The first American to make a name for himself was Bill Regan who played for Romford in 1948/49 and played in the 1949 Amateur Cup Final – becoming the first American to play at Wembley Stadium – probably the most recognizable Stadium in Europe at the time. The first American to score at the Old Wembley was Mike Masters who achieved the feat for Colchester United against Witton Albion in the 1992 FA Trophy final.
Around the same time, the first modern day American “superstar” was making his name with Sheffield Wednesday in the Premiership. John Harkes was a hard-working midfielder who later appeared for Derby County, West Ham and Nottingham Forest. Harkes remains the first American to play and score in the Premiership and was the first American to collect a winner’s medal in a cup competition (League Cup 1993 v Manchester United).
The 90’s saw the influx begin in earnest with the arrival of Kasey Keller to Millwall and Leicester City; Cobi Jones to Coventry City; Joe Max-Moore to Everton, Brad Friedel to Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa, and Claudio Reyna to Glasgow Rangers.
Success was varied to say the least, and not just referring to the hairstyles – Jones as The Predator, Friedel as an extra from Full Metal Jacket, and Keller as a one-man tribute to Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Keller was the most successful and went on to appear in the Premiership with Tottenham; Friedel is still going strong and holds the record for most consecutive appearances in the EPL – 207 and counting. Jones had an unspectacular season in the East Midlands and returned to the States after only one season.
The next decade saw even more Americans flood the gates. Brian McBride to Fulham, DeMarcus Beasley to Glasgow Rangers, Clint Dempsey to Fulham, Jeff Agoos to West Brom; Tim Howard to Manchester United and Everton and now Landon Donovan who will join Everton in January 2010.
McBride is probably the most successful export after Friedel appearing for Fulham over 150 times, scoring 40 times – the highest American scorer in the EPL. Dempsey is a quietly effective wide-man with the Cottagers but was often in the big center forward’s shadow. Beasley enjoyed moderate success with PSV Eindhoven, didn’t really tear up any trees at Manchester City and is now on loan in Glasgow where at least he achieved the distinction of being the highest American career scorer in the Champions League with six for PSV and Rangers.
Howard continues to build on his growing reputation as the best US import in the EPL today, with Friedel past his prime now. Donovan is going to have a struggle to impose himself in a league where he will go from being a big fish (although not quite the biggest) in a small pond into just another tiddler in the most watched and scrutinized league in the world. A good six months may earn him a permanent move to Europe and the enhancements that go with it but a poor six months could be a critical knock to his confidence just before the most important tournament in recent US soccer history. Donovan’s success though and a strong performance against England in the Game of the Decade on June 12 would be monumental. We might see even more compatriots roll up followed by numerous baseball cap attired guys from Maine asking for directions to the “Liverpool Reds” stadium before being cheerfully directed in the opposite direction to Goodison Park by those cheeky, irrepressible scousers.