The special relationship between Fulham and American players

The special relationship between Fulham and American players

The date of 16 March 2008 – a cold, dreary day in London – will mean little to most. Thankfully, though, the Premier League was on. With a 2:30pm start time, Fulham and Everton were set to play a match that held two very different meanings for each.

For Everton, it would be an excellent opportunity to push further up the table against an opponent struggling for form. For the Cottagers, it was do-or-die. Stuck in 19th place with just 20 points, the club was desperate to do whatever it could do to secure its place in the top-flight.

What transpired was an insignificant and uneventful match to the naked eye. Both clubs were even on the day in terms of possession, but with the Toffees forcing Kasey Keller into eight saves, the points looked like they’d be heading to Goodison Park. In football, though, things rarely go to plan. With an excellent Brian McBride header in the 67th minute, Fulham stole the win at home in what would be a crucial part of their escape from relegation that season, in which they only stayed up by goal difference.

Alongside the win, the game marked a significant moment in the history of American footballers abroad. With Roy Hodgson starting three US internationals in Kasey Keller, Brian McBride and Eddie Johnson, it was an already impressive feat to see so many players from the same non-EU nation starting for an English club, but with substitutions seeing compatriots Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey come on, Hodgson had used five different American players in one game. It remains a high watermark in the history of US stars abroad.

It was, however, no coincidence. This was a journey that began almost a decade earlier in the beautiful world of the west London club. With Fulham rebuilding under the ownership of Mohamed Al-Fayed, the US market became a cheap and often reliable source of talent, leading to some in the US christening the Cottagers, ‘Fulhamerica’.

 

The Birth of Fulhamerica

 

In 1999, Fulham fans witnessed goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann become the first American to sign for the club in what was a period of significant change. With the Superwhites having endured a tough start to the 90s, brighter days were ahead thanks to the ambitions of Al-Fayed, who purchased the club in 1997, three years after they were in the fourth tier.

With promotion to the Second Division in 1999, Fulham believed that promised land was in sight. Where many had criticised Al-Fayed’s lofty goals, the fans had kept faith.

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The signing of Hahnemann for a meagre £80,000 amounted to nothing in terms of impact at Craven Cottage, with the American making four appearances and spending close to two years out on loan. It wasn’t until he moved to Reading in 2002 that he would make a name for himself in England.

Hahnemann wasn’t the only American to be brought in during Fulham’s race to the Premier League, with Eddie Lewis joining in 2000. While Lewis would go on to become a hero on the international scene, the same couldn’t be said about his time in London. Twenty-two appearances and a winning goal against Derby in the League Cup do his talent no justice, for Lewis was a solid footballer capable of more.

Hahnemann and Lewis in no way broke down barriers at Fulham. But they were pioneers, paving the way for an influx of better – and ultimately more successful – American players to make the grade in the wider English game. This initial era of Fulhamerica peaked with the club earning promotion to the Premier League in 2001.

 

The Golden Age

 

While the first half of the 2003/04 season saw Fulham feature no Americans at all, in January the club would bring in two players who would play key roles over the coming years. Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride would kick-start the most significant period of Americans making the walk along the Thames to the Cottage.

Bocanegra, only 24 at the time, had already established himself as the best defender in Major League Soccer. McBride, though, was considered past his best at 32 despite a promising loan spell at Everton. Before and during the initial seasons of Bocanegra and McBride’s tenures at Craven Cottage – and temporarily Loftus Road – Fulham turned themselves into a consistent mid-table side in the Premier League. Yet, as the seasons passed, it was looking like their time in the top flight was heading towards a disappointing end.

Despite the downturn, Bocanegra and McBride became fan favourites for many inside Craven Cottage. The former’s versatility across the back line and as a holding midfielder, combined with an ability to pop up with a goal, made him invaluable. McBride’s case was similar, with his work rate and aerial ability endearing him to Fulham fans and many beyond.

The 2006/07 season was expected to deliver another mid-table finish for Fulham, but with the club only gaining one win in 18 games during an awful mid-season slump, manager Chris Coleman was replaced by then-Northern Ireland boss, Lawrie Sanchez. But before the departure of the Welshman, he made one last transfer that, unbeknownst to everyone involved, would save Fulham’s season. The player he bought was Clint Dempsey.

Despite four productive seasons with the New England Revolution, the £2m transfer fee was questioned by some in the media. Coleman, however, was quick to defend Dempsey’s talent: “He has all the attributes to be a top player in the Premier League. It’s not like he’s coming here to sit on the bench. He’s coming because we’ve bought him to make a big impact.”

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With Fulham in danger of being relegated, they gained four points from five games to put themselves in a position to be saved on the final day; all they needed was to avoid a loss to Liverpool and hope that results elsewhere went their way. With the Reds rotating their squad ahead of the Champions League final, there was hope within Craven Cottage that safety was possible. Sure enough, a 1-0 victory, with Dempsey the goal-scoring hero, saved the Superwhites.

McBride also played a big role in Fulham’s escape, finishing as top scorer in the league with nine and providing the movement and work ethic that dragged so many of his teammates across the line. Just 10 years earlier when Al-Fayed purchased the club, few could’ve predicted that two Americans would play key roles in their survival in the Premier League. What a decade it had been.

The 2007/08 season was no different, with the man who was credited with saving the club from relegation less than a year prior, Lawrie Sanchez, sacked and replaced by Roy Hodgson. With Hodgson’s appointment dividing many in the English game, not least within the club itself, doubts lingered regarding the club’s ability to stay up.

Despite their struggles, Fulhamerica continued to grow, with Keller becoming the fourth American in the squad. Along with making over a hundred appearances for the national team, he’d enjoyed a club career that had taken in the likes of Tottenham, Leicester and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Hodgson completed his squad by recruiting Eddie Johnson, at the time one of the most coveted American players.

Despite both lasting just a solitary season – Keller left to join the Seattle Sounders and  Johnson was sent out on loan for the remainder of his contract – they played roles in the club’s great escape.

Keller’s time between the sticks was split with Antti Niemi, though by keeping a clean sheet on the final day of the season against Portsmouth, he ensured survival for his club. Johnson would only make six appearances that season, but Dempsey shone as arguably the club’s best player alongside Simon Davies, registering six goals to secure their Premier League status for another year.

At the end of the season, the two Americans who’d become staples of the club, Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra, had moved on to pastures new. McBride left Fulham as an icon, his legacy secured as one of the club’s finest imports. They even named a bar in Craven Cottage after him. Indeed, when fans were asked to create a Premier League Best XI for Fulham from 2001 to 2012, McBride was placed up top, one of two Americans to make the team along with Dempsey.

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Bocanegra, unlike McBride, was still in his prime. Instead of going home to end his career, he went to France to play for Rennes. He would turn out for Saint-Étienne, Rangers and Racing Santander before returning to America to play for Chivas USA.

The pair, while not the flashiest or high-profile, are considered amongst the finest Americans footballers ever. That they got to play together in the Premier League lends some weight to the assertion that this was the greatest period of US talent in history, with others also shining in the Premier League and beyond.

Despite the winds of change ahead, one man was to create a legacy at Fulham that would exceed both his compatriots.

 

The Dempsey Era

 

With the departures of McBride, Bocanegra and Keller, and with Johnson unlikely to ever become a star, Clint Dempsey was the last of what to this point had been the finest group of Americans to turn out for the Cottagers. His time in west London would coincide – or perhaps more appropriately, align – with the greatest in their history.

With a rise of 10 places and 58 points, Fulham had completed their most successful Premier League season ever in 2008/09, finishing in seventh place. It meant that they qualified for the reformed Europa League in the process.

Dempsey was one of the key players during the season, registering eight goals and three assists in all competitions from midfield, his influence growing by the month. He would take that form into 2009/10, arguably the greatest season in Fulham history.

Despite the distraction of the Europa League, Fulham would finish a respectable 12th in the league, with Dempsey, as second top scorer behind Bobby Zamora, linking effectively with the likes of Damien Duff, Zoltán Gera and Danny Murphy behind the target man.

After navigating tricky qualification ties against Vėtra and Amkar Perm, Fulham qualified from a tough group featuring CSKA Sofia, Basel and Roma. For most fans, their advancement to the knockout stages was enough, but the real magic was still to come.

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After dispatching the heavily fancied Shakhtar Donetsk, the Cottagers were pitted against the might of Turin’s Old Lady, Juventus. True to form, the Italians won 3-1 at home to surely secure their passage to the next round. Indeed, an away goal put Juventus 4-1 up as the fans around Craven Cottage began to look back fondly upon their journey in Europe.

Hodgson and his players had other ideas, though, with Zamora giving the club hope and Gera sending the stadium into a frenzy with two strikes, bringing the tie level along the way. All the momentum was now with Fulham, who were well on top of the talents of David Trezeguet, Fabio Cannavaro and Mauro Camoranesi.

The 82nd minute would send a frenzied stadium into tears of joy as Dempsey would become the hero of the hour, scoring one of the most important – and perhaps most beautiful – goals of the season, chipping Antonio Chimenti from just outside the box to secure the Londoners’ passage into the last eight.

With wins over German clubs Wolfsburg and HSV, the impossible dream was very much on. Standing in the way of continental dominance was Atlético Madrid.

The Madrid giants would strike first in the 32nd minute, but a quick response from Simon Davies put the clubs even once again. Despite Dempsey starting on the bench – he often began European games from there and would come on to make an impact – he would be given his chance in the 55th minute, becoming the first American to play in a major European final.

With Atlético looking like the stronger side in the first half, Fulham gave a much better account of themselves in the second, creating chances and troubling the Spanish back line on the counter. The game would eventually go to extra-time, where the dream would sadly end for the Premier League outfit.

With just four minutes left until the lottery of a penalty shootout, Diego Forlán would pop up and break Fulham hearts, denying the club the opportunity to win a maiden European title. Still, it had been the most unforgettable journey.

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With Hodgson leaving for Liverpool soon after the final, Mark Hughes would step in and rebuild, taking the club to an eighth-place finish the season after. Despite the change, Dempsey’s output remained similar to the previous season, with 13 goals and four assists in all competitions while playing as a second striker.

The following season would be the most prolific for Dempsey as a Cottager. With Hughes leaving after less than a year at the club, Martin Jol became the new man in charge. Although Fulham slipped back to ninth in the league, which was likely caused by another journey in Europe, Dempsey, playing up top in a 4-4-1-1, scored 23 goals and snared six assists in what would be one of the finest seasons an import has ever enjoyed at the club. He also became the first American to score 50 Premier League goals along the way.

With the striker only 29 and coming fourth in the FWA Footballer of the Year Award, Dempsey became a target for big clubs across the country, with Liverpool at one point in pole position for his signature. A £7m Tottenham bid later and Dempsey, perhaps the greatest star from North America to ever lace up a pair of boots for Fulham, was gone. At least for now.

For the first time since the 2002/03 season, no American would play for Fulham as the 2012/13 campaign began. As the tides changed for Fulhamerica, the club itself was also in a state of flux. Following the sale of Dempsey – alongside others – Fulham dropped down to 12th in the table as the sales hit home.

With a change in ownership and continued inconsistency on the pitch, the next season saw three managerial appointments as they finished 19th, ending their Premier League stay after a memorable 13 seasons. Even Dempsey, who joined for two months on loan, was powerless to save Fulham. It was both the end of Fulhamerica and the start of a new chapter in the Championship.

 

The Rebirth of Fulhamerica

 

The Championship was no friendlier to Fulham than the Premier League had been the year before. The club endured a poor season, finishing in 17th place. Thoughts of an immediate return to the Premier League were dead and buried long before Christmas.

Amid this chaos came a new star to carry the Fulhamerica torch – Emerson Hyndman. While the 18-year-old was underwhelming in his 11 appearances during the 2014/15 season, he was an academy product who had the fans on his side, and few expected he’d be the new Dempsey.

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If Hyndman represented the rebirth of Fulhamerica, Tim Ream was the beating heart. Making the move from the New York Red Bulls to Bolton – who were in the Premier League at the time – in 2012, Ream already had experience in England.

After three seasons in the Championship following Bolton’s relegation, Ream garnered interest from other clubs, which led the defender to Craven Cottage. Registering 32 appearances in his first season, he struggled to win over the fans, culpable on a handful of occasions in a season of shoddy defending for the Londoners.

Slipping down to 20th, it represented a telling and important nadir at the club. What would come out of such a poor season was a manager who’d transform Fulham and eventually guide them back to the Premier League – Slaviša Jokanović.

Despite two underwhelming seasons, Hyndman secured himself a gig with Premier League newcomers Bournemouth, where he’s been on the periphery, though he did enjoy a productive loan spell at Rangers last year.

Ream wouldn’t stand alone as the only American for long as Luca de la Torre, who, like Hyndman, is also a product of the club’s academy, would begin his journey into the first team. As Fulhamerica was looking upwards, for the first time in a few seasons, the club could say the same too.

Jokanović’s men would finish in sixth, which saw them reach and ultimately falter in the playoffs. They went one better last season, securing their spot back in the Premier League. Ream overcame his difficult start at the club to register a career-high 48 appearances for the season, proving to be one of Fulham’s most consistent and influential players. De la Torre made five appearances in the Championship – all as a substitute – with his push for minutes likely to continue in the top-flight.

As the 2018/19 season dawns, it appears that a new era of Fulhamerica may be on the way. Along with De la Torre and Ream, there’s another young American talent in Marlon Fossey providing fans on both sides of the Atlantic with hope for the future.

A wholly unique relationship in the modern game, the Americans mentioned above have made nearly 750 appearances for the club since 1999. This union has not only led to memorable moments in the history of American footballers in Europe, but it has also gone hand-in-hand with some of Fulham’s greatest moments. Despite clubs like Everton and Rangers having a notable history with Americans, no side is a better home away from home for US stars quite like Fulham.

By Steven Keehner @Steven_Keehner

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