The US college system is offering an increasingly popular way into the professional game for British footballers. Gavin Willacy examines the latest phenomenon in Major League Soccer

With Five no longer airing MLS games during the milkmen’s breakfast slot, even fewer British viewers will have seen the impact Darren Huckerby, Ade Akinbiyi and Danny Dichio have had on the American top flight than saw David Beckham try to inspire the hapless LA Galaxy last summer. While a string of English thirtysomethings understandably use MLS as a preferable last stop to Brentford or Brighton, there is another growing group of British footballers emerging in America.

MLS is currently home to several young players who have used the US college system to earn a shot at top-flight professional football. When MLS launched 13 years ago, there were some “name” veterans playing out their careers but few young foreign talents, especially from the UK. Now, thanks to a change in the rules discounting US college-trained foreigners from overseas quotas, combined with the massive increase in kids here staying in education until they are 18 – including aspiring footballers – there is a new route to the pro game.

The new generation of Brits abroad is led by striker Steve Zukuani, a 21-year-old from Wood Green in north London, who was the number one pick in the MLS “Super Draft” last January. Zukuani’s feats in college soccer saw him selected by newcomers Seattle Sounders and thrust the brother of Peterborough defender Gabriel Zukuani into the limelight.

The Zukuani family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo for London when Steve was just three. He grew up in Tottenham territory and was on the books of Arsenal until he was 14. A trial at Orient led to nothing and he eventually took up a soccer scholarship to Akron University in Ohio in 2007. An explosive 2008 saw him attract a host of pro suitors, but only Preston offered him a contract in England.

Instead, Zukuani opted to leave college early but stay in the States. That is looking like a good move. Playing under former US Under-20s coach Sigi Schmid as a left-sided attacker at the stunning Qwest Field – shared with NFL’s Seahawks – Zukuani looks at home. The TV coverage, merchandising, commercialism and branding is all on a par with anything below Championship level in England. Zakuani is guaranteed $163,000 (£100,000) this summer: $65,000 from MLS via Seattle and the rest from his role with Generation Adidas, an arrangement where the league’s kit providers put promising young players on the sort of retainer that will keep them in America, rather than losing them to Europe’s
second-tier leagues.

A handful of British graduates from US college soccer will feel delighted to be earning considerably less. Giant Liverpudlian defender Andy Iro earns $62,500 a year with reigning champions Columbus Crew just two years after leaving the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. Like Iro, former West Brom trainee Kyle Patterson has only recently made his pro debut, aged 23, after four years at St Louis University. John Cunliffe was rejected by Bolton, Preston and Man Utd before a third division US college gave him a chance: he’s spent the last two seasons in MLS with Chivas and San Jose.

MLS still foolishly flings dollars at fading foreigners – Huckerby is on eight grand a week at San Jose, ex-Man City and Utd winger Terry Cooke takes almost four grand a week from Colorado Rapids – but there are much better British bargains to be had.

Scottish-born midfielder Stuart Holden sandwiched a year at Clemson University between spells with hometown club Aberdeen and Sunderland, soon returning to the States after being attacked outside a Newcastle bar. He has had a stunning impact on MLS, playing in two successive Cup finals and every game for the US Under-23s at the Beijing Olympics. With many top Europe-based players unavailable for international friendlies, opportunities tend to come quickly for the US.

“Why would I sit around waiting for Scotland?” he said after his first call up by the US national manager Bob Bradley. Holden went on to score twice at July’s Concacaf Gold Cup and was selected for the All-Tournament Team. George Burley looks to have missed out. With Holden reportedly earning the league minimum for a “senior” player ($34,728) this summer, British clubs may not be so slow to pounce.

From WSC 272 October 2009

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