Back in the mid-1980s, you could count the number of Americans playing soccer in Europe on one hand (maybe even one finger). Today, over seventy Americans ply their trade in European leagues. While those numbers correctly indicate American soccer has made huge strides over the last two decades, they also are somewhat misleading.
Because although there may be five dozen or so Yanks playing in Europe, very few play in the top European leagues. Moreover, those who have cracked the top European divisions are not making much noise. At least not this year.
Last year, Americans were popping up all over top teams’ radars. At Fulham alone, almost a half dozen US players contributed to a memorable run out of the relegation ranks. However, as the new EPL season begins, most of the Yanks are gone.
Well, Brian McBride and Kasey Keller, two of Fulham’s American stars, were past their prime and wanted to finish their careers in MLS. Eddie Johnson, another Fulham acquisition, just couldn’t cut it at the EPL level and was loaned to Cardiff City. Carlos Bocanegra also left Craven Cottage, though he is still playing abroad in France for Rennes.
After years of being able to see familiar faces on the pitch at Prem games, only two US players are still making the grade in the EPL: keepers Tim Howard and Brad Friedel. Sure, Brad Guzan has been signed as Friedel’s backup at Aston Villa, but it is sad that the total number of US players in the EPL today is equal to the number of them on Fulham’s roster alone last year.
Relegation also severely cut the number of Yanks in the Premiership. Bobby Convey and Marcus Hahnemann saw their Reading side pushed down last year and Eddie Lewis and Benny Feilhaber both darted from Derby after one of the most disastrous seasons the EPL has ever seen.
I’ve heard some experts claim the strict work permit restrictions in England are to blame for the lack of top American talent in the league, but I’m not buying it. Only Guzan has had a transfer delayed due to such permits. If the EPL wanted our players, they’d be there.
Now, I know many of you are saying: “well, look at Jozy Altidore and his record signing.” OK. I will.
Jozy’s move to Villarreal is great. I hope he does fantastic, though I doubt he will have many opportunities this season to do so. I’m also encouraged by Michael Bradley’s move to the Bundesliga and Maurice Edu’s transfer to Rangers.
However, it’s telling that the vast majority of US players abroad, unlike Bradley, Edu and Altidore, play for lower division teams or teams in the top divisions of lesser leagues, like in Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Until Americans start having an impact on the biggest stages, like the EPL, young US athletes probably won’t even notice.
Hopefully, the day will come when Americans elevate their games to the point they are interspersed throughout Europe’s top leagues. Until then, the US will have to keep pushing for the chance to earn the type of recognition and respect which can only be earned in the world’s top leagues.