Saturday, February 10, 2007
The Bake, Boca & Deuce Show at Craven Cottage is actually the second American invasion of Fulham, the West London neighborhood which also houses Chelsea's Stamford Bridge within its boundaries.
I am not referring to the early 1940's when thousands of US GIs - 'overpaid, oversexed and over here' according to the grumbling locals - stole the hearts of a generation of English roses with gifts of free nylons before departing the dance halls for D-Day, never to return.
No, Fulham's American roots literally run much deeper.
Get off at Putney Bridge subway station in West London and your route to Craven Cottage takes you on an unusually leafy and genteel approach to an English soccer venue, following the Thames River past the medieval tower of All Saints Church through Bishops Park.
Halfway to the Cottage, you pass the entrance to the little-known Fulham Palace, for a millennium the official home of the Bishop of London, the man in charge of St. Paul's Cathedral and the spiritual well being of Americans back in the days when the 13 Colonies belonged to Britannia.
For this reason, some of the trees you are passing might seem a little, well, familiar.
In 1675, a consignment of New World saplings and shrubs arrived in Fulham from Virginia, courtesy of the Reverend John Banister, a missionary and keen gardener working under Bishop Compton, who crowned King William III (after whom Williamsburg is named).
Bishop Compton set the first American roots down in Europe in the grounds of Fulham Palace, in whose library the priceless 1620 "Log of the Mayflower" was discovered in 1856 - it now sits proudly in Boston's State House.
All this history might have been of no interest to the tanked up, hot dog guzzling soccer fans who trooped along the Thames to see the Cottagers last Saturday, but I could not help thinking it was ironic that Fulham, of the capital's dozen pro soccer quarters, had an American flavor long before Clint Dempsey first freestyled his way around the avenues of 'SW6' (the area's zip code).
Last Saturday's win over a hapless Newcastle witnessed the Cottagers' second highest crowd of the season - 170 less than watched Arsenal, but 50 more than for the visit of near neighbors Chelsea.
This attendance was inflated for the most part by an influx of black and white clad fans speaking Geordie (Newcastle's jaunty, yet impenetrable dialect) to each other, but another variety of English was also clearly audible - "American".
I have been reporting on Fulham regularly for the past couple of seasons and I have never heard so many voices from the USA at an English soccer game as I did that day.
Outside the stadium, on Stevenage Road, at the concessions stand at halftime, in the club store after the game, and on the bus and train home - there they were, Yanks who had been to the soccer at Fulham.
Sure, a good number were fair-weather fans out to savor the rare treat of watching four US internationals on a London field at once, but they were still a very welcome addition.
Fulham are unique in Europe in fielding three US stars, a situation the club is keen to celebrate with its new-found following, especially as the Cottagers have the fifth lowest average attendance in the Premiership and often fail to sell more than 20,000 tickets.
But how did this happen in the first place? Weren't Americans supposed to sign for second division clubs, get a few games before sitting on the bench for the rest of the season and then returning to MLS?
Plus, it is not that Fulham have bought just any Americans; Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Dempsey are top drawer US internationals with World Cup Finals on their résumés.
Sarah Brookes, Fulham's Head of Communications, told me how US players impressed Chris Coleman enough for him to make a duo a trio. He has tried to bag two others - Oguchi Onyewu this year, and in 2003, Claudio Reyna (who notoriously posed for photos in a Fulham jersey a day before joining Manchester City).
"Chris is obviously looking at all nationalities," she said, "but he believes MLS has a good crop of players suited to the Premiership. With Carlos and Brian, and the fact they have fitted in very well, it has become a market he has been actively interested in."
"I think he understands that American players can integrate into the Premiership fairly quickly - obviously there are no language barriers or cultural differences."
But it is worth remembering the trio are not the first Yanks to kick balls in anger beside the Thames.
The first American player at Fulham was Marcus Hahnemann, signed from MLS by Paul Bracewell in 1999. He was followed in February 2000 by Eddie Lewis, whom the club introduced modestly to their fans as 'the American Beckham'.
Their playing chances dimmed, however, when Jean Tigana replaced Bracewell in May 2000. The two Yanks were most often to be seen playing for the Fulham Reserves in front of a scattering of die-hard fans at Conference team Woking's 6,000 capacity arena.
When Lewis stormed up the left wing in Jeonju at the 2002 World Cup and sent over a textbook cross for Landon Donovan to dismiss Mexico from the tournament, most English journalists reacted with surprise to learn 'Fast Eddie' was on the books at Craven Cottage.
Hahnemann made two full appearances and Lewis 14 in a three-year spell before both happily found their careers back on track when they moved to Reading and Preston North End, respectively.
The Cottagers did not wait long to resume their transatlantic traffic. Chicago Fire and US center back Bocanegra arrived in January 2004 and was quickly joined by McBride, who moved to Fulham on a $1.5 million deal from MLS after successful English loan spells with Preston and Everton.
At 34, the former Crew hit man may be no spring chicken, but he has scored more goals with each successive Cottage season: nine in 2004/05, 11 in 2005/06 and he is currently looking for #12 for this term. Last May, he was elected Player of the Season by his club's fans.
Bake will not run forever, but last Saturday - in the midst of his Indian summer - he hit the net for a winning strike at the Hammersmith End and it felt like the Illinoisan had not aged a day.
"He is probably the best Ł700,000 anybody has ever spent, he is different class," enthused his coach after the game, as if describing an exciting new young signing, "He is tremendous!"
Bocanegra and McBride have reassured British coaches (no Americans play for the EPL's four foreign-coached teams: Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham) that Yanks in England are about more than asking directions to Buckingham Palace - they can play their type of football too.
The duo's positive attitude, uncomplaining toil and faultless professionalism had left such a stamp on 'Cookie' Coleman's mind that he had no hesitation in going back to MLS to sign Dempsey in early 2007 and tabling an unsuccessful bid, reportedly of around $2 million, for Onyewu.
"Clint is someone Chris had followed for a while," Brookes confirmed, "He saw him play in our fixture against the MLS All-Stars on our preseason tour last summer. Onyewu, he saw during the World Cup, so he was another player who was of interest to him."
For now, the club store is doing a roaring trade in t-shirts bearing the "FFC" logo alongside the Stars and Stripes. Fulham fans or not, we should all take a moment to salute a genuine success story for US Soccer amid the home of football.
To have three American internationals suiting up for one team in the EPL is unprecedented and a great achievement for a nation sometimes still, though thankfully less and less, tiresomely derided by insular Brits as being 'soccer-hating'.
It is said that one of the first things the English did after sailing into Jamestown and pitching camp, exactly 400 years ago in 1607, was have a pick-up soccer game. Now, the sport is starting to travel in the other direction.
When Bishop Compton planted those first American trees in Fulham, he took a risk on some overseas products, but it paid off and they bore fruit. Little did he know another fine US crop would spring up 332 years later, only a soccer ball's kick away.