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Fulham FC: American Grit

p1 keller 0419 Fulham FC: American Gritp1 mcbride 0502 Fulham FC: American Grit

Keller/ from Getty Images McBride/from SI.com

By Kartik Krishnaiyer

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.

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About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013.
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20 Responses to Fulham FC: American Grit

  1. Bob says:

    If McBride and Keller stay fit and healthy, plus stick around for next year, Fulham has a great platform for pushing higher up the rankings.

    I disagree about Johnson, I think he definitly has the quality to play for Fulham. Once he gets established in the team I believe he will become an offensive power. You have to remember that he went from the offseason to fulham. Even so he almost scored several times, next season he will net a few goals and hopefully earn a starting spot. He probably would have scored this year if he hadnt become sick and unable to play.

    And as an American Fulham is definitly my favorite club in the EPL, followed by Everton with Tim Howard.

  2. fsquid says:

    The US or Mexico won’t win the hexagonal? The meds are going to you mate!

  3. wanderer_abroad says:

    Great article Kartik, I agree with basically everything you say. Can’t praise Keller and McBride highly enough as they, coupled with Danny Murphy and Jimmy Bullard, pulled Fulham out of their rut.
    I do think, however, you’re being a bit harsh on Johnson as well. There’s no doubt he is a limited player but he’s the type, with his physicality, that could do a useful job at a lower team. He just needs a chance to hit a bit of form. He reminds me a bit of Marlon King.

  4. Kartik says:

    Wow, I hope you guys are right about EJ. I have given up on him. After coming back from a poor World Cup he was miserable for KC in MLS in 2006. In 2007 he started hot, but scored one goal in the last three months of the season. After this slump Fulham incredibly bought him for a huge sum.

    I could be wrong but Honduras right now is the team to beat in CONCACAF. With Suazo and Guevara in the midfield they can control possession in an attacking way on anyone, and Carlos Costly could be the best striker in the region.

    Mexico has more skill and talent than the rest of the teams in Confederation combined but the coaching situation is a mess and the Mexicans have become more and more like the English in the sense that expectations get over inflated and the clubs and their money are over riding the interests of the national team.

    The US right now is not very good. That’s obvious every time we play. Defensive liabilities are numerous and save the odd bit of magic from Landon Donovan the team is woeful in the attack and needs set pieces to score goals. On those set pieces we are decent enough, but Bocanegra and Onyewu the two set piece goal scoring specialists are also huge liabilities at the back. (As is Johnny Magillon, Mexico’s central defender who like the American duo is outstanding in the air but constantly out of position at the back.) The US’ key assett is our play in central midfield in the “bucket formation” (two holding midfielders) played by Coach Bradley. The coach’s son Michael Bradley, Rico Clark, Maurice Edu, and Pablo Mastroeni are all very very good options for international play.

    Likely Mexico and the US both make it but finishing 2nd and 3rd in the Hexagonal. As I said that leaves little if any margin for error for either and Mexico has one win, six losses and one draw since World Cup 2006 against teams from CONCACAF outside the Carribean islands in full internationals and Olympic qualifying. That is simply not going to get it done and rightfully Hugo Sanchez was sacked.

  5. Jon Hall says:

    As a Fulham fan (still somewhat fuzzy from yesterday’s trip to Fratton Park!) I’d say that’s a very good bit of analysis.

    Keller in particular has been a massive difference this season. Antii Niemi’s confidence and form has dropped off sharply, admittedly after a terrible neck injury. As a result his presence in the box has been awful – he remains rooted to his line all too often.

    Keller has changed that. Such a great presence in the box. Solid and consistent. It wasn’t a signing that captured the imagination of most Fulham fans when it happened, but he’s won everyone over.

    And McBride, well do we need say more?

  6. Paul Bestall says:

    Whilst the return of Bullard and McBride certainly helped, you cannot underestimate the change in tactics installed by the new manager Roy Hodgson who is criminally under-rated by the British media.
    I was glad Fulham stayed up, it’s a nice ground, nice fans and they now play football again, which is good to see.

  7. eplnfl says:

    As I stated elsewhere, but here again the English media looked on the appointment of Hodgson with disdain as it was a sign that Fulham had given up.

    It will be interesting to see what he can do with a full off season and season if he has some cash to buy players and has a healthy crew for most of the season.

    Well done to Roy Hodgson.

  8. Dave M says:

    My three sons (8, 10, & 12) and I sat down to watch the games yesterday – and we talked about all the matches that were kicking off, and what we were rooting for: a Manchester United win (of course), and a Chelsea loss or draw (to shush Blues fans from claiming to be as good as The Champions all summer)… and we agreed that while we would not be wasting any of our wishes on it (in case we were only given two for the day), but the sprinkles on the icing on the cake would be a Fulham victory. SAF be praised, we got the trifecta!

  9. Pingback: Yanks Reputation in “Proper” Football Safe for One More Year « The Unliterate Review

  10. Paul Bestall says:

    Yes, I find it laughable that the media constantly bang on about the lack of top quality English managers but with Roy Hodgson and Gary Johnson you have two former international managers plying their trade. I think Hodgson will lead Fulham to midtable safety next season.

  11. Tyler F. says:

    I’m in the same boat as the author. I don’t have a favorite club soccer team because my focus is on the U.S. National Team and the growth of soccer in America. So, on a week to week basis Fulham is the team I cheer for because their staying up is so important to the success of American soccer players on the international scene. I do disagree about Fulham showing the weakness of the U.S. National team. Brian McBride is not one of the best strikers. He was poor in the World Cup. He pops in for the occassional headed or rebound goal, but that’s it. He has little creativity and can’t create plays for others. I want to see Brian Ching emerge. I saw him play for the U.S. against Brazil last summer in Chicago and they could not contain him. If he could just stay injury free, he’d be a great option. Dempsey is a good player too, when he’s confident. He needs his cocky attitude to have the confidence to take defenders on. He has shown little confidence at Fulham. If he can get the ‘tude back, he’ll be set.

  12. Paul Bestall says:

    How would you guys feel if the MLS signed a deal with Fulham for instance that enabled them to loan or sign players in or around the fringes of the USA national side?

    Do you feel your best players have to play in Europe to improve or should the MLS concentrate on increasing the quality of the sides to be able to bring better, younger world stars to the MLS??

  13. Simon says:

    Going to play Mr Grumpy here and not praise the American Grit….
    Bullard was head and shoulders above the rest once he came back – and he is not American.

    Keller could have cost you dear – his appallign clearance yesterday led to a decent Pompey chance that he had to then save…

    I am very happy Fulham stayed up but they are more than just a bunch of Americans… and to whoever said McBride staying fit will help them rise up the rankings next season – remember mcBride is past it and about to be 37. Fulham need to think ahead, maybe Johnson with a decent run can help fill that gap. I think McBride has been a revelation but the future is unrelenting and time catches up with everyone.

    FUlham need to keep hold of Bullard – I hear Boro are sniffing for him…Hodgson did a terrific job as well by the way – I was sorry to see reading go down but Fulham did more to stay up than they did – i would have preferred Bolton went down in place of Reading.

  14. Paul Bestall says:

    I’ll be suprised if Bullard moved north, the reason he joined Fulham was that he was homesick ( He originates from Newham, in the east end of london)

    Bet West Ham wished they’d kept him on now.

  15. Dave M says:

    I left my slide rule home, and premierleague.com has not updated the Fair Play tables beyond May 5th, but I think there’s a good chance that Man City will drop due to the sending off on Saturday. Fulham could finish in 6th place with all of the top five fair-er play-ers already having earned their spots in Europe. Looks like last week was a good week to buy stock in Fulham.

  16. Kartik says:

    It depends on the player to answer a question above about development. I personally think the Premier League is the WRONG place for young Americans as has been proven bu Johnathan Spector, John Thorrington, Jovan Kirovski, Kenny Cooper, Frank Simek, Zac Whitbread, Jemal Johnson, Johann Smith and others. Our players however have a pretty solid track record of success in Holland and Germany while none in Spain or Italy as youngsters and as noted above a terrible record in England. Not a single American player who has gone to England before the age of 21 has developed into a consistent national team player, while plenty of MLS based players who stay in MLS until 21 or in some cases beyond that have been good at the international level.

    The Premier League could be the best league in the world for finished products but the player development at least with Americans is below poor, which is either an indictment as to the low skill and quality of American players or the English development system or more likely both.

    So no, MLS should not sign a deal with Fulham or any other English club. The league already has a marketing/player exchange deal with the Bundesliga that’s hardly taken effect yet. I want to see how that works first.

  17. Kartik says:

    Tyler B,

    At the Brazil game last year what were your thoughts about Josh Wolff’s play? Given his positive history on the national team I think it would be unwise to write him off as a attcking option.

    Kartik

  18. jon says:

    Kasey Keller is not the finest player the USA has produced. He’s not the best American at Fulham. In fact he’s not even the best goalkeeper at Fulham. Further, I doubt he’s even best keeper in his family. He only played for the national side so long because he was Arena’s buddy, when Friedel has been clearly superior – and one of the best in the premier league – throughout his career.

  19. Kartik says:

    Jon,

    I’d submit to you that with the exception of the World Cup in 2002, Keller has been a much steadier keeper for the US than Friedel. True that Friedel was a late bloomer but he lacked the confidence prior to moving to Blackburn when he was 29 or 30 to be serious keeper in deadly serious internationals which for some of us are more of a life and death matter than a given premier league match. Friedel’s inconsistency as mistakes were evident every time Keller couldn’t play for the national team, such as in some qualifiers in 1997 and again in a number of friendlies in 1999 and 2000. Actually for a long time I felt Jurgen Sommer late of QPR, the Crew and Bolton or Zach Thornton should have been the US #2 over the erratic Friedel. Again Friedel has been arguably better since 2002 or so, but over the course of their careers it is not even a contest. Many of us who have watched the national team for the better part of the last two decades would put Keller above anyone we’ve produced going back to our miracle run to the World Youth Championship semis in 1989 when Keller played for the University of Portland through his great goal keeping at Copa America in 1995, and his great saves in friendly wins over Brazil, Germany and Argentina in the late 1990s. Again from that point on maybe Friedel was better, but Keller had already written history when Friedel finally became a comparable keeper.

  20. Mookie says:

    American Grit? Disagree there.

    We aren’t going to be happy when we see the supposed top American soccer players going to Fulham and basically start winning at the last minute.

    I like Dempsey, but he can’t finish if his life depended on it.

    McBride is old, he has to retire, he has had a great career.

    Bocanegra is probably the worst player on the US roster now.

    Keller….is 506.

    Eddie Johnson is just pathetic, a royal bust.

    Fulham have been driven into the ground thanks to making the team up of Northern Ireland and the US. I can’t see them staying in the Premiership much longer. It is indeed a great escape, but I don’t see a West Ham type of improvement.

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