BY RIDGE MAHONEY
Three weeks remain to be played in a English Premier League season during which three teams have broken away to form an elite tier and three American players are caught in a competitive whirlpool that would be unthinkable back home.
''I get asked the question a lot over here: 'How can the U.S. leagues be so stable?', says U.S. keeper Kasey Keller, who has played in England and Europe for more than a decade. ''I say, 'The key fact is if you have a bad season you're still in the league.'''
In most foreign tongues talking soccer, bad seasons end with relegation. The English use quaint words like the drop or the chop or the ax, hyperbolic imagery of what is merely demotion to a lesser league or division.
In the English First Division, the level one floor below the Premier League, play is less competitive, less attractive, and therefore much less lucrative.
Estimated loss of revenue runs as much as $40 million.
''A couple of years ago, the Dallas Cowboys would not have been in the NFL,'' says Keller, who follows American sports from his home in London, where he plays for beautifully coined Tottenham Hotspur. Nickname: Spurs.
''You can't have that, it's unheard of,'' says Keller of dooming the Cowboys to rouges, harsh northern climes, and a 110-yard separation of goal lines in the Canadian Football League.
''If you have an owner who just spent hundreds of millions to buy the team, and you tell him, 'Oh by the way, if you have a bad year, you'll be playing in the CFL,' you'll get 'What? No I'm not!'''
Keller and U.S. goalie Brad Friedel (Blackburn) and midfielder Claudio Reyna (Manchester City) are stolidly grinding their way through dimming club seasons in which the sole goal is not to finish in the bottom three.
''The way [TV partner/cash cow] Sky came in to help out doesn't warrant for the First Division clubs to have Premiership wages for more than one year,'' says Friedel. ''When you're down for one year, you still get a portion of the Premiership TV money, so you can just about do it if you go straight back up. Nowadays if you go down and don't go right back up, you're in a lot of trouble.''
An unlucky of trio of teams is banished to the First Division for the upcoming season, which begins in August, which means players report for training in early July.
Which isn't much of the summertime to slash expenses and raise cash by selling those most prized assets: good players.
Reyna, a force in midfield during the 2002 World Cup, joined Manchester City from Sunderland the following year. Sunderland had suffered through a horrible 2002-03 season of four wins, seven wins and 27 defeats. The Black Cats were very poor as well as unlucky. They were also dead last.
He'd missed most of that bleak season with his own misery, a torn ACL in his left knee suffered in October. Yet manager Kevin Keegan, a dynamic attacker in his playing days for England and several fancied European club teams, paid 3.2 million pounds ($5.7 million) for him.
''I wasn't even there a lot of the time,'' says Reyna, who did much of his rehabilitation in the U.S. and is a regular in the team. ''When you're not playing you feel completely different, you don't feel any of the pressure.
''It really comes down to the individual. I don't feel nervous about it. It's just another game, you have to look at it that way. But it's my job and it's important to do as good as possible.''
Blackburn and Manchester City finished in the top half last season and played in the UEFA Cup. Spurs ended just a point behind Man City in 10th place, a poor placing for an ambitious club yet a safe one.
This season, the courses have run rough throughout for Blackburn and City, and Spurs' fortunes rather recently dipped again after an earlier descent.
Tottenham put together a stretch of five wins in six matches shortly after New Year's, and players were eyeing the Euro-places in early February. By early April, they were uncomfortably close to a desperate existence in the bottom quarter.
''Spurs has had about 10 down years in a row and that's probably been the thing that's been the most difficult,'' says Keller, who joined the team in three years ago and rode the bench behind Neil Sullivan for the first half of the 2001-02 season. ''The fans feel Spurs should be at worst a top six team and it just hasn't worked out.''
Manager Glenn Hoddle lost his job months ago, and his interim replacement, Director of Football David Pleat, is drawing shouts of ''Resign!'' and catcalls far more scathing at White Hart Lane, a flowery title for a refurbished yet quasi-functional facility in which Spurs play home matches.
''It was a very strange feeling, because it was a feeling I thought I would never have when I went to Tottenham,'' says Keller. ''I thought when I came here I'd be fighting for the starting position because I'll be on a team not fighting relegation.''
Home ties seldom trigger celebration, yet Tottenham sparked jubilation by rallying from two goals down to tie Arsenal, 2-2, on Sunday and thus gain another valuable point.
Keller has another year on his contract with Spurs yet has no clear concept on what happens, come relegation or not, next season. Tottenham tried to buy a Premier League goalkeeper in January, but efforts to obtain Paul Robinson were rejected by Leeds United, ravaged financially and a relegation prospect since the first kick of the season's first day.
''Once again I'm being told is has no affect on me -- but I don't seen how it doesn't have an affect on me -- and that they're happy with how I've been playing and I'm not losing my position, so I don't know,'' Keller muses. ''You just think, it's out of your control.''
About all players can control are their own performances. Just two weeks ago, Blackburn had sunk into a tie with Leeds and were out of the relegation zone only on goal difference.
Rovers then posted a run of wins when they were most needed. They rallied for a sensational 4-3 win at Fulham, beat relegation rival Leicester 1-0 on an own goal, and on Saturday beat Everton away by the same score with a goal by Jonathan Stead, whom manager Graeme Souness bought from Huddersfield Town after his efforts to purchase McBride from MLS failed.
With 40 points, Blackburn is better shape but not quite safe. Only once since the Premier League adopted the three-points-for-a-win formula has a team gone down with more than 40 points, and that occurred last season when West Ham finished with 42 points and in 18th place.
''With the amount of turnover that actually went out it's always a little bit worrying,'' said Friedel of changes last summer that swept out 14 players. ''At our club, I don't think they necessarily needed all that change but that's a management decision and they did it. We had a players who left who had been around the club for three or five years and we knew each other inside and out. The players we brought in for the most part are all good players, we just have to get the relationship back.
''We have shown times this season that we can play really, really good soccer, but we've also shown the other side of it, and I think that's what happens when you have a new team.''
Portsmouth has hit the 40-point mark by garnering 10 points out of its last five games. Included in the run are a 1-0 defeat of Manchester United and a crucial 2-1 victory last weekend at Leeds, which has fought courageously to get out of last place but is mired in 18th with only three games left.
A point behind Blackburn is Tottenham in 16th place. Rarely is a tie at home cause for celebration but the point gained Sunday in a 2-2 tie featured a two-goal Spurs comeback against Arsenal, which clinched the title.
For Man City and its fans, anxiety abounds. Just three points ahead of Leeds in 17th place, it plays Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Everton in its final three games. It failed to score in each of the previous meetings with those teams.
If Blackburn and Tottenham win this weekend, their meeting May 8 might not have relegation implications. But next up for Blackburn is a home game with Manchester United and Spurs travels to sixth-place Aston Villa.
Regardless of the relegation outcome, Keller is looking forward to playing in MLS, where the money is a lot less but so is the stress. ''In all honesty, that's the one thing I'm looking forward to when I come home, is not having to deal with that and when a bad season is just that, a bad season,'' says Keller. ''You write it off, a few people get fired, and you have the club go in another direction the next couple of years to push this thing forward.''
GAMES TO GO:
Here's the rest of the Premier League schedule for the three teams with American players whose teams are most threatened by relegation (in parentheses are the scores of the teams' first league meeting this season):
PLACE/TEAM GP W T L GF GA P Diff.
13. Blackburn 35 11 7 17 49 57 40 -8
May 1 Man Utd (1-2)
May 8 @Tottenham (1-0)
May 15 Birmingham (4-0)
16. Tottenham 35 11 6 18 44 56 39 -12
May 2 @Aston Villa (2-1)
May 8 Blackburn (0-1)
May 15 @Wolverhampton (5-2)
17. Man City 35 7 14 14 48 51 35 -3
May 1 Newcastle (0-3)
May 8 @Middlesbrough (0-1)
May 15 Everton (0-0)
18. Leeds 35 8 8 19 36 71 32 -35
19. Leicester 35 5 14 16 42 60 29 -18
20. Wolves 35 6 11 18 35 73 29 -28