American Clint Dempsey of Fulham battles legendary English midfielder… (Gerry Penny / EPA )
Just before Eric Wynalda made his debut in European soccer, he remembers getting a piece of sage advice.
"My coach told me: 'Don't tell people you're American. They won't believe it,' " the former U.S. national team striker remembers. "It used to be: 'Americans, they don't know what they're doing. They can't play soccer.'
"It's very different now."
Indeed. Twenty years after Wynalda became the first U.S.-born player to suit up for a top-level club in Germany's Bundesliga, there are more than 80 Americans playing in Europe. And many of those have become standouts.
With three goals in his last two games, for example, Fulham's Clint Dempsey has a team-record 16 in English Premier League play this season and 22 in all competitions, sending him into the weekend as the league's fourth-leading scorer. It sets the stage for a possible Dempsey transfer this off-season, the price of which figures to dwarf the record $10-million transfer fee paid for an American when Jozy Altidore jumped from Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls to Spain's Villarreal in 2008.
Meanwhile, American goalkeepers Brad Friedel (Tottenham) and Tim Howard (Everton) have combined for 22 shutouts. In the Netherlands, Altidore, who moved to AZ Alkmaar last summer, ranks among the most prolific strikers in the nation's top league, the Eredivisie, with 13 goals in 29 games. And midfielder Michael Bradley's score for Chievo Verona earlier this month was the first by an American international in Serie A in 17 years.
"You never know," Wynalda says "until you get the opportunity."
Which is one reason why former Premier League striker Kevin Campbell has begun spending time in the U.S. himself as a de facto talent scout, looking for the next diamond in the rough lacking little more than some polish and a chance.
U.S. talent only trickled into Europe in recent years, but Campbell says it should be more like a flood.
"You are going to get some gems who excel," says Campbell, who played 19 seasons in the Premier League for Arsenal, Nottingham Forest, Everton and West Bromwich Albion. "When you look at the size of the country, you're going to get the quality. But there should be a lot more. The U.S. has major talent."
The reason that major soccer talent hasn't blossomed in greater numbers, he believes, is because the sport has lacked a focused developmental program for elite young players here. U.S. Soccer recently addressed that by expanding the schedule for its 78 academy clubs to a mandatory 10 months, a move that will affect more than 4,000 teenage players.
But that's not nearly enough, says Campbell, who has partnered with former Welsh junior national team player Kevin Gall on a fledgling Web-based endeavor called Pass2pro which promises to put young U.S. players in contact with European-based coaches and scouts.
"The biggest population of sport played at a young age is soccer, which is so strange because if they're starting off with soccer why are they not progressing?" Gall says. "There's obviously something that's distracting them and taking them to baseball, to American football.
"And we feel — we know — that it's the coaching."
Wynalda, who scouts the West Coast for third-division Mexican club Murcielagos from his home in Thousand Oaks and covers the Premier League for the Fox Soccer Channel, agrees there's loads of untapped talent here.
"I can tell you without a doubt I could probably build a national team at a youth level in between Santa Barbara and my house," he says.
But he believes it will take more than just some Internet coaching sessions for that talent gap to narrow internationally. Turning players like Dempsey, Howard and Bradley into the rule rather than the exception in Europe will take a change in attitude as well. And that will be harder to teach.
"These guys think that the business model will work to bring the intensity of English football over to America and teach these kids how to train the right way and all that stuff; it's a double-edged sword," Wynalda says. "That will never really be re-created here in the United States. It just won't. I don't feel we're close to that level of passion."
That's why Wynalda backs the approach U.S. national team Coach Juergen Klinsmann has taken, introducing both a high-intensity European-style training system and filling the U.S. roster with men who have played there. (Just three of the 19 U.S. players called up for February's friendly in Italy had never played in Europe.)
The rules may be the same in the U.S. and Europe, Klinsmann says, but the game certainly isn't.
"If Landon [Donovan] loses a game here in L.A. with the Galaxy, nobody's mad at him the next morning. But you do that overseas, you lose a big game, you do not go to the supermarket," Klinsmann says. "The moment I'm on the street, people will yet at me: 'What happened?' In your face.
"Which is a great element."
For his example, Wynalda points to Giuseppe Rossi, the New Jersey-born son of immigrant parents who moved back to Italy when their 12-year-old boy began to display some soccer talent.
"Giuseppe Rossi's dad took a good look around and said: 'No, I don't think so. My son's talented. I'm going to put him in the best environment that I possibly can,'" Wynalda says. "And that's what happened."
That was 2000. Want to know what happened more recently? Six weeks ago, the U.S. beat Italy for the first time in 78 years, 1-0. Dempsey scored the only goal. Rossi, who is injured, was not called up by the Italians.
Maybe the talent gap is closing faster than we thought.