Bolton midfielder Stuart Holden attempts to control the ball as Sunderland… (Graham Stuart / AFP / Getty…)
It wasn't all that long ago when you could scour the professional soccer fields of Europe in vain looking for an American player.
Those days are gone, but simply because there are now scores of U.S. players plying their trade at various levels all across the continent does not mean that all are thriving.
In fact, the opposite is true.
You need fewer than 10 fingers to count the Americans who are regarded as key figures on their respective European teams — Tim Howard at Everton, Clint Dempsey at Fulham, Steve Cherundolo at Hannover 96, Maurice Edu at Rangers, Michael Bradley at Borussia Monchengladbach, Brad Friedel at Aston Villa, Stuart Holden at Bolton Wanderers, Michael Parkhurst at FC Nordsjaelland and Carlos Bocanegra at Saint-Etienne.
For almost everyone else, it continues to be an immense struggle. Going into this weekend, this season's statistics tell a sad tale.
• Goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann has been replaced as the starter at relegation-bound Wolverhampton Wanderers.
• Striker Jozy Altidore has not started a league game for Villarreal and has made only three substitute appearances.
• Defender Oguchi Onyewu could not get on the field at all for AC Milan and has been loaned to Dutch champion FC Twente, where he made his debut Wednesday.
• Winger DaMarcus Beasley made the move from Rangers in Scotland to Hannover 96 in Germany, but he has played in only four games, all of them off the bench.
• Defender Jay DeMerit could not find a club willing to take him after his contract with Watford expired and he moved back to Major League Soccer to join the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps.
• Goalkeeper Brad Guzan could not oust fellow American Friedel as the starter at Aston Villa, where he made only six starts, and has been loaned to second-division Hull City to get playing time.
• Midfielder Ricardo Clark has started only two league games and has been a substitute in three since joining Eintracht Frankfurt.
• Defender Jonathan Spector has played in only six games and started only five for West Ham United.
Yet, these same eight players made up more than one-third of the U.S. World Cup roster in South Africa last summer. If top-level Americans find the going tough, imagine what it is like for lesser players trying to break through in Europe.
Some, such as striker Kenny Cooper, gave it a shot and called it a day. Cooper, who was scoring goals with regularity when he was with FC Dallas, joined TSV 1860 Munich in the German second division. Two injury-riddled seasons, 15 games and three goals later, he has returned to MLS, joining the expansion Portland Timbers.
Others, such as Aston Villa defender Eric Lichaj, keep plugging away. Lichaj, seen by some as the eventual successor to Cherundolo as the starting U.S. right back, recently has been getting more playing time at Villa and his future looks promising.
For every success story, such as Holden's, there are 10 times as many tales of woe.
"There are so many factors to playing in Europe, but the bottom line is that day in and day out you've got to earn your spot," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said. "There can be moments in any club when things aren't easy.
"Stuart has found a club that values what he's all about and has had a good run where they show confidence in him and everything else.
"We've had a good number of other players that fall into that same category. The ones that aren't in that category are the ones that are constantly fighting to move up the ladder a little bit in their club or to find a better situation."
Holden has some advice for those who want to make it in Europe but harbor doubts.
"You don't forget you are up against top players," he told the Guardian, "but at the same time you must regard it as an opportunity to showcase your own ability."
It was Holden that fellow American midfielder Jermaine Jones contacted when he, as Bob Bradley put it, "had gotten in the doghouse" at Schalke '04. Benched for lack of effort at the German club, Jones last week joined Blackburn Rovers in England on loan and could make his debut Sunday.
"I was saying to Stuart [that] if a small guy can play in the Premier League, I can too," Jones told the Lancashire Telegraph. "I don't think it matters how Americans have done in the past in England. … I think I am a strong guy who likes to play fast and hard. In England, the game is hard and fast, so I am looking forward to that. I am not scared."
Having the right mentality can make all the difference.
"Over time, you see whether players as they move up the ladder are good enough," Bob Bradley said. "That always takes care of itself."