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An American booter in London

Wisconsin native breaks in with English football squad

Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2005

 

  U.S. soccer player Jay Demerit, left, trains with Watford teammate Hameur Bouazza ahead of Tuesday's League Cup Semi final 2nd leg soccer match against Liverpool at the Watford training ground, in Watford England Monday Jan. 24, 2005. AP Photo Alan Cozzi

U.S. soccer player Jay Demerit, left, trains with Watford teammate Hameur Bouazza ahead of Tuesday's League Cup Semi final 2nd leg soccer match against Liverpool at the Watford training ground, in Watford England Monday Jan. 24, 2005.

AP Photo Alan Cozzi

LONDON — He is a long way from Green Bay, Wis., where he played high school soccer, just another sport thrown into the mix with basketball and track and field.

Now, after a roundabout route that so many soccer players must travel, Jay DeMerit finds himself in the starting lineup for an English League Cup semifinal game against one of England's storied teams.

''I'm kind of proud that I've done it my way,'' DeMerit said. ''I took a chance coming here and to finally be living this is amazing.''

DeMerit played soccer at Bay Port High School. He didn't start playing the game seriously, however, until he was 18 and went to the University of Illinois at Chicago because other soccer schools weren't interested.

Never selected for a national team of any kind by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the 25-year-old central defender will start for Watford in Tuesday's game against Liverpool.

It's as if an English kid from Newcastle took up football — American style — and one day ran from the tunnel in helmet and shoulder pads to start a game at Lambeau Field.

Liverpool defeated Watford 1-0 two weeks ago at Anfield, a history-rich stadium DeMerit likened to the Green Bay shrine. The second game is at Watford's Vicarage Road, with the winner advancing to the final in Cardiff, Wales, on Feb. 27 against Manchester United or Chelsea.

DeMerit recalled the ''surreal'' experience of taking the field at Anfield as Liverpool fans waved red scarves and sang the team's anthem: ''You'll Never Walk Alone.''

''The whole passion for soccer over here reminds of me being a Packers fan growing up, the level of passion they have for the sport in England,'' he said. ''The only thing people care about here is the results of games on Sunday. You'd never get that in America — unless it's American football.''

DeMerit is among about 150 Americans playing in Europe. About 20 play in the top divisions in England, Germany, France and the Netherlands, with the rest like DeMerit aspiring to reach the top.

Watford plays in the Football League Championship, a level below the Premier League and teams such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool.

DeMerit said English fans no longer seem surprised an American can play their game.

''We are well known for playing other sports, so people are confused why we would choose soccer over other more lucrative sports in America,'' he said.

It used to be easy to keep track of Americans playing Europe. Not any more.

''If you go back 10 years ago, there probably weren't more than a dozen,'' USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse said.

DeMerit went to England after playing on a Chicago club team with an English friend who encouraged him to head overseas. After completing his degree in industrial design at Illinois-Chicago, DeMerit started looking for an English team. The search took more than a year.

''I had a few trials and just tried to get games where I could,'' he said.

His big break came over the summer.

Playing for a semipro club called Northwood Town, he was noticed by opposing coach Ray Lewington at Watford. DeMerit got a tryout with the club on the outskirts of London and received a short-term contract. Then came a surprise in August when Watford played the Spanish team Zaragoza in a preseason game.

''I was thinking I would get five minutes at the end. But I got in the dressing room and I was on the board for starting,'' DeMerit said. ''It was a big test for me, and I played all 90 minutes.''

A few months later his contract was extended by 2 1/2 years.

''It's been a real fairy-tale story,'' Lewington said.

At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, DeMerit relies on fitness and athletic ability rather than pure soccer skill. Against Liverpool, he'll face two of Europe's top strikers — Milan Baros and Fernando Morientes.

DeMerit already has gone up against fellow American striker Brian McBride, who plays for Premier League Fulham. Fulham also starts U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra.

''I'm still kind of raw,'' DeMerit said. ''I have a lot to learn, to put it mildly. But if I can get to this level with the limited knowledge and skills I have, I'm hopeful that I can keep going.''



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