Last week, Jordan Morris became the latest high-profile American player to eschew the riches and glory of Europe for a career in Major League Soccer. His decision was met with a round of applause bordering on a victory lap from MLS’ proponents in the American soccer community and blogosphere. Once upon a time, players like Morris were the exception to the rule as ambitious players over 18 fast-tracked for US Men’s National Team stardom took their chances breaking into sides that featured in top European leagues.
As we recently discussed on the World Soccer Talk Podcast, England’s Premier League has arguably had more contributions from Americans in its history than any other non-European Union nation outside of Argentina. When contrasting the historical record to today, where the sole American contributing at a high-level right now is Stoke City’s versatile Geoff Cameron, it seems a bleak time indeed from the perspective of US fans. This is unfortunate because today the Premier League is more popular than ever in the United States and enjoys a visible TV package with NBC Sports that is unique to soccer in this country.
It might come as a shock to many of these newer Premier League fans from the United States what a great impact American players have made on the league’s history. The depth of players born or bred in the United States that made a major impact in the top flight English football was for years remarkable especially since the nation had not embraced the league in any really consistently meaningful way until the vast majority of these players had come and go.
Brian McBride stands out in many ways as the quintessential American Premier League standout. After loan stints at Preston North End and Everton under David Moyes, he finally was sold to Fulham in 2004 at age 31, and scored 37 goals in four and a half seasons for the club while also providing leadership and critical link-up play. Chris Coleman managed the Cottagers for five seasons and said very matter-of-factly that “pound for pound, I’d have to say Brian McBride was my best signing.” McBride, at 32, could have rested on his laurels and played his career out in MLS. But he choose to test himself at the highest level possible and passed the test.
Coleman’s quote seems like something that would be impossible to conceive now in an era when Americans either don’t test themselves abroad or fail so miserably they come back to Major League Soccer having been humbled but sometimes eliciting commentary from American soccer writers about how “unfair” the standards are in England toward Americans.
That’s why the potential transfer of New York Red Bulls center-back Matt Miazga to Chelsea is an encouraging development. We have an American soccer player who is determined to fight it out in England for a position on the pitch instead of relying on the comfort of knowing he could play for his MLS team week-in week-out.
As McBride’s history shows, American players coming from MLS even at an advanced age have proven they can make a difference in England. In the era immediately prior to the formation of the Premier League, Roy Wegerle and Preki — both of whom were naturalized Americans (Wegerle actually grew up in the Tampa area and first played professionally for the Tampa Bay Rowdies) — made major impacts with Chelsea and Everton respectively. Wegerle would move to local rival QPR as the club built a strong side under Gerry Francis and then began the Premier League era with Coventry, which at the time was a top-flight fixture. Wegerle would end up playing in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups for the United States after gaining his US citizenship.
OPPOSING OPINION: Jordan Morris will face more pressure in Seattle than at Werder Bremen.
Right before the start of the Premier League era, John Harkes signed for Sheffield Wednesday and ended up playing in two cup finals at Wembley, scoring in one.
Claudio Reyna became the US Men’s National Team captain in 1999 and early that year moved from Bayer Leverkusen to Wolfsburg. In the next eight years, Reyna would ply his trade in Scotland and England and captaining the United States to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. At Manchester City, Reyna played under Kevin Keagan and helped orchestrate from his playmaking midfield role a free-flowing attack that was among the most exciting in England at the time.
Another key member of the 2002 World Cup team was Eddie Lewis who moved from San Jose to then-second division Fulham in 1999. Lewis, known for his great left foot, crossing ability and bags of pace was the player for the year for Leeds United in 2006 and has the dubious distinction of being a regular starter for the worst team in Premier League history, the 2007-08 Derby County side. Lewis, it must be said, was one of the better players on that underwhelming side.
Lewis arrived in England around the time Joe-Max Moore moved at age 28 to Everton and quickly became a cult hero. Moore, one of the more underrated and under-appreciated players in US Men’s National Team history, opened the door on Merseyside for Tim Howard to eventually become a legend with the club and Landon Donovan to come twice on loan.
Goalkeeper Brad Friedel had moved to Liverpool in 1997 but lost out eventually on the number one shirt. But when he moved to Blackburn in 2000 during Rovers short stint outside the Premier League, he became an instant sensation. Spearheading promotion for Graeme Souness’ side, he became a fixture setting a record for most successive matches started in the history of the league. Yes, that record of 310 consecutive starts was set by Friedel from 2004 to 2012 featuring for Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham. Freidel netminded for teams that consistently challenged for European places, and qualified enough that the American keeper ended up playing often more than 45 times a season.
The exploits of Brian McBride at Fulham were complemented and arguably bettered by Clint Dempsey whose scoring record from midfield in his five and a half seasons at the West London club was second in the league only to the incomparable Frank Lampard. Dempsey most famous goal came in a rip-roaring Europa League Quarterfinal second leg in 2010 against Juventus, arguably the most famous win in the Cottagers history.
Fulham became Team America in Europe thanks to the contributions of McBride and Dempsey among others. The Cottagers have featured a total of nine American players since 1999, including defender Carlos Bocanegra who captained the US Men’s National Team between 2007 and 2011. Bocanegra played the same four and a half seasons at Fulham as McBride (January 2004 until May 2008) and his headed goals on set pieces were largely responsible for maintaining the Cottagers Premier League status during the 2006-07 season. Also don’t forget it was the Americans on the Fulham team that orchestrated the “great escape” in April and May of 2008.
Keller came to England in 1992 to feature for Millwall then in the second flight of English soccer. He moved to Leicester in 1996 and featured in two League Cup finals at Wembley, winning in 1997 and losing at the death to Spurs in 1999. Keller returned to England in 2007 to feature for Fulham and minded net as the Cottagers improbably escaped relegation on the final day of the 2007-08 season.
Other Americans such as Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Spector, Bobby Convey, Juergen Sommer, Eric Lichaj, Brad Guzan and DaMarcus Beasley have made notable contributions in the Premier League.
However, recently the American impact in the league has been limited to goalkeepers who have been in the league for many years (Howard and Guzan) and Geoff Cameron the only player of the quartet of Americans that moved to Stoke City a few years ago that stuck in the league. The other three — Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo and Maurice Edu — have all returned to Major League Soccer having flopped in England or in Agudelo’s case having never secured a work permit. Others such as Michael Bradley at Aston Villa and Eddie Johnson at Fulham also flopped in recent years.
With Major League Soccer spending more money than ever to keep the core of the US men’s player pool at home, chances are we won’t see the contributions of the men listed above equaled in the near future. That’s a shame as the Premier League today has captured more of the American audience than any European soccer league in history at a time when American contributions are at a low ebb.
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