A U.S. soccer player making it big overseas is like the Cincinnati Bengals having a season without one of their players being arrested: a rare and pleasant surprise. And just like the Bengals' ever-increasing number of players in jail, the consistent failure of American footballers across the pond has become a favorite punch line in the media. Once in a while, though, an attempt to play with the big boys pans out—Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and, most recently, Landon Donovan. These occurrences are all too rare and must happen more often if the U.S. is to gain more credibility in the soccer world.
So what's to make of Donovan's current surge at Everton, a fairly respectable team in the English Premier League? It demonstrates that U.S. players are making progress in ""the beautiful game."" Looking at his stats, casual fans will write Donovan off because he only has one goal and two assists in seven games. Upon further inquiry, though, one of his assists was against Arsenal—a world-class squad—and has been dynamic in his playing time against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United. In fact, Everton is 5-1 in the last six games since Donovan's arrival, the only loss coming against Liverpool. Although he has only been in a Toffees uniform for a month or so, Donovan's contributions to the side—""team,"" for all you non-footballers—have been so dramatic he was named the Everton Player of the Month.
Although this is a step in the right direction, soccer fans can't expect this to suddenly start a string of success in European play. For every Donovan at Everton there is, well, a Donovan in the Bundesliga, a Freddy Adu at Benfica, and the list goes on. Even the best U.S. players fail in leagues overseas because their technical skills and creativity are not on par with the rest of the world's.
This problem can be traced all the way back to our youth system here in America—a whole column in itself—but I'll summarize. Being a standout footballer in the U.S. means playing for a quality club team, moving onto Division I and then getting a Major League Soccer contract equal to what A-Rod earns after four at-bats. Contrast that to Europe's or South America's system where players are identified early in their lives and then join prestigious youth squads such as Manchester United or Real Madrid. Basically, the players are getting more touches on the ball and working intensively with top coaches around the world.
But Donovan's surge brings a ray of hope for soccer fans in the U.S. because it shows that world-class teams are willing to give Yanks an attempt to prove themselves. Even though the rest of the planet knows Americans are inferior at soccer, they have come to respect the fact that we are gaining ground. Before, U.S. studs would go overseas, warm the bench and be booed; now, Yanks are actually given an opportunity and, in some cases, thriving.
Take Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. These two have grown on fans and have their support—a very rare occurrence. To put it in perspective, an English soccer purist cheering for an American player is like a Badger fan rooting for Minnesota when the Axe is on the line—a heresy, to say the least. Dempsey has been a catalyst at Fulham, and had a huge game-winning goal against EPL powerhouse Liverpool, instantly earning him the fans' support. And Howard may be the most accomplished American footballer to ever set foot on an English field. He played for Manchester United, the most recognizable sports team on earth, and had success doing so, becoming the first U.S. player to ever win an FA Cup. After he was replaced by Edwin van der Sar at Man U for inconsistent play, Everton proceeded to pick up Howard and now the Toffees have an American duo with him and Donovan.
The U.S. is still light years behind the rest of the world, but when one of our own makes an impact in top professional leagues it's time to take notice and embrace it. If even the British can appreciate our soccer talent, why can't we? If America is ever to be a true soccer force, continued development and production of skilled footballers like those mentioned above must be a priority. For now, let's enjoy what we have and hope for the future.
Think the U.S. can find club success overseas? E-mail Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org.