Fulham a breeding ground for U.S. talent
Hal Phillips
May 3, 2007
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LONDON, England -- It doesn't much matter whether the pregame pint comes north or south of the Thames. If your destination is Craven Cottage, you're pretty much obliged to approach the ground from the east -- directly through Bishops Park, a stretch of riverside green space that surely stands as the most comely stadium walk-up in the entire Premiership, if not all Christendom.

It's late March and I'm in town to watch Fulham F.C. and its bevy of American footballers play host to Portsmouth. It's a good three-quarters of a mile through Bishops to The Cottage but it passes quickly, as befits a walk in the park.

Craven Cottage was built in 1896 and, for better or worse, hasn't been significantly modernized at all. Yes, the club has added seating on the Thames side, but the original Johnny Haynes Stand opposite (named for the man who played a club-record 658 games for Fulham and scored 158 goals between 1952-70) appears all of its 110-plus years: well-kept but truly ancient -- right down to its brick masonry, its lattice of exposed ductwork under the stands, and its wooden fold-down seats buffed smooth and dark by eons of intimate backside contact.

Imagine Fenway Park, built for soccer and sitting right on the Charles River -- with no plastic and better beer (at two-thirds the price). That's Craven Cottage.

At the interval we amble back down under the stand for the traditional beer and cottage pie (like shepherd's pie, only with beef in place of lamb). We retrieve the drink and eat at our leisure, unmolested by great masses of people. Craven Cottage is so small (capacity: 24,600) and, one could argue, so well-designed, it never feels crowded -- even if the place is crawling with Yanks.

"Starting in the summer and throughout the season we've got loads of Americans coming over," says Graham James, retail manager at Craven Cottage. "We have a big American fan base now. [Brian] McBride kicked it off really, being the most well-known at the moment. Now with [Clint] Dempsey just kicking off his career, we have a younger element coming in. There's been good progress for American players here, so it's no surprise they've become supporters. And they do spend a lot of money."

Despite the exchange rate.

With banks trading nearly two U.S. dollars for every British pound, it's ironic (if not surprising) that Americans spend so freely in the Craven Cottage Stadium Shop, where James chats amiably before touching finger to ear and excusing himself. Fulham has stockpiled U.S. players precisely because they are a cheap source of talent. Fulham manager Chris Coleman -- who also reportedly has made overtures in the past regarding Claudio Reyna, Freddy Adu, and Oguchi Onyewu -- has said of McBride, "For the amount of money we spent and the service he has given us, it has got to be the best £700,000 (approximately $1.2 million) that anyone has ever spent."

A cynic would point out that American players provide great value these days while the American consumer, traveling to see them, gets precious little. That's a small price to pay, however, for nowhere else have U.S. players made such a positive impression on a foreign club, beginning with the 1999 arrival of keeper Marcus Hahnemann (now of fellow Premiership side Reading). Eddie Lewis came aboard in 2000 and while he didn't exactly set the world on fire, his performance didn't prevent the subsequent acquisition of Carlos Bocanegra, Dempsey and McBride, who, at 34, has signed recently on for another year at the Cottage.

Nearly everywhere else Americans play British soccer, they are still seen as something of an oddity. Only at Fulham can supporters view their Yanks with an eye unjaundiced by anomaly.

"With the Premiership these days, it's almost unusual to see a lot of English players in a side," jokes John from Reading, whom we met walking back through Bishops Park after the match. "But I think the American players have made their mark now. There have always been good [U.S.] goalkeepers, but now you find them making their mark in the lower reaches of the Premier League. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next five or 10 years. If they make the next step in quality."

"You take a player like Brian McBride," interjects Ferret, another Fulham lifer now ensconced with us at The Bricklayers Arms, a Fulham pub in Putney, "and I think people see him for what he is: an English-style forward, in the Teddy Sheringham mold. Teddy had skills, wasn't completely full of flair but he looked after himself, worked very hard, put his head in, and thinks about it."

Coleman, a Welshman who played for Fulham in the 1990s, is well loved in the terraces. But there is grumbling, from some quarters that while he's a shrewd judge of young talent, the coach doesn't necessarily develop young talent. John from Reading, for one, fears for Dempsey's future with the club. "I'm a bit worried about him because I think he's got a lot of promise. I wonder how much Coleman is going to play him. He's certainly not playing much now, through no fault of his own."

His mate Tristan reckons Deuce might end up playing next season at a newly relegated Premiership team, or another Championship side, where he'll get plenty of playing time. Indeed, Dempsey did not play in the 1-1 draw with Pompey, sat out a subsequent loss at Everton, and only came on for the final 20 minutes in another defeat, home to Manchester City.

Cottager fans on both sides of the Atlantic are hoping that the newly relegated Premiership side isn't Fulham. The April 9 loss to Man City put the club within four points of the relegation zone with five to play. Fulham currently has 36 points with two games remaining and while no team with that many has ever gone down, its one remaining home fixture is against Liverpool and the team hasn't won on the road in 14 attempts.

It would be crying shame for Fulham to go down. Here's an underdog club that has gallantly and cleverly carved out a credible spot in today's top flight; a mere 10 years ago they were a third-division side, four levels down. Fulham has earned everything it has gotten (unlike another blue-shirted, free-spending bunch who reside in SW6), and if you can get past the fact that Hugh Grant and Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe are counted as celebrity supporters, and the club is owned by arch media hound Mohamed Al-Fayed (owner of Harrods, father of ill-fated Dodi), this is a club any one could get behind.

But the reality isn't nearly so sentimental. If Fulham does go down, its Americans go with it. How long will we wait before another Premiership side fields three Yanks? Hard to say, but this much is clear: You can still see them in Fulham jerseys at Craven Cottage on Saturday (versus Liverpool). Catch them while you can.

Hal Phillips is a journalist and media consultant based in New...
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