By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (May 14, 2018) US Soccer Players – England’s Championship may very well be one of the most-competitive second division leagues in the world. That's certainly backed up by attendance figures. England's second-tier normally averages over 20k a game, the kind of support normally associated with topflight leagues. It's also home to USMNT players taking part in a league where the focus is promotion to the Premier League.
USMNT players are no strangers to helping clubs get promoted to the 20-team Premier League. This season is no different. Tim Ream's Fulham made the playoffs, the latest Championship team with a USMNT player to find success. USMNT youth international Luca de la Torre also plays for Fulham, one of a handful of English clubs with strong connections to the United States.
“You can definitely feel the energy in the stadium,” Ream told Fulham’s official site, referring to the team’s home stadium of Craven Cottage. “It’s fun, as players, to be out there with the fans completely behind us, as they have been all year, home and away.”
Ream and de la Torre are two of nine American players listed on Championship team rosters this season, compared to just five in the Premier League. At a time when the number of Americans in England’s top flight has steadily dropped with each passing season in favor of the Bundesliga and a return to MLS, the Championship continues to attract US players looking to make it abroad.
Promotion doesn’t just mean the prestige of playing in one of the best leagues in the world. With that prestige, comes money. The promotion playoff that plays out each May means a club can reap the benefits of $200 million, according to the consulting firm Deloitte, just for changing divisions. The importance of promotion helped make the careers of some American soccer players.
In 2006, Jay DeMerit scored the opening goal for Watford on a charging header against Leeds United to win the game 3-0 and earn his side promotion. DeMerit, who had moved to England in 2004 and started his career with seventh-tier side Northwood, became an overnight celebrity.
“The game itself definitely put me on the map,” DeMerit recalled. “It’s hard to believe, but just two years before that moment I was an unknown American backpacker that no one believed could make it in the game. Scoring a goal in front of 75,000 that helped put my team into the Premier League, as well as having my parents, friends and support system being in the stands that day was incredibly special.”
DeMerit isn’t alone. A similar feat took place 16 years earlier in the pre-Premier League era when midfielder John Harkes signed with Sheffield United of the second division (now the Championship) after the 1990 World Cup. Sheffield United finished 2nd, winning promotion along with the 1991 League Cup.
Among notable Americans who helped teams gain promotion to the Premier League are Eddie Lewis (Fulham, 2000-01), Brad Friedel (Blackburn Rovers, 2000-01), Bobby Convey and Marcus Hahnemann (Reading, 2005-06), and DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle, 2015-16).
“I think the first thing the Championship teaches you is toughness,” DeMerit said. “It’s a much more physical league than the Premier League. The players are all quality, but the patterns of play, and final third precision isn't quite as good, so teams rely a little bit more on longer balls, physicality and fitness.” DeMerit said he could succeed at that level “because I knew I had to have all of those things to fit into the league, but thankfully those attributes we're already a big part of my game.” “The main thing I had to learn was how to take on that physicality and skill set, but learn to be consistent, for 30 to 40 games a season,” he added. “Once I learned that, then more opportunities at the higher level started to come.”
DeMerit’s achievements eventually propelled him to new heights including a call-up to the USMNT and a spot on the 2010 World Cup team. DeMerit would play 25 times for the USMNT, part of the 2007 Gold Cup winning squad and a member of the 2009 Confederations Cup team that finished runners-up to Brazil.
His advice for Americans deciding on whether to play in MLS, abroad and at what level? DeMerit said, “What I like to tell younger players is that every path is unique and you really have to weigh up a lot of factors. It’s not just the country, league, coach, or players that will be with you in the locker room, it’s the style of play that team has in relation to your style of play. Does that city, culture, team fit what you represent as a person-player both on and off the field? Do you have an opportunity to play and contribute to the growth of all of those things?”
In the end, DeMerit said how Americans decide whether to sign with a first-division club or one in a lower league depends on the individual player and their situation.
“It doesn’t matter how big or prestigious the badge on your chest is if it doesn’t allow you to contribute and grow in all aspects of the game…. That’s what’s most important to having a successful career."
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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