Three for Thursday: Stars shine first in MLS

Dempsey, Edu and Howard

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The news that new AS Roma president Thomas DiBenedetto has targeted several Yanks — most notably LA Galaxy captain Landon Donovan and Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo — as transfer targets caused a fair bit of buzz over the past couple of days.

Doubling the buzz was the amount of cash DiBenedetto said he was willing to splash for Donovan’s rights: $14 million. It’s not unusual for great players to go to great teams for great sums, but in US history, that kind of transfer kitty is unique.

Whether the move happens or not, though, neither Donovan nor Agudelo would be blazing a new trail. Over the past 15 years, MLS has produced the lion’s share of US stars, some of whom have gone on to new adventures across the pond.

Here’s a look at thee of the best and brightest:

1) Tim Howard, GK, Everton: Howard was, more or less, a Home Grown player before that designation even existed.

The current US No. 1 and New Jersey native never played a minute of college ball — unusual for the best of his generation — and instead jumped from the USISL’s North Jersey Imperials in 1997 to the MetroStars in 1998 at the tender age of 19.

After two-and-a-half years of playing primarily as a back-up and making a name in US youth teams, Howard finally won the starter’s role fulltime in 2001. He responded by becoming the youngest-ever MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and showing that, yes, he was the future of the national team at that spot.

It wasn’t just MLS teams who noticed his form. In the summer of 2003, seemingly out of nowhere, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United came calling, and after some brief negotiations, Howard was a Red Devil.

He celebrated by saving the deciding penalty in the 2003 Community Shield, backstopping Man. United to the 2004 FA Cup and being named to the PFA’s team of the season. In spite of some midseason struggles, Howard’s 2003-04 season remains the best debut year of any Yank in Premiership history.

He’s since moved on to Everton, and while the medals haven’t be as easy to come by in Blue, the praise has been profuse. Howard’s signed with the Merseysiders through 2013 and, this season, has led them to a solid seventh place in the table.

2) Clint Dempsey, M/F, Fulham: “Deuce,” he of the hang-dog mien and playground game, took MLS by storm in his rookie season of 2004. Drafted eighth by New England, the Furman University product was almost an afterthought. He’d had looks from the US youth national teams but was never an integral part. With the Purple Paladins, he’d been aggressive and durable, but hardly set the world on fire with his scoring rate of 17 goals in 62 games.

Playing for Steve Nicol’s Revs, however, everything just clicked. Dempsey was given a free central midfield role, allowed to crash into the box for headers or drop back to play more of a facilitator’s role as he saw fit. He scored seven goals and added an assist in his first MLS season.

Things got even better in 2005. New England won the Eastern Conference, and Dempsey’s play was a big reason why. Deuce dropped 10 goals and nine assists during the regular season, then one more of each in the Revs’ run to the MLS Cup final.

A year later, New England were back in the finals, and again, it wasn’t just MLS who noticed. Though Dempsey had just a bit part thanks to a late-season injury, his strong form earlier in the year and at the 2006 World Cup had caught the interest of the Premier League’s Fulham.

Dempsey made the switch official on Jan. 11, 2007, and initially struggled. But on the second-to-last fixture date of the season, Deuce played the hero by scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Liverpool, a result that ended any fears of Fulham facing the drop to the English Championship.

In the years following, Dempsey has become the idol of Cottagers fans for his relentless work rate and knack for scoring big goals. None was bigger or better than an audacious chip against mighty Juventus in the second leg of a Europa League round-of-16 tilt back in spring of 2010, a goal that many consider the greatest in Fulham’s history.

This year, he became the club’s all-time leading Premier League top scorer, and the first American to break double-digits in England with 12 tallies on the season. He’s also the second US player to score in two consecutive World Cups, joining former Fulham teammate Brian McBride on that list.

3) Maurice Edu, M, Rangers: Edu, like Dempsey, played three years of college ball before going pro. Unlike Dempsey, though, Edu was universally regarded as a can’t-miss prospect and was the first overall pick of the 2007 MLS SuperDraft — the first pick in the history of Toronto FC.

Edu lived up to the hype, scoring four goals in 25 appearances from central midfield, winning Rookie of the Year and becoming a crucial part of the US U-23 team that would go on to play in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Following those Olympic games, Scottish giants Rangers came calling and, in August of ‘08, Edu made the switch to the Light Blues. His debut came a month later and his first medal in Scottsh football came at the end of the 2008-09 season, when Rangers took the SPL league crown.

Injuries slowed Edu’s development for both club and country over the following 10 months, but by February 2010 he was back on the field and making the most of it. The “highlight of his career” to that point came on the 28th of that month, when he scored the game-winner against archrivals Celtic in a regular-season Old Firm derby. His goal put Rangers 10 points clear at the top, more or less clinching the SPL title and making him a hero on the blue side of Glasgow.

The year just kept getting better and better, though, as Edu ended up playing a crucial role in the US World Cup squad in the summer, then made his Champions League debut last autumn against Manchester United. He also picked up, against Spanish power Valencia, his first-ever Champions League goal, and played a key part in driving Rangers to their third straight SPL title.


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