfsburg before MLS began play in 1996.) McBride’s game changing ability has faded but his leadership and grit are as sharp as ever. McBride retired from the US National Team two years ago, but it deserves mentioning that he is still the second best active American field player (behind Landon Donovan). That is a credit to McBride and a damning indictment of the state of the US National Team’s current talent pool.
The rest of the American contingent at Fulham demonstrate why I firmly believe that the United States is in a dip on the international scene until the generation led by Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, Michael Bradley and Robbie Rogers takes charge of the national team. Clint Dempsey is a player whose spirit and story I love and is uniquely American. But Dempsey is a limited player who often times disappears for long stretches in matches. That was the case in MLS and has been the case at Fulham.
Carlos Bocanegra’s club career is clearly in a tailspin. Bocanegra who has the distinction of being the only American player ever to score two career goals against Brazil, was largely responsible for Fulham’s defensive problems last season and his poor play continued this year. The mere fact that he is a scoring threat on set pieces has earned him more love than he’s truly deserved for both club and country. Roy Hodgson rightfully has kept him on the bench late in the season.
Eddie Johnson is at best an average player in Major League Soccer, and in the English Premier League, probably one of the worst transfers in recent memory. Anyone who watches Johnson as regularly as I have in both MLS and for the national team realized he wasn’t good enough to play at the Premiership level: or at the level of any major European first division. Yet Johnson remains quite possibly the best US striking option. How’s that for scary?
Fulham both honors the great strides the United States has come as Soccer playing nation since the late 1980s in Kasey Keller and Brian McBride, and the current malaise on the national team with the other three players. Fulham honors our proud recent past and our uncertain future. Regardless of what any American soccer fan told you today, Fulham’s result was the most important and most emotionally gut wrenching for those of us that love soccer in our country. The Cottagers remind us why the US got the quarterfinals of World Cup 2002 and why we beat Brazil, Germany (twice) and Argentina in a fifteen month period not long ago. But Fulham also reminds us why the US is a Landon Donovan or Tim Howard injury away from potentially missing our first World Cup since 1986. (With the fifth place COMNEBOL finisher facing the fourth place CONCACAF qualifer, the margain for error that both the U.S. and Mexico have had been reduced and right now I have sense that neither will actually win the Hexaganol, leaving if my gut is correct no margin for error for either. Mexico though could go to South America and win a playoff match. The US cannot. )
What has happened the last few weeks is remarkable. For many of us who have been fans of the sport we have chosen country over club as MLS wasn’t until recently far enough evolved to encourage a loyal fan culture and European football while important was distant. I’ve followed Manchester City Football Club for almost two decades now and consider them my favorite international club, but have always consider the plight of the US National Team far more important than any club’s fortunes. But now, I have joined so many Americans who also pull for Fulham because it seems the gritty group from London are in so many ways a microcosm of American Soccer and have made us all proud in so many ways to be an American and to enjoy the world’s most beautiful game.