A BLOW TO AMERICAN GAME
Dempsey could get relegated
This weekend marks round 31 of the 38 week marathon known as the English Premiership and heading into Saturday's action Derby County, Fulham, and Reading remain in serious jeopardy of receiving the dubious distinction of "Most likely to succeed in the Championship next season."
Relegation from the Premiership is a devastating blow for any club to suffer but if these three sides go down it will be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for American soccer.
All of these teams receive regular contributions from United States international players and Fulham, in particular, is dependent on their nucleus of Americans in order to get the results on the field.
Cory Gibbs of Charlton Athletic and Jay Demerit of Watford have already been on the receiving end of a relegation battle beatdown and with this past summer's departures of DaMarcus Beasley to Rangers and Oguchi Onyewu back to Standard Liege, the Premiership will be rapidly devoid of American field players if the Rams, Cottagers, and Royals can't execute the greatest of Great Escapes.
A close examination of each of these teams will reveal the uphill battle they will face during the final eight games of the 07/08 campaign.
Derby County's Premiership epitaph is all but officially written at this point of the season. The Rams have accumulated an astonishingly embarrassing ten points through their first thirty games and will virtually have to win out to avoid Championship soccer next season.
Eddie Lewis has been a Rams regular but his contribution has been minimal at best. Meanwhile, Benny Feilhaber seems to have pulled a disappearing act that Harry Houdini would have marvelled at. Benny has never been in Billy Davies' or Paul Jewell's good graces and the one appearance that I was actually privileged enough to witness was an exhibition in selfish soccer.
I'm sure all of you remember Feilhaber's wonder goal against Mexico in the Gold Cup Final, but that sort of play apparently can't be replicated at the Premiership level. Feilhaber's consideration of Maccabi Tel Aviv as a possible future destination is a self indictment of the fact that maybe his skills just aren't Premiership caliber. Derby are going down faster than Britney Spears' career, but perhaps the Championship is where Eddie and Benny belong.
Fulham Football Club is in dire straits as well, and their departure from England's top flight would be the most devastating for American soccer. West London's smaller club touts five Yanks who have all seen playing time this season, with Clint Dempsey in particular playing a pivotal role in the Cottagers rare victories. Deuce has seen the most time this season and his six goals will likely find him a spot on another Premiership team if Fulham go down
The futures of Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, and Eddie Johnson are much more tenuous. Keller may finally call it a day and retire from soccer altogether, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him return to the US and play in MLS.
Despite the class that Brian McBride exudes, I'm not sure if he'll be highly sought after at his age. Bake has been a phenomenal ambassador for American soccer and I hope he catches on somewhere else, but my instincts tell me he'll be going down with the ship.
Carlos has seemingly fallen out of favor with new head coach Roy Hodgson and starting appearances have become infrequent in recent months. Boca is a weapon on set pieces, but his marking skills are marginal at best and it will be interesting to see where his future resides. Personally I believe he will catch on with a lower level Premiership team like Wigan but only time will tell what his destiny holds.
The career of Eddie Johnson is also in serious limbo if the Cottagers are relegated.
In August, Johnson rejected then-Derby head coach Billy Davies' overtures for the G.A.M. to join the Rams, but apparently EJ found a January move to FulhAmerica to be a more desirable destination.
I witnessed Johnson make his debut start for the Cottagers at home against Manchester United and it was more horrifying than Rosie O'Donnell at an all-you-can eat buffet. About the only positive thing I can say about Johnson's "contribution" is that he looked really smooth in those new Nike Mercurial Vapor IVs that players like Cristiano Ronaldo are wearing, but unfortunately that's about the only thing EJ and the Portuguese maestro have in common.
Though he has improved in his last two starts - games which Fulham earned four points - he's still been average at best. Johnson would have gone down with Derby and I think he will remain with Fulham when they likely plummet to the Championship.
Steve Coppell's Reading was the biggest breath of fresh air during the 2006/07 Premiership campaign, but 07/08 has brought on a hideous case of the Sophomore Jinx. The Royals have won two of their past three matches to vault up to 15th, but still are only three points above the drop. No other team outside of Derby has more losses, and only the Rams and Newcastle United have worse defenses.
Yanks Marcus Hahnemann and Bobby Convey have become mainstays in the Royals' Starting XI and losing them from the Premier League would be an excruciating blow for American soccer fans like myself.
Hahnemann has made more crucial saves for Reading than Goldberg made for Gordon Bombay in "The Mighty Ducks." (If you're under the age of 30 and haven't seen that movie I question your patriotism). Reading's bald goalkeeper currently leads the Premiership with 205 saves and his skills are one of the only reasons the Royals haven't dropped more points.
Convey has been an impact player for Reading as well, but his fatal flaw is that he can't stay fit for an extended period of time. The left-footed midfielder is an excellent crosser of the ball and is effective on set pieces, but his size is prohibitive and his toughness is questionable.
Both Hahnemann and Convey are exports that American soccer fans can be proud of and I still believe in my heart of hearts that Reading will avoid the drop.
Sunderland's away play has been shocking, Bolton lacks a true goalscoring threat after selling Nicolas Anelka, Birmingham is highly inconsistent, and Kevin Keegan's mystical return to Newcastle United has turned into an absolute nightmare for the Geordie faithful. These four teams are on a downward spiral and I honestly believe that Coppell will get his team to dig deep and grind out the wins required to stay in the Premiership.
The absence of as many as nine Yanks from the 2008/09 Premiership campaign would be disastrous for the development of these players' careers. Blossoming stars like Dempsey and Hahnemann need to face the world class competition that only the Premier League can provide. Players like Lewis and Feilhaber obviously don't possess the skills of top flight Premiership midfielders like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, but the experience gained from facing these types of prodigies week in and week out is invaluable towards the improvement of their own skill sets.
There is no doubt in my mind that every one of the Americans I've referenced in this article has improved substantially as a result of competing at the Premiership level. McBride has become a much more reliable goalscorer after moving from the Columbus Crew to Everton and later as captain of Fulham.
Bocanegra's toughness and tackling have definitely improved due to the responsibilities of covering global starlets like Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, and Thierry Henry. Even an injury-prone Convey has transformed into a highly accurate set-piece taker as a result of his duties at Reading.
The difference between the English Premier League and the Coca Cola Championship is like the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood. The greatest actors and actresses of the world aspire to be in the world's most memorable films, not the movies that are known to only a select few around the globe.
The television exposure and notoriety gained from playing in the Premiership is immeasurable and so are the intangibles obtained from facing top notch competition week after week.
The Championship would be a remarkable achievement for athletes from many of the CONCACAF nations, but for Americans it should be viewed only as a stepping stone toward England's promised land.