He has never been labeled a starlet or a rising star by anyone in the media. No one has ever made a multimillion-dollar bid for his services. At no point in his career has he suited up for the national team. Yet this season, at age 27, he might be the most watched and followed American playing abroad.
Wisconsin native Jay DeMerit is living the dream and doing it on the grandest stage in the world, with English Premier League club Watford. For those just tuning in, it may appear that the young man from Wisconsin is an overnight success. Yet, as he can attest, he labored years in relative obscurity to finally earn his chance in arguably the most competitive league in the world.
It wasn't until college that the 5-foot-11 DeMerit truly focused on soccer as his primary sport (in high school he participated in soccer, basketball and track), manning the back line of the University of Illinois-Chicago. Despite his solid play and time with the Chicago Fire Reserves squad, there was no offer from MLS to participate in the scouting combine that winter. For many, it would have been a devastating blow; however, as one door was shutting, another was opening up.
An English teammate who he lined up with during his time in the Chicago system, Kieron Keane, had suggested to him that he had the talent to make a name for himself in England. Through his Danish grandfather, DeMerit qualified for EU status and made the move to England with $1,800 dollars in his wallet and pocket full of dreams.
He made his move in spring 2003 after graduating from college, well into the English league season and too late to earn any auditions with top-flight teams. During this time, he had trials with Shrewsbury and Bristol Rovers and earned his keep by playing semiprofessional ball. These were lean years for DeMerit, times that he remembers "living in an attic with about £2 in my pocket."
After this period of transition, DeMerit was set to make the move to Shrewsbury, a League Two side that had recently earned promotion. In order to stay fit for the upcoming season, he contacted a former coach who was now with a new club, Northwood, to see if there was an opportunity to train and keep fit. Northwood was slated to play a series of exhibitions against Watford, a team in the Coca Cola Championship that was gearing up for a big season. Here was the fortuitous bounce that DeMerit had labored countless hours for, and he was set to pounce on it.
|Starting later this month, Jay DeMerit will join ESPNsoccernet as a contributor to the site. DeMerit will blog regularly, talking about life in the English Premier League.
Even though he was merely with the team for training purposes, DeMerit played central defense for the club in a match in which Watford started most of its key players. Here, the product of the University of Illinois-Chicago made his mark. "After the game, the coaches were talking and the Watford manager, who at the time was Ray Lewington, said he was interested and asked to take me on trial," DeMerit said. "The rest, as they say, is history."
DeMerit signed on for a trial with the team shortly thereafter. Very soon, he was a full-fledged member of the squad, inking a one-year deal. A difficult 2004-05 season saw Watford narrowly escape relegation down to League One, but things would improve. Lewington was fired, and the team's mentality was about to change.
Under new coach Adrian Boothroyd, it was a whirlwind 2005-06 campaign for Watford. DeMerit not only played meaningful minutes but was the key to the team's back line. For a player who had labored in the semiprofessional environment of England and before that at the collegiate level in the United States, it was no small feat. "Jay has come so far since he came to the club, progressing from a raw, talented youngster to a brave, capable defender," Boothroyd said. "He was one of the major reasons for our success last season and in the early part of this season has already shown that he's comfortable with playing at a higher level."
Following a disastrous 2004-05 season, no one pegged Watford to be in the mix of the promotion race. "Last year [2005-06] was the year of Boothroyd," DeMerit said. "He came in and told us the first day of the season that we would get promoted either automatically or via the playoffs. The previous season we had just stayed in the league by the hair of our chinny-chins, so of course we were looking at each other like he had just told us that Elvis was still alive. But nonetheless, he kept at it, and by Christmas he had us believing and by springtime there was no stopping us."
When last season had begun, many fans stateside anticipated that three Americans would be battling it out for promotion to the Premiership -- Eddie Lewis with Leeds and the Reading duo of Marcus Hahnemann and Bobby Convey. Now a new face emerged: DeMerit, who just two years ago had the dream of playing League Two ball for Shrewsbury, was propelling his team to the next level. Ironically, it was DeMerit who scored a goal versus Eddie Lewis' Leeds side that knocked them out of the playoffs and promoted Watford to the Premier League. Ironically, a player who was rejected by MLS and never had a sniff of the national team would be marking some of the world's most elite strikers on a weekly basis.
All too often, a stigma is attached to Americans playing abroad -- the descriptive being the term "athletic" -- constantly used as an adjective for their attributes. Yet, for Jay DeMerit, his athletic prowess and versatility have led the way to his success. It has helped him adapt quickly to European ball.
Current University of Illinois-Chicago coach John Trask (who did not coach DeMerit in college) is aware of the attributes that have carried DeMerit to success. "Jay is a tremendous athlete and competitor who, once being signed in England, went about becoming a very good soccer player," Trask noted. "His ability to dominate in the air and mark some of the best players in the world is why he is having such success in England."
Though DeMerit's time playing nonconference ball was a detour in many ways, he realizes that it was part of the learning curve as he transitioned to being a professional in the unforgiving world of English soccer. "It took probably my first year here for people to even stand up and take notice," DeMerit said. "Last season was important to make sure I could maintain the level and prove it is not a fluke."
And noticed they have. Watford has inked him to a long-term deal that ensures he will be a permanent fixture along their back line for the foreseeable future. DeMerit is now a fan favorite at Watford, where fans frequently sing the praises of their American defender. After years of journeying and rejection, Jay DeMerit has found a home.
Although he has apparently arrived in the soccer world, DeMerit knows there is still work to be done. He realizes that "the higher you go, the more each inch and each second counts, and you really have to train your head not to switch off." Further changes await the American; Boothroyd has moved DeMerit from his usual position in central defense to right back, another adjustment that will have to be made or risk losing his starting spot. Despite an early-season ankle injury, he has claimed a spot along the back line and performed well.
It will be a tough haul for the Hornets, as many predict they will be relegated back down to the Championship at the end of the year. One of the smallest clubs in the EPL, Watford's Vicarage Road stadium is sold out for all the home games this season in the Premiership. DeMerit remains optimistic about Watford's chances: "If we keep working hard and stay together as a team, we might end up in the top 10 or even in one of the spots for European competition. Aiming for average only makes you average."
His dreams remain lofty: to stay in the Premiership and become a fixture on the national side for the next World Cup. While many might be content with the meteoric rise that DeMerit has experienced, he is not satisfied with what he brings to the table. He has a fan in Boothroyd, who said that his American defender is ready to represent his country at the international level: "I thought Jay was more than ready to go to the World Cup last summer with his national team -- although I won't complain that he was able to have a relaxing summer off! I'm sure that the new manager will be interested to see how Jay's doing in the Premier League."
Despite the success, the accolades and the big contract, the 27-year-old who left for England with little more than ambition in his pocket is not yet ready to rest on his laurels. "I am the first to admit it, I still have a long way to go in terms of where I want to be," DeMerit said. "I have a ton of work to do, but hopefully, I will have stayed healthy and be a name that people will know and respect in the soccer community."
With the work ethic that has taken him from collegiate ball in Chicago and eventually to the English Premier League, Jay DeMerit may already be the "name" he longs to be. He has an ally in Boothroyd, who senses big things for the transplanted Wisconsinite.
"I am absolutely convinced that Jay will one day be the captain of this club," Boothroyd said. "No one works harder or sets a better example with the way he handles himself in training and away from the club."
For Jay DeMerit, anything less would be just average.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is the soccer editor for New York City Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.