As recently as four months ago, many US national team fans were circling Saturday’s Fulham vs. Liverpool tilt on their calendars as a possible Clint Dempsey Extravaganza.
Deuce was surely headed to Anfield to don a red kit during the summer transfer window, and his former team was coming to town for the first time without him. It was going to be one of those cool moments where American fans could look back at where one of their biggest stars came from and where he was headed.
Of course, Saturday’s match won’t have that special significance. Dempsey didn’t end up at Liverpool, and he’s long gone from Fulham.
In fact, Fulham are completely bare of any American influence. Other than Houston-born Norwegian international Brede Hangeland, there isn’t a single Yank on the roster – a state of affairs so rare, it’s happened only one other time in Fulham’s Premier League history.
And for fans, that’s weird. For more than a decade, Craven Cottage has been a soft landing place for Americans looking to test their luck in the glamour league of Europe. Starting with Marcus Hahnemann and Eddie Lewis jumping over from MLS in the summer of 1999, all the way through to last season, Dempsey’s last in West London, Fulham have seen a grand total of seven Yanks don the white shirt and salute the Hammersmith End.
Brian McBride (at right) became a legend, a captain and the inspiration for the name of a pub there. Carlos Bocanegra began his European career there. The club turned Dempsey into a star, a transfer-window commodity. And it helped Eddie Johnson ... well, figure some things out.
But good or bad, “Fulhamerica” became must-see TV for American fans, a place where they could catch a glimpse of a cluster of Yanks who had sway in the world’s sexiest league and where they could gauge where American soccer was headed abroad.
Until now. And even McBride admits that took some getting used to.
“When I knew Clint might be on the way out, I thought it might seem a little weird,” the current Fox Soccer analyst admits to MLSsoccer.com. “I feel so strongly about that club – I have so many great memories there. But it doesn’t [feel weird].”
Quite the opposite, McBride says. With a near total boardroom and technical-staff turnover, he says he may be following his old club more now that it’s under the control of Martin Jol. Before Dempsey, the Dutchman didn’t have a track record of bringing up or working with American players. (In fact, in that regard, he may be most renowned as the guy who drove Kasey Keller away from Tottenham back in 2004.)
Still, it’s startling to see a Fulham roster threadbare of American influence. Yank advocates Jean Tigana and Chris Coleman are long gone, and Dempsey’s breakout 2011-12 made it clear he had outgrown the cozy Cottage.
Maybe we’ve all outgrown the cozy Cottage. Not that anyone is too good for Fulham – that’s not what this says. But the days where Americans need a soft landing spot, a place they know is accepting of them and a place where, quite honestly, some of the challenges of throwing yourself into the deep end in a new league and a new country are relaxed, those days are gone.
Michael Bradley is blazing a new trail at Roma. Oguchi Onyewu is surprising a lot of people along with his upstart Málaga team in Spain. Sacha Kljestan is making much bigger clubs take notice of what he’s doing with relative little fish Anderlecht.
There are new versions of Fulhamerica, of course. Geoff Cameron and Maurice Edu together at Stoke City is one, and Stuart Holden and Tim Ream are set up at Bolton. The Fabian Johnson/Daniel Williams pairing at Hoffenheim is similar, but a different animal with a German background. And the Gringo invasion of Club Tijuana is a whole other species, with a new frontier to conquer.
But the phenomenon of one club leaning so heavily American? That could be done. And that’s a good thing.
“The EPL – and all of Europe, really – is becoming so much more open to American players,” FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman tells MLSsoccer.com. “Yes, Clint Dempsey is still out there, and goalkeepers are still very successful. But there’s a much greater realization that these guys can play really well for their teams, especially at a young age.”
Hyndman would know. His own grandson (at right) could be the next American on Fulham’s first team. Sixteen-year-old Emerson Hyndman is earning plaudits for his play in central midfield for the Fulham Academy’s U-18 team, and is also making progress in the US youth set-up with Richie Williams’ Under-17 squad.
And according to Hyndman, the Fulham connection is just happenstance. Emerson was spotted by scouts from Newcastle and Liverpool before he was eventually convinced to come to the club last year by Huw Jennings, the former head of youth development for the Premier League who is now Fulham’s academy director.
It’s less about Fulham itself, and more about the environment he’s in, says Hyndman. Emerson has grown physically, has a better tactical awareness on the ball and is simply carrying himself differently.
“Last year, he and Dempsey ended up eating lunch a lot,” Hyndman says. “With [Irish veteran] Damien Duff, too. He’s around professionals. He’s watching them very closely. And really, he’s an investment for Fulham. Players at that age, you’re hoping they’ll develop into first-team players.”
So don’t stash that Fulham jersey in the closet just yet. To boot, according to MLSsoccer.com’s Greg Seltzer, Fulham have also been snooping around Kljestan. And McBride says the club is still very much interested in the American market.
“During one of my trips back there after I came back to MLS,” McBride recounts, “one of their head scouts pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, let’s talk about any [American] players you think can help Fulham long-term.’”
The world may be a much smaller place for American players than it was 10 years ago, with more options, fewer limitations and more barriers broken. But for the sentimental, Fulhamerica may still have a place for everyone.
“If players get a chance to make that move, I know it’s a club that’s a great place to go,” McBride says. “It would be a great thing to have an American there again.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.