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Jan 9, 2008

DeMerit leads Hornets' bid to return to the EPL

Those Watford fans can be a tough bunch. Just ask U.S. international Jay DeMerit.

Despite Watford being second in English soccer's Championship -- a stone's throw away from the prestigious Premier League but admittedly a world apart when it comes to finances -- more than a few boos have reverberated around Vicarage Road in northwest London.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Watford, while compiling the second-best away record of any team in the Football League's four divisions this season, has won only five of 13 league games at home after dropping down from the top flight.

"When we were in the Premier League, there wasn't much pressure on us to win because we weren't predicted to win too many times," DeMerit said as he took time out from watching the New York Giants beat Tampa Bay in last weekend's NFL wild-card tussle. "So the fans came in and wanted to enjoy the season and enjoy the big teams that came. Now, we're in the Championship and they think we should be top, and when we're not necessarily playing well at home, they get on our backs."

Defeats have come against the likes of Queen's Park Rangers, which, even with a hefty injection of cash, is still trying to fend off relegation, and Bristol City, which is indeed third but was playing in League One last season. Watford's goal difference at home is negative and the worst among sides in the top 10, too.

On the road, the fans have understandably been more sympathetic. DeMerit and teammates are 9-2-2, bettered only by League Two's Milton Keynes Dons (formerly Wimbledon, of course).

"The players and the fans are trying to get on the same page," DeMerit said.

Respite finally came Saturday against Crystal Palace, and wouldn't you know, it was in the F.A. Cup. The Hornets, who reached the semifinals in April despite their woes in the top division, prevailed 2-0 to end Palace's 13-game unbeaten streak and set up a fourth-round encounter against another Championship rival at home, Wolves.

No-nonsense manager Aidy Boothroyd, considered one of the finest young coaches around, played a full-strength squad (unlike the Eagles) rather than rest some regulars as the chase for promotion intensifies. DeMerit contested all 90 minutes in the center of defense.

After a tough stretch that saw Watford win one of its previous seven games and relinquish its substantial lead atop the standings, the hectic festive period produced a fine gift indeed, a 3-1-1 record. U.K. bookmakers still favor Watford, behind West Brom on goal difference and ahead of Bristol City by the same criterion, to land one of the two automatic spots to the Promised Land.

As evidenced by Leeds, Nottingham Forest and Bradford, among others, not going straight back up can lead to a spiral into the abyss.

"There's definitely an expectation around the club that we should be going up, not because of fear of going down further in the leagues," said DeMerit, forever a hero at Watford after scoring the goal two seasons ago that sent the club to the Premier League. "I think we have the confidence enough to know that we should be back up there based on our budget and the strength of our squad. We played every team in the Championship except one or two, and there isn't one team when we're on our game that can beat us."

Besides a return to the elite tier, another of DeMerit's goals is to solidify his spot with the national team -- his first appearance at any level with the U.S. came against Guatemala in March -- and land a berth on the World Cup 2010 squad, assuming qualification. It would cap a career that bloomed, you might remember, in 2004 when the 28-year-old Wisconsin native caught the eye of Watford while competing for Northwood FC, which as an equivalent, would be well below Class A in baseball.

"That's the ultimate of all ultimates," said DeMerit, who keeps a cheesehead in his London abode to remind him of home and his beloved Green Bay Packers. "I'm going to do everything in my power to make that squad."

DeMerit was the only American to come out a winner as the F.A. Cup truly began.

Fulham, still in the drop zone, needed to rally twice to tie League One's Bristol Rovers 2-2 at home, setting up a replay next week. Californian defender Carlos Bocanegra and Texan midfielder Clint Dempsey featured from start to finish, with Dempsey having a goal disallowed early in the first half.

There was more embarrassment for Blackburn and Ohio 'keeper Brad Friedel. Rovers were humbled 4-1 by Coventry of the Championship, also at home, making it 26 goals allowed in the past 12 matches. Manager Mark Hughes was so incensed afterward that he apparently scratched a plan to give the squad a few days off.

Derby, last in the Premier League but strengthening during the transfer window, came back from 2-0 down to draw Sheffield Wednesday of the Championship 2-2, yet again at home. Midfielder Eddie Lewis started for the fifth straight time, while fellow Californian Benny Feilhaber was an unused substitute. Missouri defender Frankie Simek, linked with a move to Everton this week, continued to miss out for the Owls due to an ankle injury.

Seattle 'keeper Marcus Hahnemann was no doubt rejoicing when Reading manager Steve Coppell, as expected, altered the squad for the Royals' visit to Tottenham. Hahnemann was on the bench a week after conceding six times in a 6-4 drubbing at White Hart Lane.

Philadelphia midfielder Bobby Convey, though, got in a full 90 minutes in the 2-2 stalemate and was the target of a head butt from the burly Tom Huddlestone late on, resulting in a red card for Huddlestone.

Illinois' Jonathan Spector played the second half of West Ham's 0-0 draw against Manchester City in London, this time at fullback, for a fifth straight appearance.

Everton suffered the biggest upset of all, losing 1-0 to League One's Oldham in Liverpool, though New Jersey 'keeper Tim Howard wasn't involved. Howard was rested ahead of the League Cup first-leg semifinal at Chelsea on Tuesday.

That result still wasn't good for the Toffees -- although Everton played with an extra man for most of the second half, Chelsea won 2-1 in London thanks to an own goal in injury time.

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.