Americans Abroad: Making An impact

Americans continue to celebrate success of various degrees in foreign leagues. We look at 11 who stood out during the 2008-09 season, including young Marco Vidal, the latest Mexican-American whose career required a move south of the border.

Of all the American players abroad, Marco Vidal stayed closest to home, but is still a world away. The 23-year-old Dallas product plays for Mexico's Indios of Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.5 million on the other side of the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

Until recently, Juarez was not known for its soccer. It made headlines for being Mexico's most violent city, with more than 700 murders before 2009 even hit the halfway mark. In March, President Felipe Calderon sent in 10,000 soldiers and federal agents to occupy the gangster-ridden city.

"When we beat Toluca in the playoffs on a Sunday," Vidal said via e-mail,  "there was not one single killing in Juarez. There had been at least one for the past year on every Sunday."

Vidal lives in a gated community in housing paid for by the club.

"In Juarez, life can be difficult," says Vidal. "We pretty much can't go to the mall or drive fancy cars."

But on the field things have gone very well for Vidal, who joined Indios in 2007 when they were in the second division and helped them win promotion to the top tier. During the Clausura 2009 season, after Vidal won back his starting spot as a defensive midfielder, Indios reeled off a seven-game undefeated streak, saving them from relegation and qualifying them for the playoffs. They downed defending champ Toluca in the quarterfinals before falling in the semis to Pachuca, which featured another young Texan, Jose Francisco Torres, who was also an unknown in the USA before making it in Mexico.

Vidal grew up in the south Dallas town of Oak Cliff, the son of Mexican immigrants. At age 13, he spent two years with Chivas Guadalajara's youth program but returned because of homesickness. He tried Dallas area elite youth soccer but preferred playing in adult leagues. After his junior year at Molina High School, he tried out for Mexican club Tigres, where he spent three years without breaking into the first team.

He went on trial with FC Dallas, when Colin Clarke was coach, but says he was told he was too short and slow for MLS. He was playing co-ed indoor and Latin league ball when he got an invitation from Indios.

"I know it sounds clichéd, but we made a good run because our players are very humble," he says. "We were all helping each other on and off the field. After every game we chat with fans and take pictures until there is nobody left."

Oguchi Onyewu (Belgium)
Two-time champ

The hulking 27-year-old again marshaled the central defense - 32 appearances, three goals - as the Standard Liege repeated as Juliper League champion. He also took a stand on racial abuse. The back-to-back titles came after Standard Liege went 25 years without a league championship. During the two-game playoff series with Anderlecht, Onyewu, who is of Nigerian descent, said opponent Jelle Van Damme directed a racial slur at him. Onyewu sued Van Damme, not for money but for "moral compensation," because, says Onyewu's lawyer, Jean-Louis Dupont, players of African origin are frequently provoked with racial slurs and the American believed it was time to take action.

Maurice Edu (Scotland)
Doing the double

After arriving from Toronto FC in the summer of 2008, the Californian struggled to get playing time with Glasgow Rangers, making just one SPL appearance in the season's first half. But when the title battle with heated up, Edu, 23, won a starting spot and scored twice as Rangers surged past Celtic for the crown. Edu finished the season with 11 league appearances and played in two Scottish FA Cup games as Rangers reached and won the final, which Edu missed because of a knee injury.

Carlos Bocangra (France)
Mr. Dependable

The U.S. captain joined French Ligue 1 club Rennes in the summer of 2008 after four seasons with the English Premier League's Fulham, for which he logged 116 league games. Bocanegra started all 38 league games as Rennes finished seventh with one of the league's stingiest defenses. The 30-year-old also started in all of Rennes' French Cup games and became the first American to score in the Stade de France when Rennes fell, 2-1, in the final to Guingamp.

Michael Bradley (Germany)
'The Marathon Man'

He arrived to Borussia Moenchengladbach from Dutch club Heerenveen on a $3.4 million transfer fee, and when the coach who bought him got fired it wasn't looking good for Bradley. But the midfielder worked his way back into the lineup for the newly promoted team that fought most of the season to pull out of the relegation zone. He was called the heart of the team by the Rheinische Post. The 21-year-old defensive midfielder scored two of his five goals in a crucial 4-2 win over Cologne and Bild newspaper wrote that Bradley's opponents "must have felt a bit like being the in 'The Tortoise and The Hare' fable. Everywhere they ran, Bradley was already there!" Gladbach kept its first-division status by finishing one point above the relegation zone.

Luis Robles (Germany)
Making the national team

The Arizona product who played college ball at the University of Portland was picked 50th overall in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft by D.C. United but instead went to Germany, signing with second division Kaiserslautern. In the 10th game of the 2008-09 season, starting keeper Tobias Sippel went down injured. Robles, 25, entered the game in the 46th minute and kept the starting position for the rest of the season. He made 20 appearances as Kaiserslautern finished in seventh place and he caught the attention of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who put Robles on the Confederations Cup roster.

Jose Francisco Torres (Mexico)
A runner-up finish

The 21-year-old Texan who made his U.S. debut in 2008 helped Pachuca to a runner-up finish in the Mexican Clausura '09 championship. Torres played in 22 of Pachuca's 23 league games and scored once. He played in all three games at the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup in December in Japan, where Pachuca finished fourth. He also started in the 2009 InterLiga final and converted his penalty kick in the shootout win that ensured Libertadores Cup qualification for the Tuzos.

Tim Howard (England)
Everton's shutout king

His team finished one spot below the big four - Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal - as the 30-year-old keeper set an Everton club record for shutouts at 17. The fifth-place finish earned Everton a spot in the Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup). Howard was also the hero of Everton's FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester United with two saves in the penalty-kick shootout. Chelsea beat Everton, 2-1, in the final, denying Howard a second FA Cup medal. He had won the FA Cup during his first season in England, with Manchester United in 2004.

Brad Friedel (England)
The record holder

The 38-year-old keeper broke David James' record for the most consecutive EPL appearances with his 167th game and by season's end extended it to 182. Friedel joined Aston Villa from Blackburn for the 2008-09 with hopes of finishing high enough for a Champions League spot and it looked like a possibility until Villa endured a 12-game winless streak that ended in early May. Villa finished sixth and settled for a Europa League spot. By the end of the 2008-09 season, Friedel had played 350 league games in England.

Clint Dempsey (England)
On target

In the previous two seasons, Dempsey helped Fulham just barely avoid relegation. In the 2008-09 season, the 26-year-old attacker helped Fulham finish in seventh place of the English Premier League and qualify for the Europa League. Dempsey's seven goals tied for the team best. Twice Dempsey scored a pair in one game: a 2-2 tie with powerhouse Chelsea and a 3-1 win over Manchester City. Dempsey's 35 appearances last season upped his EPL career total to 81 since joining Fulham from the New England Revolution in January 2007, and he has 14 EPL goals.

Benny Feihaber (Denmark)
He's back!

When he broke into the U.S. national team at age 22 in 2007, Feilhaber raised hopes that the USA had found a successor to central midfielder Claudio Reyna. Impressing with his confidence on the ball and slick passing, Feilhaber also scored the winning goal against Mexico in that year's Gold Cup final with a spectacular volley. Like Reyna, Feilhaber went straight from college to the German First Division. He debuted for Hamburg SV in 2006 and even saw Champions League time. But Feilhaber fell out of favor at HSV and didn't fare much better in the English Premier League with Derby County. But in 2009, after overcoming knee injuries, he found his form with Denmark's AGF Aarhus, prompting Coach Bob Bradley to welcome the 24-year-old back and start him at the Confederations Cup.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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