Tuesday, May 15, 2007
The English league season ended in a downpour on Sunday, but for the Yanks stationed over here, it has been a damp season that never caught fire all round.

None of our boys were promoted, nobody reached a Cup final and nobody won international acclaim for memorable goals or performances.

Three got relegated (Jay DeMerit, Cory Gibbs and Eddie Lewis), three others missed most if not all of the campaign through nagging injuries (Bobby Convey, Gibbs and Zak Whitbread) and two US internationals were politely shown the door (DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu).

Clint Dempsey's goal against Liverpool, which effectively saved Fulham from relegation, and Jonathan Spector's last gasp great escape were as exciting as it got.

The question is, will next season be any different? Sure there were injuries, poor coaches and play-it-safe teammates which affected the Americans' performances, but at the end of the day, maybe we just expected too much of the 17 Yanks posted to the home of football.

Accepting mediocrity is tough for anyone, and it is hard to admit we may be kidding ourselves in thinking our guys are better than their incompetent teammates and coaches 24/7, in all terrains and in all possible weather conditions.

Whether you are a supporter, player or multi-million dollar investor in a sports team, it is not just easier to dream - it is almost heresy not to.

I have been mildly excited about Johann Smith and Jemal Johnson's striking potential, for instance, but should I have been interested in what may be no more than two journeymen? Johnson can't seem to hold down a job longer than six months anywhere.

When John Harkes played for Sheffield Wednesday, he was a leader, hauling the Owls to three Wembley Cup finals and bagging England's Goal of the Season award. Harkes was a central midfielder, unlike any of the current gang, and could grab games by the scruff of the neck more easily as a result.

The most exciting American midfielder in England last season, Bobby Convey, had a white-out in 2006/07 because of too much soccer last year.

Our strikers were too often starved and the defenders spent a season under siege. YA clubs Fulham, Watford and West Ham were among the five worst defenses in the EPL this season.

The US goalkeepers emerged with real credit, however, a fact which has bypassed most fans, who naturally prefer to see goals at the other end of the field.

Four of the dozen Premiership Yanks made the ACTIM Index of the top 100 players of the season: Marcus Hahnemann came in 15th, Tim Howard 26th, Brad Friedel 32nd and Brian McBride 72nd.

Hahnemann was the second best goalkeeper in the Premiership according to ACTIM (David James came first), but stopped more shots (164) than anyone else.

Friedel was the next most difficult to beat custodian with 153 saves, and Howard fourth with 134, which could also suggest our goalies are bailing out some of the worst defenders around every Saturday.

McBride won Fulham's Player of the Season award for the second year in a row, with Carlos Bocanegra finishing third, the two Americans bagging the top two spots in the Craven Cottage scoring charts.

Bocanegra has long been an unsung hero and in 2006/07, revealed hidden talents as a defensive midfielder as well as producing a number of key attacking forays - hence his goals tally.

However, the defense he must count himself a member of was the No.1 exporter of goals in the Premiership and his team stuttered to a halt just one point above the abyss.

We all know how lethal McBride is - only Thierry Henry, Dimitar Berbatov, Jermain Defoe and Benni McCarthy beat the ageless Illinoisan for shooting accuracy this season - but he ducked out of too many games because of a chronic lack of service.

His tireless professionalism got buried in his team's near death experience, which rendered Clint Dempsey's first strike all the more valuable, worth at least $50 million to be precise, the minimum amount the lowest finishing club next season will receive from TV revenues.

We had all licked our lips when he and Onyewu touched down in the Premiership, but before long, we were reaching for the Chapstick as the enthusiasm dried up.

Deuce has totaled only one start for Fulham since he signed, in a meaningless end of season encounter, while it did not take long for us to realize Gooch's loan from Liège was just that.

The coach who tracked and bagged Dempsey was fired with five games of the season to go, before Fulham had a lucky escape as Lawrie Sanchez harvested only four points, which puts into question the wisdom of sacking Chris Coleman at such a late stage.

Had Clint not scored, then three more Yanks could well have tumbled a division.

Hiring and firing coaches every few months doesn't help players, as a rule, but the shelf life of coaches in England grows shorter every season as yet more money is thrown at the game by investors without a soccer background - arrivistes who wallow in the media's limelight, but absurdly expect a fast return on their dollars from a really volatile business.

The Fulham boys, Beasley, Gibbs, Lewis, Onyewu, Frankie Simek and Spector all saw their bosses shown the door in 2006/07, a veritable shooting gallery for coaches.

Gooch's cameo at St. James' Park will not last long in the memory if, as expected, Sam Allardyce does not retain his services.

My colleague Michael Adubato received a torrent of epithets from Toon fans, horrified an American could question their club's pretensions of grandeur, but guess what: Newcastle finished 13th.

Simek, however, is one of the year's shining successes. The St. Louis-born right back has toiled in the shadows of the Championship since leaving Arsenal in 2005 but this could prove to be his breakout year.

His team just missed the playoffs, but the American scooped the Owls' Player of the Season award and debuted for the US National Team in March.

Lewis is a different story. One of America's most talented has endured a nightmare since DeMerit's header sent Watford to the Premiership in place of Leeds last May, culminating in demotion to League One.

What is so annoying is that Eddie is a very good winger who always causes problems for the opposition, but seems to land in the wrong places, apart from Preston.

I had thought his three barren years at Fulham (14 starts) were bad enough, but now he is in the third division and has lost his place in the US set-up.

Despite being voted Player of the Season by his fans, Eddie ought to jump the sinking Yorkshire ship, if he can. And this was the player hailed as "The American Beckham" when he first landed in England in 2000.

DeMerit and Gibbs also fell through the trapdoor, but let's absolve Cory of all blame - he has been sidelined all season and is desperate to pull on a Charlton jersey.

Don't feel too bad for Jay either - the Wisconsinite is happy his country has finally spotted him and is pleased with life at Watford.

DeMerit didn't get the better of the top gunners like Didier Drogba and Andy Johnson, but battled manfully as he always does, and came second in the Hornets' Player of the Season voting.

Losing two of their three stars during the season killed Watford's survival chances, leaving Jay & Co. with too much responsibility on their shoulders once the goals dried up.

Spector's season could have been classed a nightmare if the Hammers had been relegated, but thanks to Carlos Tevez, creative paperwork and somebody up there who likes West Ham, he can breathe again.

Spector is still not a regular starter, but having just turned 21, time is very much on his side. Plus, some East Londoners have started singing a certain ditty from "Team America, World Police" when he gets the ball, so he will only get more pumped.

Beasley's City life apparently came to an abrupt end a day after coach Stuart Pearce was given his marching orders. Judging his year in Manchester is a tough call as he had injury setbacks and had to pull his sleeves up to help out in an unsettled lineup.

Certainly no left back, Beasley at least began to show what he can do in his favored left wing berth towards the end of the campaign and scored a great goal against West Ham in December, but his loan spell felt very incomplete.

If he never returns to England it will be a shame, given that is where he says he wants to play.

So, there was not much to write home about for the outfield players. Between the sticks was where the Yanks really impressed in 2006/07 in England.

Along with Hahnemann, Brad Friedel, ever present this season for Blackburn, has been a top-drawer performer throughout the campaign.

As if he did not need to impress us any more already, the effervesecent (35-year old) Ohioan shows no signs of slowing down and may yet play in Europe after his team qualified for this summer's Intertoto Cup.

So that leaves Tim Howard. The New Jersey native still provokes raging arguments among US soccer fans, but he can content himself with having finished higher than any other American in England and having been the only one to qualify directly for European competition.

If ACTIM rates him as the third best keeper in the EPL, who are we to argue? For those stat lovers out there, Howard's saves to shots percentage was the highest in the division apart from Chelsea's Petr Cech.

Reading might have joined Everton in the UEFA Cup, but Hahnemann cruelly suffered a broken hand in their final game and Blackburn crashed two goals past fresh replacement Adam Federici.

Maybe our men are just not good enough to play for teams in the top half of the table, but for those in the bottom half who do look good enough, the future is not bright.

Roman Abramovich's frittering away of millions at the top of the tree has forced smaller teams to try to keep up, which they plainly cannot.

Our three amigos at the Cottage can only do so much to advance their cause when the guys around them are only performing intermittently and the bar at the top of the league is raised higher every year.

Accusations that England's top division is two leagues in one are mistaken - there are effectively three divisions in the Premiership and most of our guys are in the bottom one.

The eight or so teams in danger of the drop this year had next to no chance of making the UEFA Cup spots (fifth to seventh place). Watford and Charlton will find it doubly harder to rise again, as if emerging from the dogfight of the Championship was not already a big enough ask.

The top six finishing teams in that league this time were all "Premiership material" in one way or another, as are about six others, including Simek's Sheffield Wednesday and Lewis' relegated Leeds United.

But even a place at the high table does not mean dinner will be served.

Reading and possibly Everton apart, it has been a flat season for England's YA clubs and I don't know if next time will be any better.

I can't see any of the top four about to sign an American and for the rest of the division, another season of frustrated struggle surely awaits.

We could get a Yank promoted from the Championship, but I am not holding my breath.

The final day of 2006/07 witnessed heavy downpours up and down the country, which summed it up quiet aptly for me.

We have to hope for brighter skies next season, but the reasons behind this year's disappointments are not about to go away.