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Americans once again rare sight in Premier League

September 21, 2008|Nancy Armour | Associated Press

The English Premier League was beginning to look a little red, white and blue last year. There were so many Americans just at Fulham the London squad was dubbed "Fulhamerica."

But the Yankees have largely gone home. Or elsewhere in Europe.

Less than six months after a dozen Americans had spots on rosters in soccer's wealthiest and most prestigious league, that number has dropped. Sharply.

"It was kind of odd," said U.S. and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard, one of the five Americans still on a Premier League roster. "I don't know why it happens, it just kind of ebbs and flows that way."

This latest shift can be blamed largely on two things: relegation and the pull of home.

Four Americans were on teams that were sent down to the League Championship, England's second division. Marcus Hahnemann and Bobby Convey are still at Reading this season, while Eddie Lewis and Benny Feilhaber have both left Derby.

Brian McBride and Kasey Keller were two of the five Americans at Fulham last year, with McBride the Cottagers' captain. But both are in their mid-30s and have school-age children. When their contracts ran out at the end of the season, McBride and Keller decided it was time to return to the United States.

"We had said that the two previous years, that we were going home. But after signing (before) last year, we pretty much made the decision that that would be it," said McBride, who now plays for Major League Soccer's Chicago Fire in the city where he grew up.

"Yeah, we could have stayed and made a lot more money, but it was time to get home," McBride said. "It was important for our kids to get in schools that they were going to be in and make friends that they were going to grow up with, and for us to be home and really get settled."

There are other factors behind the drop in Americans, as well. Because there's so much pressure to stay in the Premier League -- not to mention the considerable cash at stake -- teams are quick to snap up bigger-name players when they can, regardless of their depth at that position. Think Yankees, only with no salary cap to rein them in.

That can lead to a logjam -- which is how Eddie Johnson wound up at Cardiff City in the League Championship.

The forward signed with Fulham last January. But he played in only four games, and knew he'd be spending most of his time on the bench this year after the Cottagers added Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora.

U.S. national team captain Carlos Bocanegra, another of the Fulhamericans last year, signed with Rennes in France when his contract ran out.

"England is every young American's dream," said Johnson, who was loaned to Cardiff by Fulham this summer. "But at the end of the day, I needed to play and I thought it was a good situation."

Being wanted by a Premier League team doesn't always translate into a roster spot, either.

Americans have to play for the national team a certain percentage of games over the previous two years to qualify for a work permit in England, and the requirement is so strict few can meet it. There is a six-person appeal committee, but that's no guarantee, either.

Aston Villa wanted Brad Guzan last winter, but the appeal committee turned him down. It finally said yes this summer, and the goalkeeper is now backing up fellow American Brad Friedel.

"Historically, it hasn't been easy for Americans to get into England because of the work permit restrictions," said Richard Motzkin, the agent for several top U.S. players.

"Over time, there will be in any league certain peaks and valleys, whether it's in England or France or the Scandinavian countries," Motzkin added. "But I would certainly expect the overall number of Americans playing overseas will continue to increase. The American player is receiving more credibility, and is being viewed more and more as one who can compete and do well overseas."

Indeed, there are more than 70 Americans playing in Europe this year. That includes Jozy Altidore, who drew a record transfer fee of a reported $10 million from Villarreal and is only the second American to play in Spain's La Liga.

Maurice Edu joined DaMarcus Beasley at Rangers in Scotland, and Michael Bradley moved to Borussia Moenchengladbach in Germany.

"I'm not too stressed" about the drop in England, said Keller, who spent 17 years in England, Spain and Germany. "As long as guys are over in Europe ... what league that is I don't think it truly matters. There's such a high profile at the moment in the U.S. of the Premier League, I think it's more of a profile issue than (not) having guys playing at the highest level." And five Americans in England is still better than it used to be.

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