U.S. soccer players feel more welcome in England


Sitting recently in a busy cafe on the outskirts of Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city, Jonathan Spector appears as English as the queen’s corgis. He even has the touch of an accent, making him sound vaguely British.

But when he orders espresso instead of tea, his cover is blown.

“I’m still very much viewed as an American,” Spector says with a shrug.

Luckily for him, that’s not quite the pejorative it used to be — at least not in English soccer circles, which is where Spector spends most of his time

Once viewed as hardworking, if not particularly talented, players from a soccer backwater, Americans are now making a major impact in the English Premier League, considered by many to be the best league in the world.

Last season, Texan Clint Dempsey, one of five Americans to play in the EPL, finished fourth in the league in scoring with 17 goals for Fulham — a performance that earned him a three-year contract Friday with Tottenham Hotspur. There he joines another American, goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who posted 14 shutouts in 2011-12 and on Saturday extended his league record for consecutive starts to 307.

“The more Americans that come over and have some success, the more they’re sort of respected,” says Spector, a defender on the U.S. World Cup team in 2010. “Since I’ve been here I’ve noticed the change in attitude toward Americans in general playing soccer over here.”

Spector, 26, who went to England when he was 17, has been there so long he earned his first license driving on the left side of the road. Signed by Manchester United in 2003, the same year the team acquired U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard, Spector played in the Premiership for Man U and West Ham United before landing with Birmingham City in 2011, shortly after the team was relegated to the second-tier Football League Championship.

That makes Spector one of the longest-tenured of the 34 Americans to have appeared in an EPL game since the league’s inception in 1992. And though many of those players were originally seen as curiosities in England, that’s no longer the case.

“People now in Europe take American players a lot more seriously than they did 10, 15 years ago,” says Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, a former captain of the English national team who played 10 seasons for Manchester United before moving on to play in Spain and Italy. “The level has definitely gone up. When you’ve got young players coming through, people take notice.”

Galaxy captain Landon Donovan, who played well on two loans to Everton of the EPL, agrees Europe is a different place than it once was for American soccer players.

“I certainly had a sense then that all of Europe didn’t really respect American players or the American game,” Donovan says. “Even when we were traveling with the youth national teams, teams from other countries, there would be this sort of arrogance that they thought and knew they were going to beat us.”

He credits Dempsey for changing that.

“Clint has really set the bar now, really proven that Americans can cut it at that level,” Donovan says. “It’s opened the door for everyone else. And now they say ‘Wow. These guys can really play.’ Not only in the confines of their own country or the national team, but they can play at a world-class level against world-class players and do it consistently.”

In fact Americans have become so integrated on the field during the foreign invasion that has overwhelmed the EPL — 310 foreign-born players representing 67 countries played in the 20-team league last season — the most challenging part of the move to England now happens away from the stadium.

“I get baseball on TV, [but] I miss going to games,” says Spector, who grew up a Cubs fan in suburban Chicago. “I definitely miss the pizza.”

The passion surrounding soccer in England has also taken some getting used to, for both Spector and his schoolteacher girlfriend Olivia, a high school sweetheart from Illinois, who lives with him in Birmingham.

“If we lose, just be[ing] out the next day grocery shopping someone may say something to you,” Spector says. “Just ‘Hey, what’s going on? When is the team going to start winning?’

“As long as the fans see you’re trying as hard as you possibly can and working hard, they’re not overly critical.”

Injury shortened Spector’s first season in Birmingham and probably cost him a call-up to the U.S. national team. But he proved his fitness last month, playing in all three of Birmingham City’s games, starting twice. And if he continues to improve, Spector, who signed a two-year deal with Birmingham City last summer, could extend his stay in England next summer

“I really enjoy playing here,” he says. “It is the best league in the world to be in, playing in England. It’s the most competitive and probably the most exciting in the world.”

And now it’s become a welcome place for Americans to play as well.

“I always told them I was American. I wanted to change the perception,” says Spector, who was so young when he came to England that he’s officially listed as a home-grown player rather than an import.

“I’d like to think I may have had some sort of part to play in that.”