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Americans in the UK: Season Preview

By Matthew Braine

The 2000/09 season was a triumphant one for the Americans in the UK. Records were set, loads of goals were scored, and one tandem even claimed a few championships. Now, we look forward to another ten month-long adventure in European and domestic football with a full cast of strikers, midfielders, defenders, and, of course, 'keepers to watch out for.

While the summer was certainly action-packed with national team highs and lows, the club season is back on and with that a season preview is in order.

Last season there were several standout performances, including Maurice Edu winning a Scottish Premier League title with Rangers, Tim Howard leading Everton to a FA Cup final appearance, and Clint Dempsey leading Fulham in goals along with helping them earn a Europa League spot.

There was some movement from last year to this. Marcus Hahnemann, after being released by Reading, not only signed on with another team but got a league upgrade as he begins this campaign with Wolverhampton in the top flight. On the other hand Jemal Johnson, who was released by Milton Keynes Dons following last season, was re-signed by the club and has gone on to score a hat trick in a preseason contest, proving that signs do exist. Eddie Johnson is back with Fulham after captivating the hearts and stomachs of Cardiff fans for a season while Zak Whitbread looks to be leaving Millwall but no one knows where he’ll end up yet.   

So, without further or do, let’s break down this year’s American lineup.

Premiership:

Clint Dempsey, Fulham

Last Season: 41 Games, 8 Goals, 3 Assists

Despite leading his club in scoring last season and helping Fulham clinch a European spot, Dempsey felt the need to one-up himself over the summer. The gritty midfielder picked up the Bronze Ball award in the Confederations Cup after scoring in three straight matches and propelling the United States to the final against Brazil. Dempsey scored the third and final goal against Egypt, a vital goal considering they needed a 3-0 result to advance to the semifinals against Spain. Once there, Dempsey scored the second and final shocking goal as the Yanks ran off 2-0 winners in one of the most shocking and fulfilling victories in U.S. history. Although Dempsey opened the scoring for the squad against Brazil and the team staked a 2-0 lead, they could not hold on, as Brazil stormed back to win 3-2 in heart-wrenching style.   

Dempsey will begin his Fulham campaign as a regular in the first team. The club is already in action as their Europa League qualification began on July 30. Their match against FK Vetra was anything but one as Fulham raced out to a 0-3 win and now sit comfortably in control for their home tie this week. Dempsey played 81 effective minutes. The Cottagers begin their Premiership season on August 15 away at Portsmouth.

Tim Howard, Everton
Last Season: 48 Games, 20 Clean Sheets

Howard was also a huge part of U.S. Confederations Cup run as he started all but one match. The 'keeper also copped the Major League Soccer All-Star MVP award last week as he stopped three penalty shots en route to an Everton victory. The win snapped a five year unbeaten run for the MLS All-Stars against European competition. Howard had perhaps his finest campaign to date last year. Besides surpassing Neville Southall as the club’s all-time single season clean sheet leader in the Premiership, he also led Everton to the FA Cup final and a fifth place finish in the league. On his way to the FA Cup final, Howard produced stunning performances against Liverpool and Manchester United, shutting out both clubs. Howard also made two penalty saves during the shootout against United and was absolutely the difference in that affair.

With Europe back on the calendar again this season, it will be interesting to see how much Howard plays in the Carling Cup and some early European fixtures. He rarely gave up his number one shirt last season but if Everton want to preserve their defensive stalwart, they may need to give the New Jersey native a few breathers this season. Everton begins its season at home on August 15 against Arsenal.

Brad Friedel, Aston Villa
Last Season: 46 Games, 14 Clean Sheets

Friedel had a very productive first year with Aston Villa. While his goals-against average was a bit higher than previous years, he did manage to keep 14 clean sheets in all competitions and propel Villa to a sixth place finish. Although Friedel is now 38 years old, he hasn’t shown much worse for wear yet. There was a stretch from late 2008 to early 2009 when the Villains went unbeaten for 13 consecutive Premiership fixtures, and during that time Friedel kept eight clean sheets.

The Villains really bolstered their midfield over the summer, signing Stuart Downing away from Middlesbrough. Everyone was a bit surprised when the Birmingham club cracked the top four for a brief period last year but they’ll certainly be on everyone’s radar this season. The club begins its race to the top four on August 15 at home to Wigan Athletic.

Eric Lichaj, Aston Villa
Last Season: 16 Reserve games, 1 goal

Lichaj had a very developmental season on the reserves, helping the squad win the Barclays Premier League South title. At the end of last season it was thought that the defender would see some first team action this year and during the preseason he has certainly done that, making a few starts over the summer. Lichaj played for almost the entire Peace Cup tournament which was held in Spain. World class clubs like Real Madrid, Juventus, and FC Porto came out to play and on Sunday it was Aston Villa who lifted the final trophy as they defeated Juventus 0-0 (4-3 on penalties). Lichaj played the entire contest and was very effective during the tournament. As it stands now, it looks like Lichaj could very well begin the season with the first team.   

Brad Guzan, Aston Villa
Last Season: 8 Games (7 starts) 1 Clean Sheet

Guzan participated in the Confederations Cup as well and when elimination seemed imminent for the Americans, Guzan was given the start versus Egypt. All Guzan did was throw up a clean sheet as the U.S. shocked the world by beating Egypt by the necessary 3-0 score line. Guzan also played a bunch during the Peace Cup tournament including in the final against Juventus. Guzan paced the Villains and shutout one of the best clubs in the world until a penalty shootout decided the tie. There he blocked two before Nicola Legrottaglie could not get the final kick past Guzan as Villa went on to the lift the trophy. Guzan should get about 8-10 starts this season as Friedel’s back up. Between the Europa, Carling, and FA Cup tournaments, Villa will have their hands full. Luckily, they have a one-two American combination in goal.

Eddie Johnson, Fulham
Last Season: 33 Games, 2 Goals, 4 Assists

Johnson returns to the club that owns him this season. Fulham, who acquired the striker over a year ago, were quick to snatch Johnson back after his season-long loan with Cardiff. Although Johnson struggled mightily at first, he soon developed a cult-following with the Bluebird fans and eventually won the “Magic Moment” award for his first goal in British football. It’s not very clear where Johnson will end up this season. Another loan is certainly a possibility but with Fulham participating in the Europa League this season, they may want more able bodies than usual. Johnson has been solid in the preseason thus far. He netted a goal in an exhibition match against Melbourne back in mid-July and was dressed for their first Europa League fixture.   

Jonathan Spector, West Ham United
Last Season: 9 games, 1 assist

After appearing in 28 games for the Hammers in 2007/08, injuries limited the defender to just nine last season. However, after a summer of recuperating, Spector looks to be fit. He participated in the Barclays Asia Trophy tournament and started the final match of that campaign, a 2-0 win over Beijing Guoan that secured third place. Spector is a strong defender and is still young (23) so a rejuvenated season should certainly be on the horizon. The Hammers begin their quest for Europe on August 15 against Wolves.   

Marcus Hahnemann, Wolverhampton
Last Season: 35 Appearances, 16 Clean Sheets

Hahnemann begins another chapter in his career this season as he has taken over in goal for Wolves. The 'keeper, who missed a long stretch of last season but still managed 16 clean sheets, was unceremoniously released from the club following the season due to budget and personnel reasons. Newly promoted Wolves were quick to pounce on the veteran 'keeper, signing him in mid-June. Hahnemann will likely start for Wolves but will have to be on his heals as both Carl Ikeme and Wayne Hennessey have their eye on his shirt. Hahnemann has looked solid in the preseason thus far, having recently kept a clean sheet against Crewe Alexandra. Wolverhampton kick off their season on August 15 against West Ham United.

Championship Round-Up:

Jay DeMerit, Watford

Last Season: 37 games

DeMerit, despite his average 2008/09 season, earned a spot on the Confederations Cup squad and made it an experience to remember. DeMerit played well for most of the tournament, especially against Spain when the defender helped Tim Howard maintain a clean sheet against one of the best teams in the world. However, Brazil’s attack overwhelmed all of the U.S. in the second half and, subsequently, the team loss. However, DeMerit’s strong summer will hopefully benefit his club performance in the coming months. Watford manager Malky Mackay has maintained that DeMerit will keep his title as club captain for the upcoming year and the 29-year-old back has looked solid in the preseason thus far. Watford defeated Serie A side Parma 3-2 last week. Watford opens their Championship season on August 8 at home against Doncaster Rovers.

Frank Simek, Sheffield Wednesday
Last Season: 6 games

Simek’s 2008/09 season was absolutely one to forget. The defender played in just six games and spent the majority of the season nursing various injuries. Simek has worked his way back from injury and has been seen coming off the bench for the Owls during the preseason. He has tremendous ability, a fact that had Aston Villa courting the former Arsenal player before the start of last season. Maybe a solid stretch of healthy and productive play will put Simek back on the football world’s radar. Sheffield Wednesday begins its Championship campaign on August 8 vs. Barnsley.

Meanwhile, Up In Scotland…

Maurice Edu, Rangers

Last Season: 16 games, 2 goals

Edu was a revelation for Rangers last season as he made a huge push late in the season, scoring a few goals and solidifying a starting spot in the rotation during the most important stretch of the campaign. Beginning the season on the Reserves squad, Edu scored two match winners in April and helped Rangers pip Celtic to the SPL title. Rangers also took home the Scottish Cup but Edu was not involved in the final. While the winger performed splendidly last year, he suffered a knee injury towards the very end of the season and has spent the summer rehabilitating. Edu has rejoined the club after visiting a specialist in London and will hope to be at least on the bench for the club’s opening match on August 15th against Falkirk.

DaMarcus Beasley, Rangers
Last Season: 12 games, 1 assist

Beasley was productive in a sense this summer, spending his time with the U.S. national team. While Beasley played in two U.S. matches during the Confederations Cup, both were losses and he had to watch from the sidelines as the squad went on to defeat Spain and pushed Brazil to the brink in the finals. In fact, it was against that same Brazil that, in the group stage of the Cup, Beasley was taken off at halftime due to his lackluster play. Regardless, getting some action was certainly helpful for the winger.

Beasley came on as a substitute for the last 30 minutes and was part of the build up for the winning goal as Rangers defeated Paris St. German 1-0 in an Emirates Cup fixture over the weekend. The fact that Walter Smith is still interested in seeing what Beasley has got is encouraging and that Rangers will be looking to make a mark on the Champions League this campaign certainly helps the American’s chances as a larger squad is necessary when it comes to balancing European and domestic endeavors.

League One and Under…

Zak Whitbread, Millwall

Last Season: 44 Games, 1 Goal, 1 Assist

Whitbread has been the subject of several transfer rumors this summer. The defender played fantastically last year and has made some wage demands that have seemed to knock Millwall out of the running. Whitbread wants to play in a big pond and hopes to be in the Championship this season. The 25-year-old scored an FA Cup winner against Crewe Alexandra last year and helped the Lions keep 13 clean sheets. He is a quality defender and although several clubs have shown interest, the latest and likeliest destination looks to be Swansea for a reported $1.1 million. Wherever he ends up, Whitbread will certainly bolster any back four.

Jemal Johnson, Milton Keynes Dons
Last Season: 37 Games, 6 Goals, 10 Assists

Johnson, like Hahnemann, was released shortly after the season ended which came as a bit of a shock because of how young and productive he was for them last season. However, the two sides eventually realized they were meant for each other and the 24-year-old resigned during the summer. Johnson has looked sparkling during the preseason. Recently, Johnson scored a hat trick as the Dons defeated Northampton Town 3-1. Manager Paul Ince has once again taken over as Dons boss and the club will begin their League One season on August 8 against Hartlepool United.

Mike Grella, Leeds United
Last Season: 12 games

Grella was used as sparkplug off the bench towards the end of last season but failed to make the type of impact he’d hoped for. After tearing it up for the Reserves (which included a hat trick), Grella was brought up to the first team for the last few months of the season. Although Leeds made it to the promotion playoffs, they were knocked off early by Millwall. However, Grella is set to be a key cog for the squad this season and has shown his stuff this summer, scoring over the weekend in a win over Burnley. Leeds begins their season on August 8th against Exeter City.

Ian Joyce, Southend United
Last Season: 3 games, 1 clean sheet

Joyce only appeared in three games for Southend last season and is already on the injury list before the start of this campaign with back spasms. He is a primary back up for the club and although he only appeared in three matches last year (starting two), one of those starts was a 0-1 clean sheet shutout against Hereford United. Southend opens its season on August 8 at home to Huddersfield Town.

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Matthew Braine's feature "Americans in the UK" appears every Monday on Goal.com. He can be reached at matthew.braine@hotmail.com