When John Harkes was making the first breakthrough by a U.S. soccer player in England's top division following the 1990 World Cup, it seemed to promise the start of a possible pipeline of talent from North America to Europe.
That scenario did not fully play itself out.
But this year, for the first time, an all-American starting 11 can be drawn from the English Premier League: Brad Friedel (Blackburn), Marcus Hahnemann (Reading), or Tim Howard (Everton); Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham), Jay DeMerit (Watford), Cory Gibbs (Charlton), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United); Bobby Convey (Reading), Claudio Reyna (Manchester City), DaMarcus Beasley (Manchester City); Giuseppe Rossi (Newcastle United), Johann Smith (Bolton Wanderers); and Brian McBride (Fulham).
This 11 represents a good part of the U.S. national team of the future. Howard will be the goalkeeper; Gibbs and Spector starting defenders, possibly along with DeMerit, should he continue to develop; Beasley will be in the midfield and Convey will play either midfield or left back.
Reyna is the reigning veteran of the all-American EPL team. Only Reyna followed a trail similar to Harkes, launching his career after the '94 World Cup. Beasley, Bocanegra, Convey, Howard and McBride went directly from the MLS to the EPL. Gibbs bypassed the MLS in his first European go-round. DeMerit has made his way on his own, without a national team launching pad. Spector skipped college to join Manchester United and Smith, 19, has done the same with Bolton.
In Harkes' day, U.S. players had to be very resourceful. Harkes' mental strength carried him through the early part of his England adventure. Harkes also could play a utility role, and this worked to his benefit; he was not relied upon to be a playmaker or goal scorer, but he could be plugged into the Sheffield Wednesday lineup and complement some top-notch players in a variety of ways.
But for Harkes, being an American in England meant he always had to prove himself, and this can either be a motivating factor or the cause of discouragement. Harkes used adversity as a motivator and paved the way for Reyna and the rest.
Then, U.S. players not only faced stereotyping, they were trying to break into what was then a league dominated by domestic players. In 1992 Mike Masters was the first U.S. player to score a goal at Wembley Stadium (Harkes later scored a more famous goal there in the League Cup final), as Colchester United won promotion to what was then the Fourth Division. But Masters, a 6-foot-4 striker from Long Island who had played both basketball and soccer at Williams College, was fighting an uphill battle; he did not qualify for a work permit and Colchester reluctantly let him go.
Also in the early '90s, Kasey Keller seemed an avatar of an influx of U.S. goalkeepers migrating to England. But the goalkeeping talent in the U.S. has not continued to grow as expected. Surprisingly, no MLS goalkeepers are on the radar screens of European clubs.
But the U.S. is producing a greater variety of players these days. This, of course, is faint praise, because 15 years ago the U.S. was known only for having hard-charging runners and keepers. The country's skillful specialists were very rare and Eric Wynalda was probably the only U.S. player with the attitude and guile to score goals in a top-flight league.
Now, though, the U.S. is producing some interesting players for export. A generation ago, the Beasleys, Conveys and Rossis were mostly weeded out of the U.S. system. Agility, flexibility and quickness were secondary to size, speed and strength in player selection. But these types of players are today considered the future of the U.S. national team. Many observers include Freddy Adu in this category, and this, too, can be considered a breakthrough because not long ago, Adu's size alone would have excluded him.
Even so, the failure to keep Rossi in the U.S. system is not a good sign.
Rossi is about Adu's age, both are left-footed attacking players, both have been recruited by other national teams. Adu declined Ghana's advances but Rossi is on track to play for Italy, having made his first start for the Azzurrini (Under-21) against Austria Tuesday.
Rossi, born in Clifton, N.J., not far from Harkes' hometown of Kearny, is a superbly talented forward whose touches are excellent and runs are intelligently conceived. Parma took Rossi, the son of a soccer coach, but quickly sold him to Manchester United when he was 16 years old. This was about the time Adu was attracting attention in the U.S. and parlaying it into one of MLS's richest contracts. Rossi has far surpassed Adu on the field and in terms of marketability and transfer fee potential.
Probably nothing could have been done to keep Rossi in the U.S. It is difficult to compete with a country which has won the World Cup four times. But if another Rossi comes along, we can only hope the U.S. will be able to identify him and either get him into MLS or the national team program.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.