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Oct 18, 2008

Whitbread quietly climbing the ranks at Millwall

Soccer's silly season, the European transfer window, is just around the corner. British tabloids are filled with phantom deals, aided by eager agents hyping their clients.

Zak Whitbread, then, wasn't paying too much attention to a story in this week's Sun that linked the Houston-born defender with newly promoted West Bromwich Albion of the Premier League. According to Britain's best-selling daily, the Baggies are willing to dish out 1 million pounds ($1.7 million), a modest sum in the current market.

"I don't read much into it," Whitbread said before practice Friday. "It's nice being linked with a Premier League club, but I'm just going to keep on playing. I'm not going to get carried away.''

Still, where there's smoke there's fire, so Whitbread could expect a move sometime soon. Currently plying his trade at Millwall, a biggish team in tiny League One, the 24-year-old, according to reports, is also wanted by two other Premier League teams: Everton and Blackburn, where his dad, Barry, is a chief scout. No doubt, a deal would boost his chances of once again representing the U.S.

He's had a taste of the high life at Liverpool; he was groomed in the youth system and played in a handful of first-team games alongside the likes of international stalwarts Steven Gerrard, Sami Hyypia and Peter Crouch after growing up, mostly on Merseyside, as a fan of archrival Manchester United.

"I think I'm capable of playing much higher, but that's down to me to kind of prove it to people on the pitch,'' Whitbread continued in a strong Scouse accent. "I've always had confidence in my ability. This is the time where obviously the first thing is to get Millwall to the next division. If that's the case, brilliant. At the same time, you wouldn't be a football player if you didn't want to be at the highest level. I'm not going to sit here and lie and say I want to be in League One for the rest of my life."

Sure, there's been the occasional lapse -- conceding four goals to Oldham on the opening day of the season and four more versus the MK Dons this month -- but Whitbread and skipper Paul Robinson have formed an impressive partnership in the middle of the defense. Whitbread is also adept at left back.

Millwall kept three straight clean sheets in September and sits fifth in the standings, tied on points with Leeds and two behind Leicester in the second and final automatic promotion spot. Leeds and Leicester are the undisputed giants of the third tier.

"Zak has a growing reputation in the game, with people coming to watch him at home games and away games,'' assistant manager Joe Gallen said this week. "He is a very good player and, along with a host of Millwall players, is capable of playing at a higher level. But our plan is to grow and succeed together, to get into the Championship as a club and allow players to achieve their goals from there."

Whitbread joined Millwall, a club in South London that has struggled with hooliganism in the past, on loan from Liverpool in 2005-06, when Millwall was relegated from the Championship. He then signed a permanent deal with the Lions, though a pelvic injury sustained in December 2006 ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign. Last season, he made 28 appearances and flourished under manager Kenny Jackett, who replaced Richard Shaw in November.

Described on Millwall's Web site as a player who is "comfortable on the ball as well as strong in the tackle,'' Whitbread joined Liverpool's famed Center of Excellence at age 8. He spent about five years in Singapore while his dad worked with the national team and returned as a teen; the lifestyle in Asia was enjoyable, though Whitbread acknowledges it hampered his soccer development.

Being a regular in the reserves is the ambition of few, so Whitbread knew he had to go. His first senior appearance for the Reds came against Millwall in the League Cup in October 2004.

"It was an unbelievable experience playing with players of that quality day in, day out, learning so much,'' Whitbread said. "But at a club of that size, it's going to be hard when they get such quality in. Coming on loan at Millwall kind of opened my eyes about playing on Saturdays and getting that Saturday feeling, so to speak. After I got the taste, I couldn't go back and play reserve games on a Tuesday or Wednesday night in front of 200 people.''

The gates are much bigger at internationals, and Whitbread is hoping to return to the U.S. set-up. On a team that included Fulham's Clint Dempsey, Monaco's Freddy Adu and Reading's Bobby Convey, he was a regular at the World Youth Championships five years ago. He later took part in Olympic qualifying, yet has no senior caps.

Whitbread has bumped into Convey a few times since.

"I haven't really seen much of the other lads,'' he said. "To be honest, it's a while ago, which is a shame, really."

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

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