Friday, August 1, 2008

The Evolution of American Soccer Players In Europe: Part III

Part III: The Post-1998 World Cup Breakout

By now, most of the trailblazers had returned home to play in Major League Soccer (MLS); Caligiuri to Los Angeles, Wynalda to San Jose, Harkes to DC United, and Lalas to New England. Nonetheless, the number of American players in Europe exploded to unprecedented numbers with over 20 playing in Germany alone – a combination of established professionals, young players, and journeymen. This time period also saw more Americans playing in other leagues and more importantly, seeing significant playing time.

Claudio Reyna remained in Europe and transferred to Scottish giant Glasgow Rangers, where he scored 10 goals in 64 appearances before a move to English Premiership side Sunderland. Another key player to stay in Europe was Kasey Keller, who after a successful stint with Leicester, became the first American to play in the Spanish Primera when he signed with newly promoted Rayo Vallecano where he stayed for two years, starting every week.

Joe-Max Moore moved over from Nuernberg to Premiership side Everton in 1999, where he stayed until 2002 – earning several stretches of regular playing time. Meanwhile, McBride returned to Europe from the Columbus Crew to play in England for second division Preston North End and later Premiership side Everton. By 2000, Greg Berhalter was at England’s Crystal Palace where he saw the field only 19 times before he left in 2002.

McBride was just one of many transfers from MLS in the late 1990s as some American players, having proven themselves in their domestic league, sought their fortunes in Europe. Five other top players made their way across the Atlantic including DC United ace Tony Sanneh who played for Bundesliga outfit Hertha Berlin from 1998-2001 before moving to Nuernberg in 2001.

In 1998, Tampa Bay’s Frankie Hejduk was picked up by Bayer Leverkusen in where he had an immediate impact as a striker in Christoph Daum’s “three-headed monster” formation with three forwards. Some fans still remember Leverkusen’s star striker Ulf Kirsten celebrating Hejduk’s first goal by surfing around the penalty area while Hejduk did his own reggae dance. A coaching change, foreign player restrictions, and a huge player pool at Bayer later found Hejduk in a battle to fight his way back into the starting lineup.

Hejduk and other American players in Germany found their playing time restricted by a rule at the time which limited the number on non-EU players on the field to three per team. Regardless of how well an American player’s form, he was fighting for one of three spots, not 11. If your team had a few star Brazilians and top Africans (also non-EU players), even if not playing in the same position as the American, the situation could be very tough. Luckily, these restrictions were later relaxed to allow coaches more latitude in selecting their lineups.

And yet another American keeper found his way to England when the Colorado Rapids Marcus Hahnemann moved to Fulham in 1999 where he served mainly as a backup. Eddie Lewis joined him at Fulham in 2000. By 2002, Hahnemann found a starting job at Reading, a team he helped to later earn promotion to the Premiership. That same year Lewis, who has seen little playing time at Craven Cottage, took a transfer to Preston North End of the English second flight where he scored 15 goals in 111 appearances.

Following in the footsteps of Keller and Tab Ramos was the Chicago Fire’s Ante Razov, who was transferred to Racing de Ferrol of the Spanish second division. During his one year with Racing, Razov scored six goals in 19 appearances before returning to the Fire. It would be several years before another American would suit up for a Spanish club.

The post-1998 era also saw an increasing number of US soccer's top young talent signing with European clubs but often experiencing mixed fortunes. San Diego native Steve Cherundolo signed on for the Second Bundesliga's Hannover 96 in 1998 and saw action immediately before a serious knee injury set him back for most of 1999. He later earned the starting role at right back and helped the club achieve promotion to the Bundesliga, becoming a recognized team leader in the process.

A strong US showing at the 1999 U-17 World Youth Championships made even more European clubs take notice as the Stars and Stripes took home the Gold and Silver balls for the best two players in the tournament. Landon Donovan, the Golden Ball winner, signed with Bayer Leverkusen in a deal which had all the marks of making him a future star in Europe. Unfortunately, Donovan found himself inside of an insidious development in modern soccer - a warehouse club. Warehouse clubs stock up on top veteran talent to enable them to be more successful in league and European play but they are seldom a good situation for a young player looking to break into the first team.

Instead of being in a roster of 25-30 players to work his way into a first team of 18 (which was restricted by non-EU player limits), Donovan found himself among 40+ quality players at Leverkusen, many of whom played for their national teams. Fellow Bayer Leverkusen player Frankie Hejduk later said the club had "enough good players to field two good Bundesliga teams."

So, the FIFA U-17 Golden Ball winner found himself languishing in lower division reserve matches with little chance of ever seeing first team play. US national team coach Bruce Arena seemed to realize Donovan's predicament and called him up for many US matches to give him a better chance to develop. I interviewed Donovan several times during his time at Leverkusen and while he never came out and said it, I got the impression that he may have felt that the club and given him the "bait and switch." Sadly, some club officials started to respond to Donovan's frustration by telling the press he was "homesick" when all he wanted was a chance to play.

But Donovan was not the only U-17 starlet to find that he has signed with a warehouse club. Taylor Twellman, the 1999 U-17 FIFA Silver Ball winner signed with 1860 Munich with expectations that he too would get a chance to work his way into the first team one day (a promise many warehouse clubs seem to make). While Twellman was the leading scorer for the 1860 reserve team, he was later told (after nearly a year with the club) that 1860 "doesn't really use the reserve team to produce first team players, but rather buys them on the market. " Unfortunately, this was becoming a trend all over Europe.

While they were not the only young players stashed in the basements of warehouse clubs, both Twellman and Donovan eventually worked their way back to MLS in 2001, where they've since made their mark as two of the best players in the league.

Ironically, the one young player in Europe who saw the most first division playing time was not even a member of the 1999 US national youth teams; Cory Gibbs. The 20 year-old Gibbs signed as a central defender for FC St Pauli, which was promoted to Bundesliga in 2001. He started each week and immediately received a baptism by fire against the Bundesliga's best which often sliced through a soft St Pauli midfield. He became the youngest American to score in the Bundesliga and stayed with the club as they descended into the Second Bundesliga, and eventually the third division. By the end of three seasons, he had started 60 matches, scoring three goals and saw rapid development in his tactical prowess before returning to play for the Dallas Burn in 2003.

The post-1998 World Cup era also witnessed more American players not only in the top leagues, but also in the well-financed German Regionalliga (third division), where salaries were often better than in MLS. Among these players were John Van Buskirk at Sportfreunde Siegen, Jacob Thomas at Eintracht Braunschweig, and the American trio of Tim Lawson, Brent Goulet, Grover Gibson at SV Elversberg

During this time, fans at home started to take greater interest in how American players were faring in Europe but found few sources to provide it. While largely ignored by the major sports media, a small group of online news sources began to appear starting with San Diego native John Dwyer’s weekly report Amis in Deutschland in 1998 (see his excellent web site here). Within two years, new sources appeared such as Soccer Times’ weekly update from European-based reporters; Americans Abroad, as well as periodic US-based reporting on SoccerSpot.Com and in Soccer America’s print magazine.

Coming Next Week: Part IV: The Post-2002 World Cup Era
Comments, Questions, Ideas? courtitalia@yahoo.it

2 comments:

Jason said...

Great stuff. I love reading your blog. It's a wonderful outlet!


Jovan Kirovski was also at Crystal Palace at the same time as Berhlater and made a bit more of an impact. He started the season well, but form dipped along with results when Steve Bruce left for Brum. Some Palace people still speak fondly of Jovan and remember his screamer from the edge of the box against Wolves.

Michael O said...

Interesting, if true, the comment about Donovan really only wanting more playing time with Leverkusen and not actually being homesick. That would certainly put a wrench in the arguments of the Donovan-haters who complain about his return to MLS in 2001.