MICHAEL ADUBATO - Sunday, January 25, 2009
With each January comes the 'silly season', and for many young Americans this means attempting to make the jump from the MLS or college to the old continent.
While most dream of England, Germany and Spain, many of our little known or unknown players seem to gravitate north to Denmark, Norway or Sweden, which by and large elicit collective yawns from the American soccer fan.
Over the past few years, though, I've found myself asking why so few choose to test the waters of the country that I have called home for the past dozen years - Belgium.
Granted, the Jupiler beer sponsored Eerste Klasse here in Belgium isn't one of the continent's biggest or most watched leagues, but speaking from experience and having been to hundreds of games while here, I can attest to the quality of the teams and the technical skills of many of the players.
The Belgian league has been a fairly successful stepping stone for many players who had aspirations to move on to bigger and better teams and leagues.
Unlike the bigger leagues where its always the usual suspects when it comes to the European competitions, Belgium is different. Although the bigger Belgian teams do take the Belgian Cup seriously and rarely play anyone but their best players in it, winning this FA Cup is not a given for them.
In the past ten years Club Brugge, a quasi-big club has won the Cup three times, where Anderlecht won it once, last year, and Standard Liege not since 1981. So yes, coming to play in Belgium on any team and you have a decent shot at seeing some European competition.
The biggest, most successful team in Belgium over the years has of course been Anderlecht. The team from the capital is always in the top two in the league and is usually in the Champions League every year.
Some of the successful players who either started at or passed through the doors of Les Mauves are Vincent Kompany of Manchester City, Mohammed Tchite of Racing Santander and Czech international Jan Koller. Throw Celestine Babayaro and Tomasz Radzinski into the mix and you have the makings of a solid system.
The most successful American player to have played in Belgium is, obviously, current Standard Liege defender Oguchi Onyewu. Last season, the 6'4" USMNT star helped Les Rouches to their first Belgian championship in 25 years and has them in contention again this campaign. Onyewu will move on to bigger and better things, if not in this transfer window, then when his contract expires in the summer.
Though the country doesn't have the big name history as Italy, Germany and other 'major' leagues, aspiring American players should not make the mistake of believing they could just walk onto a team and be a star.
Two-time All-American and Notre Dame stand-out Greg Dalby tested the waters in Belgium when he signed for Charleroi last season and learned first hand how tough the league could be. Although he held his own on the field in the reserves, he decided to head to the Colorado Rapids to finally make his professional debut.
Currently there are a pair of young Americans on Belgian rosters - 18-year old Jared Jeffrey of Club Brugge, who has come through the US' youth ranks, and Patrick Lane who kept goal for Loyola Marymount University before signing with Cercle Brugge last summer.
Both have yet to see first team soccer, but have the skills to succeed in this league and should see their debuts before the end of the season.
"The style of soccer is exceptional and not like we're used to in the states where everybody gets behind the ball," Lane told me about his thoughts of the learning experience. "The game here is very technical. Personally, for me, it's been great."
"Any league where you can get in is worth it. I'm happy here with Cercle. Money isn't a priority to me and shouldn't be for anybody my age."
That statement is cliche from athletes (I'm sure Mark Teixeira said the same thing before signing with New York) but for those that could do just fine with a few buck less here and there, Belgium offers not only a tough and competitive league which is hugely scouted, it also has the most lax passport and citizenship rules of any country in the EU.
When I'm in the press room I often hear English, German or the occasional Italian voice. These are the voices of scouts and team representatives from those countries looking to pick up a diamonds in the rough and proven player in the Jupiler League.
Only last week, Standard Liege reported that they have had requests from over 20 European teams for tickets in order to scout some of the players on the Belgian champion's roster.
Onyewu's teammates Axel Witsel, who just won the Golden Boot over the weekend, captain Steven Defour and Serbian Milan Jovanovic are on the radar and will be in Germany and/or England come summer time.
Success in Belgium is no less a path to England, Spain or Italy than those freezing up in Scandinavia. I just wish that more Americans would take a look at the opportunities.