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May 23, 2008

American crew helps Fulham avoid the drop

LONDON -- Clint Dempsey hasn't had much luck fishing during his days off in North Carolina. At least he and the rest of his Fulham teammates didn't let the big one slip away as the Premier League season ended last week.

Dempsey & Co. were 15 minutes from demotion to the second-tier Championship, a world apart from the glamorous top division and historic stadiums such as Old Trafford and Anfield, when a rare Danny Murphy header sealed a 1-0 win at Portsmouth to keep the Cottagers up.

Almost dead and buried in April, Fulham won four of its last five games and three in succession to pull off the great escape, emulating and perhaps surpassing the feats of West Ham, Portsmouth and West Bromwich Albion in recent campaigns.

The news wasn't as good for two other Americans. Seattle keeper Marcus Hahnemann and Philadelphia's Bobby Convey returned to the Championship with Reading following a gargantuan scoring drought that ended far too late. Fulham edged Reading on goal difference.

"Being able to pull off something like we did was pretty special because I don't think anyone has been able to escape from that low before," said Texas native Dempsey, one of five Americans at Craven Cottage. "You feel like you accomplished something. It's bittersweet when you find out Manchester United won the title and it would be awesome doing that, and we're just celebrating staying alive, but it was cool. We definitely didn't want to go down."

Bankrolled by Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed in fashionable southwest London, Fulham began its revival with a 2-0 win at Reading on April 12, its first road win of the season. Captain Brian McBride, who earned plaudits from pundits down the stretch after recovering from a serious knee injury, scored the opener and Kasey Keller collected the shutout.

The next week Fulham slipped closer to the abyss, falling 2-0 to Liverpool in a game where Keller conceded two soft goals. Then came the turning point. Behind 2-0 with 20 minutes remaining at Manchester City on April 26, the visitors rallied for a 3-2 victory, settling matters in injury time.

"It's not going to get much worse if you think about it, being two goals down with only one half left to play," said Dempsey, who scored a team-leading six league goals from midfield. "We knew once we won that, we had a chance to stay up if we got some results."

Fulham toppled Birmingham, which ultimately failed in its bid to survive, 2-0, McBride registering the winner again, and capped the miraculous sequence at Portsmouth. Veteran Roy Hodgson, Fulham's third coach in a year and the former boss at Switzerland, Finland, Inter Milan, Blackburn and Udinese, essentially called the escape his greatest managerial achievement.

"He just told us we have nothing to lose and everyone's counting us out, so go out there with no pressure," said Dempsey. "That's kind of what we did. We just went out there and played, and people weren't tight. We were also a tougher team to break down because we had really good shape. Then we had people step up and get some big goals for us."

Reading didn't have the same fortune. Strikers Kevin Doyle and Leroy Lita, after netting a combined 20 league goals last season, came up with seven in 2007-08, although Dave Kitson boosted his output. Prior to a 4-0 thrashing of woeful Derby on the final day, the Royals hadn't hit the back of the net in six matches.

At the end of December, Reading was a lofty eight points above the bottom three.

"It was just devastating," Hahnemann told reporters. "We're not Premiership players anymore. That's something we have to get into our heads as quickly as possible."

Both Americans at Derby, little-used winger Benny Feilhaber and experienced midfielder Eddie Lewis, knew for a while relegation beckoned. Derby won once in the league all season and finished with a paltry 11 points, breaking all sorts of futility records.

Dempsey, who's also been playing some golf and eating as much Mexican food as he can, comes back to London for next Wednesday's friendly against England at the new Wembley Stadium.

The U.S., fresh off an impressive 3-0 win at Euro 2008 entrant Poland in March, is unbeaten in five, while England missed out on the 16-nation tournament and hasn't exactly excited under new coach Fabio Capello. The consensus in England, however, is that an easy home win should follow. (The FIFA world rankings, much ridiculed, list England at No. 11 and the U.S. at No. 21.)

Capello, the bespectacled Italian, named an initial 31-man squad that featured established internationals such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, along with inexperienced prospects. The U.S. faces giants Spain and Argentina, tops in the rankings, in early June.

"I don't really care what anyone thinks," Dempsey, the reigning men's U.S. Soccer player of the year, said. "People are doubting us, let them doubt. I think we have more confidence now as a country because we have more and more people playing in the toughest leagues, kind of day in, day out, being in that type of atmosphere and that type of pressure, so when we get into these games, I don't think you see a U.S. side that's nervous or intimidated.

"You see a team that's hungry and believes in itself, and when a team believes in itself, it always does better, and that's what we have at the moment."

Sounds as though Dempsey still might reel in a few big ones.

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

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