D.C. United's new import
You always wonder what a player from England thinks of Major League Soccer. As the birthplace of soccer and the country that currently has the top league in the world, England is somewhat of a standard, even more so than Brazil, whose national teams have fared far better in World Cup play over the years.
That's why D.C. United's new left-sided midfielder, Steve Guppy, has been besieged with questions as to how MLS compares to the leagues in England and around Europe. And how the American players here might fare across the Pond.
"That's what everyone seems to want to know," he said.
Yet, after three matches in with his new club, Guppy still has yet to see what Major League Soccer is all about. Since signing with the league in mid-March, the 36-year-old Englishman has taken the field against a Jamaican side (Harbour View), a Mexican League powerhouse (UNAM Pumas) and an MLS expansion franchise (Chivas USA). While he said he doesn't have a great feel for what MLS has to offer as of the moment, he was proud of the way his new side stood out to the defending Mexican League champion in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinal on Wednesday night at RFK Stadium, which ended in a 1-1 draw.
"They were a very good side," said Guppy on Thursday morning, adding that it was his first time taking on a team from Mexico. "They dominated some parts of the match, yet we certainly had our moments, as well, and gained their respect. It was a good showing."
Guppy's admitted that his familiarity with MLS isn't so strong. He's seen a few tapes of matches and highlights, but not a lot else. However, he's always known about the goalkeeping in the States, having been teammates with Kasey Keller at Leicester City in the late-'90s, and very briefly with Brad Friedel at Newcastle in the fall of 1994 before Friedel's work permit was denied.
"Kasey was a very big part of that Leicester team when we were the fashionable side coming up [the English Premier League]," he recalled. "The U.S. has been so very fortunate with all their keepers. I've seen that in Nick [Rimando] here with United. He's been very impressive."
Guppy said that he really didn't start thinking about coming to MLS until a day last summer when he received a call from D.C. United president Kevin Payne. At the time, he was with Leeds United on a preseason tour of Sweden.
"He said they were looking for a left-sided player, and my name kept getting bandied about," said Guppy, who received his lone cap for the English national team in 1999 against Belgium. "But I was really just concerned with getting into the league (EPL) again."
While his time at Leeds consisted of only four appearances and led to his signing with Stoke City in September, the possibility of playing in MLS didn't go away
"The seed had been set," he said. "I'd been to the U.S. a few times on holiday and had always loved it and been treated so well. Going to the most famous club, D.C. United, made it even more appealing to me. As time wore on, the thought grew on me."
After signing with the league last month, Guppy admitted that he probably shouldn't have been so open talking about coming to the U.S. to the local press in England during the last four months or so while he was with boyhood club, Wycombe, in a league three levels below that of the EPL.
"One of my mates took over, so I went to Wycombe to just help a friend out, really."
That's important to make note of, since the obvious question many MLS fans, including those in D.C., had upon Guppy's signing is why the league would be bringing in a 36-year-old from a low-level league that is inferior to MLS?
Of course, after seeing Guppy roam the left side of United's midfield in his time with the squad, it's obviously apparent that he's far from a has-been looking for one last paycheck in a league that he deems much lower than the standard he is used to.
A Brett Hull lookalike if there ever was one, Guppy appears as though he's closer to 26 than 36. His quick, shifty moves and deft drag backs and precise touches with the outside of left foot make him resemble someone out of La Liga than the EPL, too. Excited to be surrounded by a good mix of veteran players like Ben Olsen and Jaime Moreno to go with youngsters such as Josh Gros and Freddy Adu, Guppy hasn't even thought of retirement or how many years he plans to spend in the U.S.
"I'm a bit stupid like that," joked. "I still am under the impression that I am improving as a player and will get better. I didn't turn professional until I was 23, so I was a bit of a late developer. I've always thought that I could make up for all those years I didn't play as a professional at the other end of my career.
"I'm desperate to do well here. And I know I can help this team."
Since Dema Kovalenko is still nursing a broken foot sustained in the preseason, Guppy is the left midfielder of choice for Peter Nowak at the moment. Major League Soccer's newest import will have a better chance to see what his new league is all about this coming Saturday when the defending MLS Cup champs host the Chicago Fire in their home opener.
"I'm still reserving judgment, but it is already evident that work rate and fitness is a big part of the league," he said. "I need to play a few more games until I get a real feel for it."
In the meantime, he's looking forward to proving that his age doesn't mean a thing and shouldn't be considered a factor.
"People look at me and think, 'Oh, there's an old player,' without much of a work rate," he said. "I'm hoping some of the players think that about me. They might be in for a rude awakening."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.