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Beasley thrives in Europe

Even if PSV Eindhoven fails to pull off an extraordinary comeback at home next week to storm past AC Milan in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal round series to move on to the final in Istanbul on May 25, DaMarcus Beasley knows that he's been on a wild ride the past three months. It started with a succession of matches. He played for the U.S. national team in a World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago one week, in FIFA's star-studded Game of Hope as the lone American player on a World all-star side captained by Brazil's Ronaldinho the following week, and then with PSV against AS Monaco one week later in the first leg of their Round of 16 Champions League series. Those matches were sandwiched around two league matches in the Dutch Eredivisie. That was just February. Since then, Beasley has laced up his cleats in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium and in San Siro Stadium in Milan -- two of the world's most revered soccer cathedrals and most difficult places to play as a visitor -- and has been doused in champagne in front of his club's home fans at Philips Stadium as the toast of the town after helping his side win the Dutch league title in Saturday's 3-0 drubbing of Vitesse Arnhem. "It's been crazy," said Beasley by phone from his Eindhoven apartment. "The last few months have definitely been amazing for me, personally. It's been fun riding this wave. For me, it's been a dream come true, and the same goes for my club. I couldn't imagine getting more out of this than what I've gotten." Not bad for a 22-year old, huh? While most top young American players his age are starting their careers as rookies on MLS rosters with developmental contracts that pay just enough to make rent, pay the bills and get to the movies a couple of times each month, Beasley has a World Cup and five seasons as a professional under his belt. It's one thing to get signed by a top club in Europe, but it's another entirely to score 12 goals in 43 games, to rank third on the team and to pace the club with four goals in its run to the semifinal round of the Champions League. That's an especially startling statistic when you consider that he has tallied almost as many times this season for PSV as he did in his four and a half years with the Chicago Fire (14 goals in 98 games). Beasley credits the attacking style of his side, which generally plays three strikers up top, and the fact that he's able to concentrate on getting behind the opposing team's defense without having to track back to defend a midfielder -- unlike in Chicago, where he was a left-sided midfielder in a 3-5-2. "I always wanted to work more on my finishing," he said. "I never got that much of a chance to score goals in Chicago because I was always attacking and defending at the same time. In Eindhoven, I'm either put out there as a right striker or as an offensive mid, so I have a lot of chances to go to goal. That part of my game has definitely changed and gotten better." Chicago Fire assistant coach Denis Hamlett, who was with Beasley in the Windy City for his entire career in MLS and has remained close to him, believes that the move to PSV was a perfect fit because of Beasley's strengths and the way the Dutch sides usually play. "DaMarcus was hand-made for them," he said. "He can take guys on so well, and he runs onto balls with speed that would make him dangerous in any league. He's also one of those players who seems to elevate his game as the level rises. We first saw that in the World Cup and ever since then when he's with the National Team. So the fact that he's excelling over there with a top club doesn't surprise me." For Beasley, it's all been about mindset. Athletically, he's always had the ability to compete with world-class players. Under the care of both former Chicago Fire skipper Bob Bradley, current Fire boss Dave Sarachan and U.S. National Team manager Bruce Arena, his technical skills and tactical awareness have noticeably improved. He went from being a fast young player to being a skillful attacking player who combines well with his teammates -- especially Landon Donovan when they play as dual attacking midfielders for the U.S. -- and covers a tremendous amount of ground because of his fitness. What he's learned while being in Holland is how to prepare himself mentally for each game over a season that spans 11 out of 12 months. "The basic mentality of it is so different," he said. "Even with all the games we play, every single one of them is important. The mentality that our veterans have is unreal. They are able to concentrate for 90 minutes every single game no matter how many matches we have played recently. We're a very technical team that likes to play a controlled match, so we try and establish that right away. Whatever way it goes, the veterans never seem to panic. "Being into the game from the first whistle to the last is the biggest difference from soccer over here compared to MLS. There are no lapses or mental breakdowns. It's always intense." To be able to match up against some of the world's best players like Cafu and Paolo Maldini of AC Milan, who each spent a good amount of time tracking Beasley during PSV's 2-0 loss on Tuesday, requires plenty of confidence. Even though the Fort Wayne, Ind., native was never a player who seemed scared or hesitant to take chances as a 17- and 18-year-old rookie, his confidence level rose tremendously after his rookie season with the Fire in 2000. That's when he started to set his sights on playing in Europe. "Once Peter (Nowak) and Lubos (Kubik) and (Hristo) Stoitchkov saw he could do it and told him he could play in Europe after that first season when he was still 18, it sort of registered into his mind," said Hamlett. "His sights were already set back then. The difference with DaMarcus is that so many other players around MLS say they want to go play in Europe only to go over there and come back to the league because they couldn't handle it. "DaMarcus can handle it." For someone who can't speak the language well and stands out as not only the only American on the club, but also as one of a handful in the Dutch leagues, Beasley has smoothly made the transition from living in Chicago to being in Eindhoven. He lives in an apartment just a few kilometers away from Philips Stadium, which can be seen from his window, and close to several restaurants, stores and, as Beasley says, "places to chill." He sees fellow national team member Cory Gibbs almost every weekend since the 25-year-old defender plays for Feyenoord and lives about 45 minutes away in Rotterdam. He also speaks to former U.S. standout Earnie Stewart on a regular basis on the phone, and the lifelong Netherlands resident has been able to help Beasley ingrain himself into Dutch culture. Other than that, Beasley spends his time with a group of friends he met around town who have nothing to do with soccer. "I don't have too many friends on the team," he said. "I kind of leave that as the soccer part of my life, and what I do away from the field is separate. I have a lot of friends outside of soccer that I hang with on a daily basis." Of course, just being able to "hang" is not nearly as easy as it was when he lived in the U.S. Long gone are the days when he could walk around the mall or go out to dinner without being recognized. As one of the bright young stars of the Dutch league and a major contributor for a team that's in the Champions League semis, Beasley has quickly become a major celebrity. A lot of people know my face since I'm no longer new here," he said. "I definitely get noticed everywhere I go, whether it's the market or getting something to eat or just walking in the city -- even in my car. It's amazing to go from not being noticed at all, to being noticed everywhere I go. It's not as crazy as it is in England or Spain, where the fans are a bit over the top. The people here just come and say hello and then leave you alone. Maybe they'll ask for an autograph now and then, but they're a pretty polite group. Everyone is just generally friendly here, too. "It's been a bit more crazy now more than ever because of our success in the Champions League, though." At the same time, Beasley said he still gets star-struck, himself, when he encounters some of the game's top players. The night before the Game of Hope in February, all the all-stars went out for a group dinner, which Beasley said was one of the highlights of his career. "Here I was sitting like two feet away from (Zinedine) Zidane and across from (Thierry) Henry," he said. "I got to meet (Alessandro) Del Piero and (Andriy) Shevchenko and Cafu. You had all those big players from Real Madrid and AC Milan. So it was just an unbelievable feeling to be with them. I was honored just to be in the room." While he hasn't achieved the same type of notoriety of the veterans above, the sort of fame he's achieved already has made him realize what it means to be a professional soccer player in Europe. He's learned to keep his nose clean and keep out of situations that could cause embarrassment to his club and city. "You've got to watch where you go," he said. "If I get caught out at the clubs a lot, then it'll get mentioned in the papers over here and I'll get known as a 'party guy.' I've had a few lessons as far as that goes. I like to go out and chill, but you have to keep a limit on it. And the club wants as little distractions as possible, which is always made clear to us. Being late to training or being tired from stuff from your personal life simply isn't tolerated." Now that PSV finds itself in a major hole, down 2-0 going into the second leg at home on May 4, it's safe to assume that the clamps on the players will only get tighter. Despite still having four league matches to play and a date in the Amstel Cup Final on May 29, next Wednesday's match is the only thing on the minds of the team's supporters. PSV's esteemed manager Guus Hiddink knows it'll be an uphill climb from the outset. "Trailing 2-0 does not open great prospects," he said after the match. "We will undoubtedly have enough energy left to present ourselves well to our own fans next week. We knew beforehand that we should score a goal in Milan to get a good result. I don't expect Milan to concede much in Eindhoven." Whatever happens next week, Beasley already knows that he's gone further in this tournament than many of the world's top players have in their careers, and he has become the first American to start in a Champions League semifinal match. It's been more than he bargained for when he signed with PSV in July. "One of the reasons why I went to PSV over Southampton was because of this tournament," he said. "They knew they were already in Champions League, so I knew we'd get at least 60 games and I'd get a chance to play against the best teams all over Europe. And I've been able to do that, so I can't ask for much more. "It's been an unbelievable ride for me."

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.