Land of opportunity

When David Beckham starts playing for Los Angeles Galaxy, a surge in interest in US soccer is expected. Yet there is already a sizeable British presence in the game there and, as Gavin Willacy explains, it’s not just the MLS that is attracting attention among clubs from this side of the Atlantic

Crystal Palace have recovered from a dodgy start to climb to mid-table, poised for a play-off push. Sadly, only 257 turned up for a recent home win in their 30,000-seat stadium. Fortunately for Simon Jordan, they were rattling around in the Navy Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, and we are talking Crystal Palace USA.

While a clutch of top European clubs cross the Atlantic to play friendlies this summer, the American Palace will be heading to Manchester (New Hampshire) to take on the Phantoms and then Shaun Goater’s Bermuda Hogges (he owns them and plays up front) in the United Soccer League, America’s second division.

Clearly, Simon Jordan is not in it to raise Palace’s profile. Instead, the Eagles are hoping to snare talent before it’s even seen by their European rivals. “Our charter is to identify and nurture talent in this continent,” CPFC USA general manager Pete Medd told the BBC. “That begins with our under-eights up to our professional team. It’s a testament to entrepreneurs on both sides of the pond who saw an opportunity. The growth of soccer and the ­talent here is evidenced by the number of high-profile players playing in the ­Premier League.”

Whether there is any more talent in Maryland than there is in Croydon remains to be seen. As well as local college grads dreaming of a move to Europe, CPFC USA have picked up overseas pros who’ve been playing in Italy, Japan, Moldova, Malaysia, Colombia and Bolivia. They’re joined by a scattering of London youngsters in need of a new environment.

“I couldn’t wait to get out here, play games and experience a new lifestyle,” admitted striker Charlie – son of Teddy – Sheringham, who plays alongside fellow 19-year-old and Palace loanee Lewis Spence and former Liverpool youth-teamer Bryan Harkin. “Obviously it’s not as good as back home, but it’s a better standard than I thought it would be.”

That CPFC USA can do this is all down to the depth of Simon Jordan’s pockets. With no salary cap in place in the USL, they can pay what they like to make this work. Iain Dowie could well be paying – indirectly – for the next Freddy Adu. “Our payroll is double or triple what most USL clubs are spending in this division and that’s a benefit – we can compete with the MLS for some young talent,” Medd explains. “In the future, once we’re more established, we make a stronger run for talent in the top ten of the MLS Super Draft – we could have the freedom to pay whatever we need to pay to get them in our fold with the potential upside of playing in England for very big money.”

Sporting director Jim Cherneski adds: “It’s a stepping stone, but they have to perform while they’re here. That’s how they get the big opportunity in London. For Palace it’s about the potential to get ­top‑quality players for relatively inexpensive means – they don’t have to buy them when they are on the market at their premium.”

Maybe David Dein is backing Stan Kroenke’s efforts to increase his share in Arsenal for the same reason. What is more likely is that the link-up between the Gunners and Kroenke’s Colorado Rapids is more about increasing Arsenal’s status in the US. The MLS’s profile will increase massively with David Beckham’s arrival. Sky has already jumped on the bandwagon, showing statistics on Sky Sports News, while Five – home of MLS for a decade but seen by only insomniacs and breakfasting milkmen – has moved highlights to prime time on digital channel Five US. Uncle Rupert will ensure this Fox-funded product goes worldwide at last.

Inaugural members of MLS in 1996 but among its least successful clubs, the Rapids have totally relaunched themselves, moving ­stadiums and cities (from Denver to Commerce City), and changing players, logos and “uniform”, from green and black to the maroon shirts with white shorts worn by Arsenal in 2005-06. Kroenke may yet change the club’s name to Colorado Arsenal.

When the deal was announced in February, Arsenal MD Keith Edelman spoke of “supporting grassroots football in the US” and “the inception of a centre of excellence” at the Rapids’ new home, Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. So far, the only obvious interaction between the clubs saw the Rapids play a pre-season friendly against Barnet at Arsenal’s training ground.

Arsenal already finance Beveren in Belgium and an academy in the Ivory Coast, and have a “sporting agreement” with Celta Vigo. West Ham and Rangers are among the British clubs to try similar systems in Australia, while Manchester United farm out promising youth players and coaches to Royal Antwerp and have close ties with Sporting Lisbon. In-depth knowledge of European passport policies lies behind such schemes.

Club partnerships are commonplace in America, where the affiliate system underpins professional baseball. In MLS, Mexican behemoths CD Guadalajara launched Chivas USA, while their rivals Tigres are partners with Steve Morrow’s FC Dallas.

But with MLS, rather than the clubs, owning the rights to every player, any partner club wanting to buy talent from America may well have first dibs but will still have to pay the market price. So Palace are not the only European club to think sideways – across the Atlantic – and invest in a minor‑league team instead. USL‑1 club Atlanta Silverhawks, partners of Independiente and Inter, recently drew with San Francisco new boys California Victory. The Victory are owned by local resident Dmitry Piterman, who also happens to be president of Spanish club Deportivo Alavés. So far only one player has left the Basque territory for the Bay Area, though more are expected to follow now the Spanish season is over.

But for every exciting young talent emerging in the States such as Jozy Altidore – currently partnering a revitalised Juan Pablo Angel up front for New York Red Bulls – there’s a Terry Cooke, shuffling down the touchline for Colorado Rapids a decade after breaking through at Old Trafford.

Ironically, arguably the most British of all America’s clubs, USL-1’s Charleston Battery – complete with pub, turnstiles, and framed shirts in the clubhouse – has no UK partner club and currently no British players. If Palace’s venture is a success, that may not be the case for long.

From WSC 246 August 2007