LONDON — While his boyhood friends in Falls Church, Va., dreamed of becoming baseball, basketball or football stars, John Kerr yearned to play professional soccer in "the greatest league in the world."
Now, Kerr has realized his dream, signing a one-year contract with Portsmouth of the English first division and becoming the first American ever to play professional soccer in this country.
"It's a tremendous thrill, a lifelong dream," Kerr, a 24-year-old striker, said. "At the moment it's all a bit new and I'm still settling in. It's a big jump for me but I'm enjoying it."
When he signed with Portsmouth, a team that has just returned to Division One after 26 years in the lower echelons, Kerr was told he would have to bide his time for a place in the senior squad.
But injuries and suspensions forced Portsmouth to plunge its new American recruit straight into the competitive cauldron of the strong-tackling English game, and Kerr started the first two matches of the season last month.
Portsmouth lost both matches, 4-2 at Oxford United and 3-0 at home to Chelsea. Kerr didn't score in either game, but Portsmouth officials were pleased with what they saw.
"He's a super lad, very fit and willing to learn," said Peter Osgood, the Portsmouth youth team coach. "He's very quick, he's got lots of pace and good control.
"At the moment, though, he's still a nice boy from America. He doesn't have that killer instinct in front of goal. You can only gain that from experience."
Soccer is in the Kerr family blood.
Both his parents are Scottish and his father played for the Partick Thistle club before emigrating with his wife to Canada where John was born.
The family soon moved to the United States and settled in Falls Church. Kerr's father, John Sr., played for a number of North American teams, including the New York Cosmos, and is now director of the players association for the Major Indoor Soccer League.
"Growing up, I played all the usual American sports in high school but Dad quickly taught me to play soccer and it was always in the back of my mind to play at the top level," Kerr said. "My friends don't understand how big a deal it is to play professionally here. I try to equate it with an English player going to the NFL but they still don't get it. ...
"Everybody knows the English league is the greatest league in the world."
Kerr, who said he has played about 10 times for the U.S. national team, came to Portsmouth's attention while playing for a semi-professional team, Harrow Borough. He was in England finishing a politics degree on an exchange program from Duke University at the time.
"The idea was to finish up my studies, graduate and get on to an English team but I didn't expect it to happen so quickly," Kerr said. "Portsmouth originally asked me to play in the reserve team but before I knew it, I was on the first-team roster."
Neither Kerr nor Portsmouth officials would reveal the American's salary. First-year players in Division One, splitting their time between the first and reserve teams, make an average of $24,000 to $32,000 a year, according to Gordon Taylor, general secretary of the Professional Footballers Association, the English soccer players' union.
Kerr said there were considerable differences between playing soccer in England the United States.
"There's a culture difference," he said. "At home, we don't face the day-in, day-out competition that English kids have at a young age. Without that, Americans are not equipped to deal with a high level of football (soccer)."
But the biggest change, he said, was coaching techniques.
"All the coaches here know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, when I was in America, I knew more than most of the coaches," he said. "It was terribly frustrating."
Kerr is one of a handfull of American soccer players trying their luck overseas but the first to make an impact in Europe.
Paul Caligiuri, a 22-year-old defender from UCLA, signed a contract with a top-ranked West German team, SV Hamburg, but never played as a regular and was released by the club so it could pick a new foreign player.
Since savoring the big-crowd atmosphere of the English game, Kerr has been relegated to the Portsmouth reserve team where he has scored his first two goals for the club.
"I'm learning every day, all the time. First team or reserves, I don't mind," he said. "All I want is to get another contract next summer."
Osgood said Kerr had the talent to be a long-term success in the country that introduced professional soccer to the world more than 100 years ago.
"It's true he got his chance early and he's been lucky for that," Osgood said. "But in training he's brilliant and he has the qualities to be a regular first division player."