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May 9, 2008

DeMerit's future uncertain at Watford

LONDON -- In its current form, Watford has little chance of gaining promotion to the Premier League. Jay DeMerit and the Hornets faithful must be hoping experience comes to the fore when the crapshoot that's known as the playoffs begins this weekend.

After holding a seemingly insurmountable eight-point lead atop the Championship standings in November, Watford needed a comeback 1-1 draw at relegation-threatened Blackpool this past Sunday just to keep its playoff spot, squeaking ahead of Wolves on goal difference for sixth. The club has won once in its past 14 matches, hasn't kept a clean sheet in eight and can't seem to score ahead of Sunday's first leg at home against overachieving Hull City, which is third. Not a good mix.

Then there is DeMerit's own situation. A hero when Watford went up to the Premiership via the playoffs two seasons ago, the Green Bay, Wisc., native has been used sparingly in the second half despite still being the captain -- sort of.

"We could sit here and say there were so many games we threw away, which we did," said DeMerit, who also blogs for ESPNsoccernet. "Everyone on the team will tell you that. But at the end of the day, we're still in with a chance of salvaging our season. We have the most talented and biggest squad. If we concentrate on these next three games, do what's necessary and everyone brings their A-game, there's no reason why we shouldn't go up."

Watford and Hull split their head-to-head matches, each earning three points at home. Watford triumphed 1-0 when it had the momentum in October, and Hull, which narrowly avoided relegation last season, prevailed 3-0 at the end of March in a fixture in which DeMerit played right back instead of his usual center back. Michael Turner and Fraizer Campbell scored within the opening 13 minutes to put the latter game away.

Manchester United loaned keeper Ben Foster to Watford last campaign, and he sparkled; Campbell has produced a team-leading 15 goals for Hull during his loan spell away from Old Trafford.

Hull, also armed with California-born keeper Bo Myhill, enters the weekend with six wins in its past nine, although it lost two of its final three to miss out on automatic promotion. Those spots went to West Bromwich Albion and surprising Stoke.

"Watford are not the form team at this moment in time, so probably going into the game, we'll be the favorites," Hull manager Phil Brown told reporters last week.

A good start at Vicarage Road is pivotal, DeMerit said. Watford tied for the third-fewest victories at home during the regular season, with fans often voicing their displeasure. On the road, only West Brom had more wins.

"If we can get a good start at home, knowing our away form is very good, that puts us in a really good situation in the second leg," DeMerit said. "Our home form is better than it used to be but still isn't perfect. I think you'll find, though, when we take the field now, the fans will forget about the rest of the season and be behind us because it's three games and we're promoted. Then we're all happy again and seasons like this become forgotten knowing we ended up getting promotion."

Crystal Palace, revived under Neil Warnock, will meet slumping Bristol City in the other semifinal, and the two teams that advance will square off in a one-game showdown at the new Wembley in London on May 24. (DeMerit might be involved at Wembley again four days later, as the United States faces England in a friendly May 28.) Promotion to the top division in England is worth at least $117 million, according to reports.

If Watford emerges, it remains to be seen whether DeMerit, who scored the winner in the playoff final against Leeds in Cardiff in May 2006, will stick around.

Watford signed Leigh Bromby from Sheffield United, Warnock's old club, in the January transfer window, and manager Adrian Boothroyd has used him mostly in the center of defense with Nigerian international Dan Shittu. DeMerit has made four starts since February and wasn't even on the bench against Blackpool. He's not sure why he's been left out, saying Boothroyd hasn't given him any answers.

"I don't think I've done anything to warrant a drop or warrant not playing," DeMerit said. "Aidy always tries to talk to me and make sure my head's in the right spot and that I'm not too depressed and not too worried, because he says I shouldn't be, but I don't know how to react, because why wouldn't I be after what's kind of gone on?

"We have decent talks because we have that respect of being together for three years and me playing over 100 games under him, but actions speak louder than words."

DeMerit, sidelined with calf and groin injuries at the beginning of 2008, Shittu and keeper Richard Lee took turns as captain before Boothroyd eventually settled on veteran midfielder John Eustace, who signed only in January.

Bizarrely, DeMerit said he still acts as captain off the field, including when the club held its end-of-season awards ceremony earlier this week.

"It's so confusing to me, but I stopped asking questions," he said.

The 28-year-old hasn't ruled out a move this summer.

"I've been in situations like this before, and I know they take care of themselves," DeMerit said. "I have to keep trying to play well when I get my opportunity, and that's about it. I know I've done enough to warrant playing. Whether that's for Watford or someone else, that's to be decided. I've loved it here for the past four seasons, and if I look back and three months of it weren't good, then that's not a bad thing, either."

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

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