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Aug 19, 2006

Americans to keep an eye on

As the sour taste of the 2006 World Cup begins to fade, it is important to realize that one tournament does not solely measure the progress of our soccer nation. While the U.S. laid an egg in Germany, it has also begun to lay the groundwork that will produce quality players that can compete on an international level.

The remnants of Project 2010 -- the youth residency program in Bradenton and Project-40 -- have contributed to the production of quality young Americans. The abundance of strong players who are 18-26 years of age bracket bodes well for the future of the national team, because in four years, some of these players will be representing the United States in the 2010 South Africa.

This season, a great number of American youngsters will be playing abroad in the most competitive leagues in Europe. It is time to turn our attention to the young players who could potentially carry the American banner for the next decade.

What follows is a short list of some of the best young American talent playing abroad, as well as some other intriguing Yanks to watch in the upcoming season.

Jay DeMerit (Watford, England)

When you're looking for work, it's all about who you know. It's no different in professional soccer.

Jay DeMerit was just any other job seeker in his early-20s. After finishing school at Illinois-Chicago two and a half years ago, the Wisconsin native got a tip from an English friend he played with in college about some potential work. He took a flyer and moved to England, finding the soccer equivalent of an entry-level position with Northwood FC.

Yes, the storied franchise of Northwood, which currently competes in the British Gas Business Southern Football League Premier Division, gave DeMerit his first job, compensating him with a pauper's ransom of 2,000 British pounds. But fate smiled upon the young central defender, who impressed Watford's coaches in a friendly and was later invited him to join that club in the summer of 2004 on a free transfer.

DeMerit played adequately in his first season, ranging forward to knock in a few goals and making great strides in the center of defense as second-division Watford avoided relegation. In summer 2005, new coach Aidy Boothroyd took the reins and started making massive personnel cuts, retooling the roster in preparation of a promotion run. DeMerit, to the surprise of some, survived the bloodletting, emerging as a starter in the new campaign. Uneven performances showed him to the bench, but injuries brought DeMerit back to the forefront as Watford's goal of promotion neared.

It was in the final playoff game when DeMerit made his mark. Facing off against fellow American Eddie Lewis and Leeds United, DeMerit scored the first goal of the game and marshaled the defense to a 3-0 shutout. With promotion to the EPL secured, Watford rewarded their American defender with an extension through the 2008-09 season.

A tad undersized for a central defender, DeMerit makes up for it with an uncanny ability for improvement. When he arrived at Watford, he played alongside veteran defenders Sean Dyche and Neil Cox, and it appears their veteran influence had a positive influence on him.

It's been reported that DeMerit recently injured his ankle in training and may not be ready for Watford's first few games. Before the injury DeMerit looked solid -- he fared well against Inter Milan's Adriano as Watford tied them 1-1 in a preseason warmup match. Should he continue to impress, a national team call-up seems inevitable down the line, especially in the wake of Eddie Pope's retirement from international football.

Jonathan Spector (West Ham United, England)

Has Jonathan Spector finally found a home? After making spot appearances for Manchester United two years ago and getting a good amount of playing time on loan with Charlton last season, Spector has moved across London for another opportunity for first-team football.

The 20-year old figures to be an important player for the men's national team in the upcoming decade, so American fans should take heart that he is earning good experience in England. A versatile defender that can play any position along the back four, the converted striker has struggled with injuries in the past, missing time in last year's World Youth Championship and also bits of last season with Charlton. In all, he totaled 24 appearances with the Addicks, including 16 starts.

A product of Bradenton, Spector credits this experience with helping him avoid the homesickness that has bothered other American players. He left for Manchester United at 17, but by then he had already lived away from his home of Chicago for two years. Spector also comes from a family line of athletes -- his grandfather played for the Boston Celtics -- and their influence has certainly helped him handle the stress of EPL football with aplomb that belies his age.

West Ham boss Alan Pardew spent 500,000 pounds in the transfer market to secure his services. He considers Spector a player "for the future," providing valuable depth as the Hammers hope to make a run in the UEFA Cup competition.

Don't expect to see any of Spector until at least September, though. Although he spent the summer rehabbing in Illinois, the shoulder injury that ruled him out of the World Cup will keep him on the sidelines for the time being. Injuries have been a problem for him throughout his young career -- he missed most of World Youth Championships in the Netherlands last summer with a thigh injury he attributed to overuse -- but he is currently training and should make his debut at Upton Park in the near future.

Lee Nguyen (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands)

Will Lee Nguyen soon be replacing his countryman DaMarcus Beasley in the PSV lineup? The idea wasn't as far-fetched as one might think. Towards the end of last season, Beasley's hold with the Dutch giants' first team began to slip. Meanwhile, as PSV pulled away from the competition in the Dutch Eredivisie, Lee Nguyen came up from the reserves and impressed in his cup of coffee.

However, a coaching change will put the future of both players in flux. Coach Guus Hiddink -- who signed both American wingers -- and his assistants are now gone, with Ronald Koeman now assuming the reins. And while the Dutchman will deviate from the 4-3-3 formation, it does mean that the players will have to prove themselves all over again. Beasley seems to have done his part, but the recent arrival of Ecuadorian midfielder Edison Vicente Mendez doesn't bode well for Nguyen.

After the signing, Koeman stated "(Mendez) has been signed to fill the void we feel we have in midfield." With those confidence-inspiring words from his manager, it seems Nguyen might be seeing some more time with the reserves. However, with PSV involved in the Champions League this season, the extra games will force Koeman to go to his bench on occasion.

Michael Bradley (SC Heerenveen, Netherlands)

Midfield, specifically on the outside, looks to be a strength of the United States for years to come. Germany '06 veterans Clint Dempsey (23 years old), Convey (23), and Beasley (24) must stay in top form in order to protect their roster spots from a group of talented youth. Knocking on the door will be Freddy Adu (17), Nguyen (19), and another young player in Holland, Michael Bradley (20).

The youngest player ever sold by MLS, Bradley joined SC Heerenveen during the winter transfer window. Yet another product of the Bradenton Academy, the midfielder joined MLS at the age of 16 as a Project-40 player.

The son of Chivas USA head coach Bob Bradley, the midfielder moved to Holland just seven months ago and made his first start for the Dutch club in April at the age of 18.

Some may remember Michael Bradley as the player who, although he was not on the U.S. World Cup roster, filled in at their team camp and earned two caps as a substitute in the team's Send-off Series. He must fight for playing time with the Frisian side but if he is successful, the first-team experience can do nothing but help his chances for South Africa.

He'll be joined by American colleague Robbie Rogers, who signed a multi-year deal with Heerenveen after just one year at the University of Maryland. Rogers will likely play for the reserves for the time being, with a possible call-up to the first team on the horizon if he learns the system adequately.

Johann Smith (Bolton Wanderers, England)

Johann Smith's primary goal this season is to break into the first team for Bolton and score his first goal. If the 19-year old's dream comes true, he will have to remember to send a thank-you card to one of his old coaches.

When he was 15, Smith was a raw striker who could outrun anyone he played against -- in high school, he once ran the 100 meters in a blazing 10.5 seconds. But his club coach refused to let his team play long balls over the top to him, forcing Smith to develop into a more technical striker.

As his development continues, he is learning to diversify his game and learn to hurt opponents in other ways. But he hasn't forgotten about his meal ticket, and Smith's speed was on full display as he helped the United States U-20 team advance to the final match of the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland. His biggest asset, pace, allows Smith to stretch defenses and create space for his teammates to fill. The physical gifts are there -- if he continues to develop, he may figure into Bolton's plans well into the future.

With the departure of Mexican striker Jared Borgetti, who played with Smith on the reserves last season, seemingly imminent, Smith seems likely to see some first-team action this season.

Marcus Hahnemann (Reading, England)

Blackburn's Brad Friedel won't be the only bald American goalkeeper suiting up in the English Premier League anymore. Marcus Hahnemann is sure to have a busy season after leading Reading into the EPL for this first time in the club's 135-year history.

Reading tore through the Championship, earning its promotion earlier than any other team in history. For his part in the historic campaign, the Professional Footballers Association honored Hahnemann as that league's Goalkeeper of the Year. And with his large frame and signature shaved head, he has become something of a local icon. "It seems like I know everyone in Reading," he joked at the World Cup, adding that it was easier to blend into the background in Hamburg than his adopted hometown of Reading.

Hahnemann's excruciatingly long road to glory stretches all the way back to his time with the Falcons of tiny Seattle Pacific University. After graduation, he started his professional career with the Seattle Sounders before moving on to Colorado of the MLS in 1994. His strong play earned him a move to Fulham, where he was the second-choice keeper to Dutch international Edwin Van Der Sar. In 2002, Reading offered him the opportunity for first-team football and he made the move.

The patriotic Seattle native, who loves metal music and sports a tattoo of the American flag on his left arm, will look to keep Reading above the relegation zone. "Our main goal this season is to stay up," Hahnemann wrote in his monthly column for USSoccerPlayers.com. "And if we stick together, I believe we can do it."

Bobby Convey (Reading, England)

With Bobby Convey playing midfield for Reading, fans stateside will have two reasons to follow the Royals first campaign in the top flight of English soccer.

A member of the initial class of the Bradenton Academy, which included DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, and Oguchi Onyewu, Convey tore up the Championship for Reading as a 22-year old. The creative winger tallied seven goals and nine assists for the season and was voted the league's player of the month for March.

A stalwart on the left side for Reading, Convey did his best Iron Chef impression, slicing up opposing defenses with abandon. He shows the ability to change directions and pace with astonishing ease, a gift he showcased during his three appearances in the World Cup. Once targeted by Tottenham as a teenager, Convey instead found his way into the Premiership via the back door. This season, he will have a chance to prove he has the quality to compete in the best league of Europe. As one of its primary attacking threats, Reading will rely heavily on Convey if they hope to stay in the Premiership for another season.

Giuseppe Rossi (Manchester United, England)

Curious how Manchester United will recoup from the departure of star striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy? A Yank might be part of the solution.

The Red Devils, who already boast Louis Saha and Wayne Rooney up front, are also very high on a kid named Giuseppe Rossi. Born in New Jersey, the 19-year old Italian American will most likely start the season as the fourth striker on Alex Ferguson's roster, behind Rooney, Saha, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. His tremendous offensive output for the reserves last season -- 30 goals in 30 games -- has earned him a spot on the first team.

"We want to see Giuseppe progress as a center forward and it is looking more likely he will stay with us now," Ferguson has said.

But don't get too excited about seeing Rossi in the Red White & Blue just yet. As much as America needs a dominant striker to replace Brian McBride, it's been widely reported that Rossi has decided to cast his international lot with the Italians and not the country of his birthplace. A recent debut with the Italian U-21 team against Croatia seems to indicate that Rossi's stock with the Azzurri is on the rise.

Nevertheless, it's rare to see American field players with such tremendous upside potential. With all the competitions Manchester United participates in, American fans will likely have many opportunities to watch the teenager and wistfully wonder what might have been.

Zak Whitbread (Millwall, England)

OK, it's a little bit of a stretch to call Mr. Whitbread an American, considering he left the states soon after his birth and has yet to return. But since he was born in Houston, he is eligible to compete for the Stars and Stripes and when Uncle Sam called on him to represent the U.S. as the World Youth Championships in 2003, Whitbread answered the call. He has since been an important defender for U.S. U-20 and U-23 teams ever since.

A product of the Liverpool youth system and ostensibly a Liverpudlian himself, Whitbread struggled to find time with the Reds, eventually going on loan to Millwall. The blonde 22-year old played extensively for Millwall last season but couldn't prevent the team's relegation to League One (the third division in England).

Another versatile defender in the vein of Spector, Whitbread can play many positions along the back line, and has the height to play effectively in the air.

Cory Gibbs (Charlton Athletic, England)

Had he been fit, there's a good chance the athletic defender would have played an important role on the U.S. World Cup squad. Now he finds himself in a situation to Spector's one year ago -- fighting to return from injury and claim a spot on Charlton's back line.

The Addicks secured Gibbs services from Feyenoord of Rotterdam, beating out Reading, Middlesbrough, and Bolton Wanderers. He was the club's earliest signing -- agreeing on a pre-contract basis just one day after the 2005-06 season ended. (Interestingly, Charlton did not even have a manager in place when this agreement was signed -- they brought in Iain Dowie a few days later.) Slotted to play opposite Luke Young at left-back -- the position Spector most often played -- Gibbs will also have to get fit before he has a chance to play.

The knee injury he suffered in late May against Morocco will prevent him from beginning the season with the club. Optimistic estimates have the 26-year-old returning in early November.

Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at andrewwinner@gmail.com