Americans yanked from the Premiership?
LONDON, England – The future of many of the United States' Premiership exports has rarely been in a greater state of flux.
A total of 12 Americans play in England's top flight, but of that group only three – Everton's Tim Howard, Blackburn's Brad Friedel and West Ham's Jonathan Spector – are effectively guaranteed to remain in the highest league next season. The others are all in deep relegation danger as members of Premier League bottom feeders Reading, Fulham and Derby County.
United States national team head coach Bob Bradley will be casting a keen eye across the pond in the closing months of the current campaign. Given the high standard of the second-tier Championship in England, he may not be too concerned by any drop-off in the level of competition. However, in most cases of relegated clubs, demotion means serious change and would result in a summer of uncertainty for at least some of the Yanks in England.
With the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign fast approaching, Bradley will have no choice but to monitor things closely, and perhaps nervously, in the middle part of the year.
"The best scenario is to have as many of our guys playing regularly at a high level at any given time," Bradley said in a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports. "Of course, things can change and different situations arise from time to time.
"I try to keep on top of things. I speak to players, I have contact with many of the clubs and we work things through."
Heading into this weekend's league action, nine U.S. Premiership players find themselves in the bottom three relegation spots. If Derby, Fulham and Reading don't improve their situations, what happens then? Will the nine Americans stay and help restore their clubs' Premier League status, or will they pass on the Championship and seek challenges elsewhere?
• Derby County. The Midlands side is not yet mathematically doomed but has been stuck at the foot of the Premiership table since early in the season. It would take a miracle of unprecedented proportions for Derby to escape the drop.
Eddie Lewis played a full 90 minutes in last weekend's 0-0 draw with Sunderland and appears to be part of manager Paul Jewell's plans moving forward. The same cannot be said for Benny Feilhaber, who has not seen any playing time since January 2.
The lack of action for Feilhaber, whose goal against Mexico helped the U.S. win the Gold Cup last year, creates something of a headache for Bradley, who likes the look of him in central midfield. Whatever happens with Derby, it looks clear that Feilhaber will relocate to another European side in order to kick-start both his club and international careers.
• Fulham. Second from the bottom in the Premiership, the west London club is mired in a dreadful run of form and sits six points adrift from safety. There are five Americans in its squad, with Eddie Johnson the most recent addition to a group that already included Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey and Kasey Keller.
If manager Roy Hodgson is unable to spark a revival, then a move to Major League Soccer could be a serious option for aging favorites McBride and Keller. McBride is still a hugely popular figure in Columbus, while Keller may be a target for the new Seattle franchise that begins play in 2009.
Johnson, who signed from the Kansas City Wizards in January, would be likely to stay at Fulham. Bocanegra, who's currently out of favor, could seek opportunities in Spain, while Dempsey would be likely to attract offers from other Premiership clubs.
• Reading. The Royals, with Marcus Hahnemann and Bobby Convey, like their chances of escaping life in the Championship after last weekend's victory at Middlesbrough provided a major boost. Hahnemann is under contract for another season, and it would be no surprise to see both men stay at the Madejski Stadium and help the club try to return to the Premiership if Reading went down.
For Bradley, the key players whose situation he will analyze the closest will be Feilhaber and Bocanegra.
The coach's son, Michael Bradley, is blossoming in Holland and will hold down one of the central midfield spots in the U.S. squad. He and Feilhaber combine well, but the Derby player is likely to be overlooked until he manages to find a suitable starting place in Europe.
Bocanegra has grown in stature internationally and has become a solid and dependable performer for the U.S., often wearing the captain's armband. But his spot cannot be held open if he is not involved at club level.
The early batch of World Cup qualifiers should not be too much of a test for the Americans, but Bradley wants to get his lineup as settled as possible heading into the crucial matches in 2009. There is nothing he can do to influence the final stages of the Premiership season. But he can definitely be influenced by it.