I’m 10 years old and my dad has brought our family to London with him while he’s on a business trip. While we’re there, he’s managed to get tickets for a West Ham–Liverpool match at Wembley Stadium.
Yep, 10 years old — just a kid from Ohio and I’m walking into Wembley. Wembley. And I quickly realize this isn’t anything like a Cleveland Browns game back home.
This isn’t just a game — this is a religion. Fans who’d been spending much of the morning and afternoon in pubs spill out into the street to make their way to the grounds, marching together like some sort of makeshift army. There’s cheering, there’s chanting, there’s singing, and yes, there’s some fighting.
I’m 10 years old and I’m standing for 90 minutes straight, singing and chanting along with 80,000 people.
It’s overwhelming. It’s inspiring. It was even a little scary. But after it’s all over, I’m 10 years old, and at that moment, I know that I want to play on that pitch someday. In the English Premier League. For me, there was really no other dream. There was no professional soccer league in the U.S. The options were limited and for any future in the sport, I had to do whatever I could to make it overseas.
So when we got home from that trip, I just tried to play as much soccer as humanly possible. I also tried to support Liverpool as much as I could, which, as you can imagine, wasn’t the easiest thing to do in the early ’80s in the midwest. I got a subscription to Soccer Digest and would count down the days until it would arrive at our door. There were also product catalogues that sold soccer gear, and like any kid, I’d go through circling the kits that I wanted. I had already started playing goalkeeper by that point, so it was the long pants, gloves — just like the goalkeepers in Europe wore.
There weren’t very matches, if any, on the television — forget about the U.S. hosting a tournament like the Copa América in those years. We could hardly get a game on the TV. To think that I’d one day become an analyst for FOX Sports covering Copa? No way. So there wasn’t much a soccer-obsessed kid like me could do back then. I had to rely on whatever means were available for news of the outside soccer world. And that really came down to two people: my dad and my soccer coach. My dad traveled a lot on business and would bring back newspapers and different jerseys. One time it’d be an England shirt, maybe a Holland one the next, or another Liverpool strip. And my soccer coach was Spanish, so I’d beg him for any information on La Liga. As a recently converted Red though, I was all about Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar. For some reason, Bayern Munich was one of the teams that got a lot of airplay, so I’d sit in front of the TV and try and learn as much as I could from Jean-Marie Pfaff and Toni Schumacher. Bruce and Jean-Marie were brilliant goalkeepers, but had styles that were a little eccentric, so I took the approach of Ray — subdued and consistent.
But as hard as it was to watch the games and get news, I eventually realized — sometime after I started playing at UCLA in 1990 — that playing in the Premier League would be next to impossible. When you think about it, like really think about it — the lack of avenues, the lack of precedence — there’s no real reason why the likes of myself or Joe-Max Moore or Mike Lapper or Claudio Reyna or anybody else should have really had the overseas careers that we had.
What we did have, though, was desire. To push for our dreams, no matter what it took. That, and we were just young and crazy enough to be able to take ourselves out of our comfort zones and leave everything we knew behind.
And this was more than just adjusting to time differences. This was staying in horrible places, and playing at horrible venues. This was seeing a sheep slaughtered in front of your eyes in a soccer stadium as the home fans yelled at you to smear the blood on your forehead.
It was the best time of my life.
Despite interest from Premier League clubs and teams wanting to sign me, I couldn’t actually get a work permit for the U.K. So I played elsewhere in Europe — while earning enough caps for the U.S. national team to become eligible for a U.K. visa, because the rule was you had to play in 75 percent of your national team’s games in the previous two years. I was fortunate that my first stint in Europe was with Brøndby, a Danish club in Copenhagen. And there’s not much more to say about my time there than that the Danes are extremely nice people.
But where do I start on Istanbul, which is where I went next, to play for Galatasaray.
For one thing, on the pitch it was just an incredible game. It was quick and intense and it pushed me as a keeper. We won the Turkish Cup that year and qualified for Champions League. Off the field, it was absolutely phenomenal. For a kid from Bay Village, Ohio, to go and live in a Muslim country was an eye-opening experience.
Which brings me to the sheep.
We were walking to a game right after Ramadan was over, and the fans were holding a sheep. On a list of things you don’t expect to see on the soccer grounds, I’m pretty sure a live sheep would be somewhere near the top, but there it was. I had no idea what was about to happen, while the rest of my teammates couldn’t have been less fazed. There was a lot of yelling and then the fans just slit the sheep’s throat — right there in front of us. Blood everywhere. They dipped their hands in it, and swiped it on their forehead as a sign of good luck. Then they asked us to do the same.
This wasn’t something that most Americans would consider normal, but it was absolutely brilliant to be a part of. I had teammates who, during Ramadan, had to fast during daylight hours even as professional athletes. We’d be at training and a call to prayer would go off and certain players who were very religious would stop their training, go pray and come back to the pitch. Once you learn that that’s how things work, it’s not a big deal, but in the U.S. you can go through your whole life in a little bubble. But when you live in these places, you find out that these people are very good human beings. It was incredible. It was understanding other cultures. It was a phenomenal thing to see.
But it wasn’t easy.
There were only a handful of U.S. soccer players in Europe at the time, and we were kind of on our own. I had no cellphone back then, so I couldn’t talk to my family too much. And most of the time, I couldn’t talk to my teammates because I didn’t know the language. At Galatasaray, after the departure of our Scottish manager, Graeme Souness, every team talk was in Turkish. Every training session was in Turkish. So I had two choices: Learn Turkish or don’t understand a word that anybody was saying. So three days a week, I took Turkish lessons.
And then after that, and after a year of playing in the U.S. with the Columbus Crew, I got a call: I finally had a U.K. work permit. I was going to be a Red. I was going to play at Anfield. I was a Liverpool soccer player. Officially.
But while I had dreamed of playing in the EPL for years, a lot of people, quite frankly, just didn’t want us there. The media, the fans, even some of our teammates — they didn’t want to accept that Americans could play. We were second-class citizens. And I’m pretty sure they were only slightly more O.K. with goalkeepers playing on their clubs because we were a little more removed from the team.
We had to fight tooth and nail for everything we got. Everything. Status, recognition, contracts and acceptance from teammates, fans and journalists. We had to fight for it all. And you could feel it when you walked into the locker room — you’re an outsider. You’re not automatically one of the guys in anybody’s circle of friends. You’d get lower scores for your play in the newspapers just for the fact that you were American. If an American player was ever just a little bit better than an English player, the English player would still play. If he American was a lot better then maybe he would play.
Basically all we had were our results. Every week, you had to show up and be that much better. I can’t really put a finger on the moment that it shifted, but eventually people came around. A lot of times in training the guys would play against each other — Brits versus the foreign players. At one point, while I was playing at Blackburn, I lined up, as usual, with my fellow foreigners, until one of my English teammates tugged my shirt.
“C’mon Brad. You’re on our team. You’re one of us anyway.”
Then, when I got my British passport, there was even talk like, Hey, Brad could play for England. Results helped people forget you were American, I guess.
Everything we went through playing overseas was really helping to grow the game in the U.S. Not that we were really thinking about that at the time. For us, we just wanted to play at the highest levels. When I was younger, there wasn’t even a pro league to aspire to. You just played as hard as you could in national-team games because that was where the scouts were. It wasn’t until 1994, when the U.S. actually hosted the World Cup, that the U.S. Soccer Federation made moves to get Major League Soccer up and running.
But every time we returned to the U.S., we could see the growth. Every single time, it felt different. We had played a 1998 World Cup qualifier in Washington, D.C., against Jamaica. Stepping onto the pitch, you would have thought we were in Kingston. In those years, we had to play in California just to get people to show up. And the people that did show up were Mexican-Americans who were there to support Mexico.
But after the 2002 World Cup, when we made it to the quarterfinals, there was a real shift. It was the first time that it felt like we were playing in front of U.S. crowds. And back in Europe, more and more of our U.S. teammates started getting contracts. Brad Guzan and Michael Bradley joined me at Aston Villa and Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin joined me at Tottenham before I retired. The amount of American talent that’s playing abroad now is something that was unimaginable when me and the other guys were just starting out.
And to me, that’s the real measure of how far the game has come — the global recognition of our players, and the avenues they now have to play for teams in other countries. We not only have MLS, but we also have a developmental program for the national team. Of course there’s still more to do: better coaches, better academies. But I can actually talk to our U-19 players now about the possibility of them playing in Europe, or playing in South America, or even playing professionally in the U.S. Those aren’t just pipe dreams anymore.
Neither is hosting big tournaments here, like the Copa América Centenario. There’s the World Cup and then there are two equal competitions after that: the European Championship and Copa America. And the best part? We’re not having the conversation anymore about pro-American crowds as though they are a novelty. It’s just normal.
There are still a lot of people — fans, pundits, whoever — who think that when a result isn’t good, or an MLS game isn’t good, the world is crumbling. But change won’t happen overnight. Things will continue to get better. I know because of matches like the U.S. vs. Argentina.
I know what you’re thinking, How is a 4–0 loss was a good thing for the U.S.? First of all, there was a U.S. team — with true talent — that did not stop, that did not quit, for 90 minutes. A U.S. team who faced the No. 1 ranked team in the world. A U.S. team, who was among the No. 3 and No. 5 ranked teams in the world to make it to the Copa semis. That’s pretty good company to be in. The level that we need to aspire to was apparent against Argentina. We’ve got a long way to go. But when you look at the lack of expectations people had for this team coming into the tournament, we didn’t do bad at all.
Besides, it wasn’t the result that mattered.
What matters is that today I’m 45 years old and going to stadiums in Philadelphia and Houston to see Leo Messi, Luis Suárez, Alexis Sanchez, Juan Cuadrado and James Rodríguez compete. And not in friendlies, but in competitive games in the U.S. It’s truly is incredible.
And in those stadiums are a lot of kids who are seeing Messi nailing a beautiful free kick into the upper 90 and thinking, Maybe I could do that. And on the field are American soccer players who are playing in leagues all over the world. And they’re playing other foreign players who are now coming to the U.S. to play professionally.
It’s overwhelming. It’s inspiring. And after it’s all over, I hope there’s another 10-year-old who realizes that he wants to — and that he can — play on that pitch someday.
Brad Friedel is an analyst for Fox Sports’ Copa América Centenario coverage. The final between Argentina and Chile will air on FS1 June 26 at 8 p.m. EST.