DaMarcus Beasley has left England for Scotland, where his blazing speed and two-way play may be the right fit for legendary club Glasgow Rangers.
There's a goatee where was once the clean jawline of his teens, and a thick silver chain and "7" encircles his neck rather than the gold version(s) he sometimes favors, but otherwise, DaMarcus Beasley looks and sounds much like he did seven years ago as an MLS rookie with the Chicago Fire.
He's grown a bit, maybe an inch, and gained a few pounds - but not many - from the 5-foot-7, 137-pound dimensions he sported in 2000. Yet since then he's played in two World Cups, represented his country 71 times, helped Chicago win two Open Cups, and played overseas for clubs with rich and storied histories, if not elite status: PSV Eindhoven and Manchester City.
Just as important, the rough-and-tumble pro game has yet to break his spindly body, or his spirit. If anything, he's more sure of himself than ever and always ready to back up the bravado.
"It's not cockiness, it's confidence," says forward Landon Donovan, who has been a teammate since they played on the U.S. under-17 team. "He doesn't care how many times you stop him, he'll keep trying because he knows, sooner or later, he's going to beat you."
So is Beasley ready for his next challenge? Let us hope. Lining up for Glasgow Rangers against Celtic in the Old Firm, or scuffling with Barcelona, Stuttgart and Lyon in the Champions League, isn't for the meek.
"I'm looking forward to playing for a big club, one of the most famous clubs in the world," says Beasley, who left Rangers briefly to play against Brazil at his former stadium, Soldier Field, in early September. "Maybe the Scottish league isn't at the level of some of the other European leagues, but there are good players and the game's intense, just unreal. There are Rangers fans all over Glasgow, of course, and a lot of them travel to our away games and they let you know if they're not happy."
FIRE DAYS. Beasley wasn't the only former Fire player on hand to take on Brazil. U.S. teammates Josh Wolff and Carlos Bocanegra have also left MLS for Europe. The autumn of 2007 marks out yet another new frontier for a young American who only celebrated his 25th birthday last May.
"It's a good move," says Wolff, who left MLS last winter to play in the German Second Division with 1860 Munich. "For him, it's about playing every day, and he brings a high level to any team he's on. I expect him to do good things in Scotland."
Says Bocanegra, who went to Fulham in January 2004, six months before Beasley headed overseas, "He's always been good on defense and taking up good positions. He's starting to be more vocal on the field and taking a bigger role out there. He wants the ball.
"I remember with the Fire sometimes he'd be a little bit timid about taking people on but now when he gets the ball, he wants to attack people, and that's what we need him to do."
Timidity and defensive honesty don't seem to jibe with the popular image of Beasley, whose blistering pace and daring thrusts usually sow at least some panic in opposing defenses. The former is long gone, but the latter has been ever-present.
Playing in Chicago with experienced, confident, sometimes audacious veterans like Peter Nowak and Hristo Stoichkov cured him of hesitancy, and drummed into him the concept of accountability. As he scaled the ladder of U.S. national teams, his devotion to the defensive side elicited praise from coaches and teammates alike.
"He was this young, spunky kid who had no fear, ya know?" says Fire midfielder Chris Armas, who joined the Fire from the Galaxy in the 1998 expansion draft. Beasley took the same route, via a trade in early 2000. But before the trade, Armas already knew of him.
"He had such energy, speed and natural ability," says Armas. "We played against him and Landon and those guys in preseason down in Florida before we drafted him. We were trying to catch up to those young guys and kick 'em. Then I got to know him as a teammate and had great respect for him because he was one of the better two-way players in our country.
"He's gifted going forward but then you'd see how hard he worked on the left side for our team, so you'd take him any day."
Beasley, Donovan, Bobby Convey and Oguchi Onyewu led the U.S. to fourth place at the 1999 U-17 world championships in New Zealand. Donovan won the Golden Ball as MVP, Beasley took the Silver Ball. Three years later, that pair would dazzle the world again at the 2002 FIFA World Cup as they were carving our their careers in MLS. But only one would stay in the States.
Donovan's back-and-forth with German club Bayer Leverkusen personified his ambivalence about playing in Europe. By the time MLS and Bayer had worked out a permanent move stateside for Donovan in February 2005, Beasley had already played for PSV in the Eredivisie and Champions League. PSV paid $2.5 million and for the first season, at least, it seemed to be a decent investment.
BANKING ON THE EURO. His seasons at PSV encapsulated the joys and woes of taking the Euro-plunge. Dueling for playing time with Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan, who is two and a half years younger, Beasley earned time and trust from Coach Guus Hiddink, who'd coached the South Korean team that tied the USA, 1-1, and eventually finished third at the 2002 World Cup.
Beasley scored six league goals in 29 games during PSV's 2004-05 Eredivisie title season and played another 12 Champions League games, scoring four goals, as PSV lost a bitterly disappointing semifinal series to AC Milan on away goals. His goal in the final minute of regulation forced overtime in the semifinal of the Dutch Cup, which PSV went on to win.
Beasley joined the U.S. team shortly thereafter to play in the 2005 Gold Cup and at that tournament spoke painfully of the two matches against Milan. PSV played the first leg in the San Siro, and was within seconds of a encouraging 1-0 away loss when Jon Dahl Tomasson broke free to score a crucial second goal. In the return leg, a roaring crowd at Philips Stadium watched an overpowering, inspired PSV team wipe out the 2-0 deficit and push forward to win the game and the series, but Massimo Ambrosini scored a stoppage-time stunner. PSV had enough time to score another goal, but Ambrosini's away goal broke the 3-3 aggregate deadlock.
"We had Milan, man, I mean, we had 'em," said Beasley, who played in the first leg and sat out the second. "They didn't know what to do, how to stop us. Our guys played great. I hope we get another shot at them but some of our players are leaving so that might be tough."
For Beasley and PSV, there would be no second shot. Injuries and a drunk-driving conviction marred the 2005-06 campaign, and at the end of the season, Hiddink left PSV to coach Russia's national team. His replacement, former Dutch international defender Ronald Koeman, much preferred Farfan and other players to Beasley. Hiddink had often played them both. Keoman didn't.
"That's why Europe can be so hard on a player's career," said Donovan. "If a coach comes in who doesn't like you, you're stuck."
Loaned to Manchester City by PSV for the 2006-07 season, Beasley scraped for playing time and by the time he got significant minutes, manager Stuart Pearce already had one foot on the trapdoor of departure. He played only six games prior to New Year's Day and in one of them, scored against West Ham and U.S. teammate Jonathan Spector at Upton Park in a 1-0 victory.
At the end of the season, Pearce departed in favor of former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, leaving Beasley - who scored three goals in 18 EPL games - again on the bubble.
"I could have signed with City and I was talking with them when Rangers came in with their offer," said Beasley, who consulted with former U.S. international midfielder Claudio Reyna, a Rangers player from April 1999, to December 2001. The price was about $1.5 million.
"City was going through a lot of changes, a lot of new players and I wasn't sure where I was going to fit in. At Rangers, I knew I'd get the chance to play and play a lot, and maybe get to play in the Champions League, and that's happened. So far it's been great."
RACISM REDUX. Rangers swept its first five Scottish Premier League games to take an early hold on first place, and duly eliminated FK Zeda of Montenegro and Red Star of Serbia to reach the Champions League group stage. Beasley scored a goal in each competition as manager Walter Smith used him on both the left and right sides of midfield. So far, like Beasley said, so good.
Yet an incident in Montenegro reminded him of an uglier side for black men playing soccer in certain sections of Europe. A small group of FK Zeda fans taunted Beasley and teammate Jean-Claude Darcheville, a native of French Guyana, with racist chants and monkey noises. Rangers filed a complaint and UEFA officials said they would investigate the incident, which FK Zeta downplayed.
"It happened to me when I was at PSV," says Beasley. "I don't let it affect my play, because I can't do anything about it, but I hear it, and I wish there were ways to stop it. Racism has no place in football, none whatsoever.
"That happened a few times in Holland. Fans would be making monkey noises and they have black players on their own team! I guess they don't think about how that makes their own players feel."
Beasley feels Rangers, though certainly a longshot to advance out of Group E, has the right mix of players to prosper. Smith, he believes, has assembled a roster that can compete both in the hurly-burly Scottish game and the more sophisticated European version.
"Any time you play in the Champions League it makes you better, it doesn't matter what club team you play for," says Beasley. "We like to play the ball on the ground, we're not a typical Scottish team. I think we'll surprise a lot of people."
Teammate Clint Dempsey thinks Beasley might be a bit of a surprise to Scottish teams, as well. "I think he's going to do great," said Dempsey. "There aren't a lot of players like him in that league, there aren't a lot of players who can do the things that he can do. It's a great move for him at this point in his career, to play for a big club and play in the Champions League, too."
The first edition of the Old Firm is at Ibrox Park Oct. 20. Celtic has won the last two Scottish titles (no other team has won it since 1985) and that is something Rangers fans insist be redressed. Beez knows the drill but still, this is beyond sport.
"I've been fortunate to play in a couple of derbies: against Ajax with PSV, and [Manchester] City against United, and obviously this is one of the great rivalries in the world," he says. "We get to play them first at Ibrox, at our stadium and I know our fans are looking forward to it.
"A few times, Celtic fans will recognize me and say, 'Hey, how you doing?' Now, if I score a goal against their team it might be different. You might have to ask me that question again after we play them."
(This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)