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Who Are The Americans Who Blazed The Trail In The Premier League?
From Clint Dempsey to Tim Howard, these U.S. stars were Premiere League pioneers whose success paved the way for Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, and Tyler Adams.
Before Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic or Leeds’ Brenden Aaronson, a courageous and select few of American footballers dared to cross the pond to battle the world’s best pitch warriors in England’s top flight – a league notoriously difficult for Americans to find a foothold in. Despite those challenges, the players who paved the way for future generations of American footballers in the Premier League now reside in the hallowed halls of an elite soccer pantheon all their own. While they no longer grace the grass of England’s most venerated soccer clubs, their indomitable reputations, forged through the blood, sweat and tears they gave every game, live on within the spirits of soccer players and fans both home and abroad. From legendary talismans to those that could’ve been, these are American pioneers first to blaze a trail in the Premier League.
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Affectionately known as the original "Captain America," Claudio Reyna garnered the reputation as a strong and relentless midfielder early in his career, leading to him being crowned the captain of the United States men’s national soccer team. After recording his first cap against Norway in 1994, Reyna earned membership on four FIFA World Cup teams (1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006). Though he was an excellent player prior to joining Manchester City in 2003, persistent injuries hampered the longevity of his career, and he only managed to make 87 appearances in three and a half seasons for the Citizens.
John Harkes was in England before there was technically a Premier League, joining Sheffield Wednesday in 1990. When the Premier League was formed in the 1992-93 season, Harkes and the rest of Sheffield Wednesday were among the inaugural participants. As such, he was the first American to ever play in the Premier League. The New Jersey native made 82 appearances for the Owls between 1990 and 1993, scoring seven goals along the way. Renowned as one of the United States’ all-time greats, Harkes also played in 90 matches for the USMNT from 1987-2000. The 55-year-old now coaches the Greenville Triumph SC in the USL League One.
Though he made his Premier League debut with Liverpool in 1997 and went on to make 25 appearances for the Reds, Brad Friedel truly ascended into the ranks of the most elite Premier League goalkeepers during his tenure with the Blackburn Rovers from 2000-2008. While there, he made 290 appearances for the club, and his 15 clean sheets in the 2002-2003 season helped earn him the coveted titled of Blackburn’s Player of the Year. Friedel even notched a goal off of a corner kick in 2004 during a match against Charlton Athletic, becoming just the second goalkeeper in Premier League history to ever score (not counting own goals).
After a successful MLS run with the Columbus Crew, for whom he recorded 62 goals in 161 games, Brian McBride joined Fulham. During his time with the EPL club between 2004-2008, McBride forged a reputation as a battle-tested footballer with a high work rate – a cherished trait throughout the league that refers to the extent which a player contributes to the running in a match while not in possession of the ball. He made 140 appearances for the Cottagers with 12 of his total 33 goals for the club coming in 2006-2007 season when he was Fulham’s top scorer. He retired from Fulham in 2008, managing to win the club’s Player of the Year award in back-to-back seasons.
Once an MLS poster child on the Los Angeles Galaxy, the mercurial soccer star played in two separate stints for Everton – once in 2010, then again in 2012. He made 17 total appearances for the club and notched two goals. Though his time in the EPL was not as successful as his United States men’s national team tenure – he’s the all-time assist leader, scoring co-leader and only American to record both 50 assists and 50 goals – “Lando” was a beloved figure for Everton even if he was past his prime while lacing up at Goodison Park for the Toffees.
Arguably the greatest American soccer player in history, Clint Dempsey began his Premier League journey in 2006 with Fulham, for whom he netted 50 goals in 189 matches. His 15 tallies in 2011-2012 set a club scoring record, though it would mark the end of his time with Fulham. (At least temporarily; Dempsey would return with a brief two-month loan in 2014.) Dempsey moved to Tottenham the following season, scoring seven goals in 29 appearances. In addition to being the first American player to net a hat-trick in the Premier League, he became the first American footballer to score 50 career goals in the EPL. During his time on the USMNT, he scored in each of the three FIFA World Cups he played in, tying Landon Donovan for the most international goals at 57, and just this year, he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Standing at a formidable six feet and three inches, Tim Howard was the American stalwart between the posts that helped propel Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to a FA Cup title, the League Cup and the Community Shield during the early 2000’s. Not only did he earn a spot on the 2003-2004 Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year, he also garnered the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup Golden Glove Award. After his time at Old Trafford, Howard joined Everton in 2007 and remained with the club until 2016. While there, Howard set the record for the most league clean sheets in a season, and in the 2011-2012 season, he recorded his first goal in professional soccer play with an epic 101-yard clearance at Goodison Park in the Toffees’ 2-1 loss to the Bolton Wanderers. Though his EPL career is peppered with a myriad of accolades, Howard may be best known for his superhuman performance in the USMNT’s 2-1 loss to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, in which he tallied a record 15 saves.
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