Jay DeMerit: U.S. 2010 World Cup defender on playing in and against England -- and advice for the 2022 team

Jay DeMerit knows better than most that it pays to have a good doctor — his journey to South Africa started with one.
It was six months before the 2010 World Cup, and in a preseason training with Watford he suffered a freak accident involving a grain of sand, a contact lens, and his right eye-ball.

“I don’t know if any fans remember this,” he says. “But I lost 70% of my eye tissue in my right eye in 36 hours to an incredible infection.” He missed almost half of the 2009-10 season. “A great doctor in London told me, 'I'll get you on the field in three months, but the first month you'll need to sit in the dark.”

That's just one example of how remarkable DeMerit's career was.

A starter in central defense for all the USA's four games at the 2010 World Cup, DeMerit launched his pro career at age 23 after leaving his bar-tending job for England with just a backpack and a dream.

The Wisconsin native grew up a multi-sport athlete, played college ball at University of Illinois at Chicago, and aimed for MLS by playing with the Chicago Fire's development team the USL. When that didn't work out, he ventured to England.
SOCCER AMERICA: Your decision to move to England ...

JAY DEMERIT: I weighed up my options and that was my best chance. I thought, 'I've never been to England, my friend has a place to stay in their loft, tic, tic, tic.' I just had to raise enough money to live on for a few months. I had a line to a ninth division team but at least it got me in the door. I knew what I was in for — I had to earn my trade. I knew what I could bring to a team.

SA: That two-week trial with Watford in 2004. What do you remember from that time?

JAY DEMERIT: I had been there for almost a year. I was working my way up, playing in some third division games. My coach was leaving my team and told me he was joining a new team a couple divisions up. We have a preseason game against Watford. 'You should come do preseason with us.' So I'm like, 'OK.'
I did two weeks just focused on that game. Thankfully, as the story goes, they put their first team up against us and I was playing against an Icelandic international named Heiðar Helguson and a England [youth] international named Bruce Dyer.
I got a good test and played well enough that the coach told me that they needed a young center back. We have three over-30 guys and are looking for young talent. And you're free! That was the thing — Watford had come down from the Premier League before that so they were losing all over the shop. They had guys still on Premier League contracts and things like that.
Generally in England, you'll get a two-week trial and train with the reserve team — guys who don't start every week or are coming back from injury — so I got some good games with them.
My fun trial story is that Ray Lewington calls me into his office and he's like, 'Hey, we've got one more preseason friendly against Real Zaragoza, a Spanish team coming into town with a packed stadium. You should come and we can see if we can get you involved. Terry [his assistant] has told me you've been doing all right.'
So I'm thinking I'll get to warm up with the team or get a few minutes. I walk into the stadium, go into the locker room and on the whiteboard I'm in the starting lineup with 10 other players I'd never even trained with, let alone played with them.

SA: What were the reactions of the players?

JAY DEMERIT: That was always the first question: 'What the fuck are you doing here?' I was the Yank. Everyone just calls you Yank. I've always relished those opportunities. I walked onto my college team. I'm used to that feeling. Someone was picking me to be there, so I had to make the most of it.
I'd try to tell myself to shut up and think about how the opportunity was the reason I'd been sleeping in an attic, stealing Snickers bars and eating spaghetti every day because it was all that I could afford. Like, shut up! This is what you've been waiting for your whole life.
But I played the whole 90 minutes. They had a whole USA chant going in the stands. No one knew who I was and they thought I had already signed. As the story goes, the guy that ran an American business just down the road was named Joe and was from Wisconsin. And he's sitting up there in his box and calling the club saying that he wanted to sponsor my jersey — you get a home and away sponsor so the sponsor pays for your kit, though I'm sure it's changed by now — but I hadn't even signed yet.
They said, 'He's just a trialist tonight.' That got me the contract. Lewington got me into his office and asked me if I had an agent. I kind of lied, but I only knew guys who had one. But I said, 'yeah, yeah, for sure.' He offered me a one-year deal for 25,000 pounds [about $50,000 in 2004] and that was my first contract.'

SA: How big of a jump was it to playing in the Championship [England's second tier] with Watford?

JAY DEMERIT: I'm glad I started in the championship, in all honesty. The Championship fit my style of play. I want to jump, fight, long balls, win the ball and give it to somebody else. That was my jam. That's what the Championship was.
The midfielders in front of me didn't want to wrestle. I was a perfect complement to them — they helped me learn the game, communicate, that first season was really good. I got to do what I was good at and learn from guys who had played in the Premier League. That's what I lacked.
I played 30 games my first season — including at Anfield for a Carling Cup semifinal. Steven Gerrard and all of these players. It was my first year as a pro. Smile and get out there was always my attitude. It's amazing how fast confidence can come. You know you belong there if you're playing at Anfield and papers are giving you a 7. Unless you have self-doubt that confidence should stay — thankfully I was built without that. Those reviews were validation.

SOCCER AMERICA: Tell us the story of how you learned you were going to the World Cup.

JAY DEMERIT: This story starts with my eye infection. I had a corneal replacement six months before the World Cup. I was out for six months that season before and I had just started getting into the starting lineup — we beat Spain at the Confederations Cup, and that was kind of my coming out party. I had been there for a while but I hadn't really played or started against the first teams.
That Confederations Cup was the first time I could go in with the guys and show them what I had. Thankfully, we had a good run of games.

I was 30 years old at the time — I didn't turn pro until I was 23 and I didn't get my first cap until I was 27.
The next season at an away game to Plymouth, I wore contacts and got a cut in my cornea. A piece of sand got in between my eye and a contact, and I lost 70% of my eye tissue in my right eye in 36 hours to an incredible infection.
I had to have a full corneal transplant. What that means is that you take a dead person's window of their eye, cut yours out and then put the new piece in. First, I had to sit in the dark for a month because it had to heal. A great doctor in London told me, 'I'll get you on the field in three months, but the first month you'll need to sit in the dark.'
That was the hardest part. I did fitness on a bike in the morning in the dark, and then I sat in my room and listened to music in the dark. That's when I did a lot of visualization-type stuff. I tried to focus on the things that mattered, things I could control. Instead of how much pain I was in and if I didn't make the World Cup team.
I pictured myself playing against Wayne Rooney. He was the best player in the world at that time. Premier League Player of the Year. I knew I would be playing against the best player in the world. So I focused on that.
I had been playing with a stitch in my eye for few months and was just getting fit. Bob Bradley calls me up and he goes, 'I got to see if you're ready.'
We had a friendly against Holland [a 2-1 loss in Amsterdam] — it was our last game before he named the squad. He said, 'I'm going to call you in. If you can play, I'll play you, and if you play well, I'll take you. Because I know this eye thing was just a freak thing.'
So I flew to Amsterdam and got to play against Dirk Kuyt and Robin Van Persie in Amsterdam Arena in front of over 50,000 people. That was my jam. I still had the stitch in my eye but I played OK, and that was enough so he took me.
We always shared this little wink, me and Bob. He always knew that I was up for it. After the game he told me, 'I think you're back.' I replied, 'Yeah, I think so too.' And that was it.
But still, I remember those tense moments when you're with your roommate in the hotel room and you're just waiting for the phone to ring. It's wild.
Thankfully me and Stuart Holden were in the same room when we got the call. I remember sharing a big hug with him and saying, 'Holy shit dude, we get to go play in a World Cup, this is insane.'
The brothers we qualified with over the last three years were in the hallways crying. Some are upset and doing their thing. You appreciate how hard it is to qualify for a World Cup, let alone make the team of one. Those moments are certainly some of the ones I'm most proud of.

Jay DeMerit hanging out with Elton John and Co. The musical superstar became chairman of Watford, his childhood club, in 1976 and is now the Watford's honorary life president.

SA: Best player you played with or against?

JAY DEMERIT: On my club? Ashley Young. For my country? Tim Howard or Steve Cherundolo.
Against? Didier Drogba. He was just a monster. You couldn't beat him. I was always someone who liked to disrupt advantage. I could compete and not let you breath, I could jump you, I could find my daggers, if you know what I mean.
And I could not find my daggers against him. I played him four times. He scored a hat trick against us one year. Premier League Player of the Year the next. I think he's scored four goals against me at least. He could beat you in the air, 6-2, 190 pounds, just a solid marble guy.
He can hit it from 25 yards out but he can also push the ball past you. Every time our game ended I walked off the field and was like, 'You're a monster, man, congrats.'
SA: Most competitive teammate?

JAY DEMERIT: National team? Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard. Club? Marlon King.
There are lots of stories of Clint going nose to nose with guys and that never ended. I don't know how many training ... not fights but you need those guys on your team. I call them thorns. Don't have five thorns — that's too many — but you've got to have a couple.
SA: Funniest teammate?

JAY DEMERIT: Stuart Holden. Such a character. We used to have this thing called studio 14 — we'd come on the bus and have a new song every day about a new player or coach that we'd sing at training. Some of them were so funny.
SA: Coach who influenced your career the most?

JAY DEMERIT: I have two. Bret Hall, a really famous coach from Chicago. He was the first coach who helped me believe in myself.
The manager [Aidy Boothroyd] who got us promoted and who gave me the captaincy at Watford. He was the best man manager I've ever had the pleasure of being managed by.
SA: What stands out?

JAY DEMERIT: He did this thing where after ever training session he'd grab a player put his arm around him and take a lap with him. That was his opportunity to connect with every person. It'd be his time to say, 'Hey man, how are you doing? What did you think about Saturday? I thought you played well, I heard your wife is sick, I heard you had a new baby, or whatever.'
SA: Most memorable victory?

JAY DEMERIT: Spain, the Confederations Cup. I think just the magnitude of what that game was and how we as a group believed that we could win that game and then did. They hadn't lost a game in 30-plus matches. That's years and years of undefeated ball.

SA: Toughest defeat?

JAY DEMERIT: Club? We lost to Hull in the playoffs the year after we came down from the Premier League. We had a great first part of the season, got some injuries, and I kind of lost my leadership towards the end of that season. I played in that playoff against Hull and they beat us with someone else with the armband on. It was so defeating for me. It was the most humbling time of my life as a player.
SA: Toughest one on one battle in a game besides Wayne Rooney or Didier Drogba?

JAY DEMERIT: Lionel Messi for sure, but he's so elusive. He moves everywhere ... I say that I've played against Messi three times but never really got to play up against him. That's what I really love — you get that relationship with that player and find out what they're really like.
Playing against Messi —  you're chasing a shadow around. It just confuses you.

SA: Any memories stand out playing against England [a 1-1 tie that put the USA on winning the group]?

JAY DEMERIT: I just remember standing in the tunnel. Remember, England had given me my life. I had moved to England with a backpack and it appreciated who I was as a player. I had such a huge amount of respect and admiration for Watford fans over the years. I knew I had England fans secretly cheering for me.
I was shaking my head in the tunnel: it took so long to get to that moment but to have the country that gave me my future against the country that made me, it was such an interesting way to enter the tournament.
SA: Best and worst memory from the World Cup?

JAY DEMERIT: The national anthem playing before the game with my hand on my chest. That's the No. 1 pinnacle.

Worst? I didn't really get to enjoy it. We had our own hotel. We were police escorted everywhere. I also know that the World Cup is about fans and environment, and everything we did was on our own and as a team. The guys who went to Germany four years earlier were like, 'Woah, the fan zones were right by our hotels, our families could come to our hotels, stadiums were everywhere.' That cultural element in South Africa wasn't really there.
SA: Advice for players going to their first World Cup?

JAY DEMERIT: Don't put it on a pedestal. You've done it a million times — from a mentality perspective, if you glorify it you might psyche yourself out because it is that big and meaningful.

Because it's that meaningful try to enjoy it. It only happens once every four years.
SA: Keys to succeeding at this World Cup?

JAY DEMERIT: I like the leadership. Tyler Adams is a great leader; paired with Christian Pulisic, I think he likes to lead with others and doesn't want to take it himself. And that's good.
Finding that core spine, from the forwards to midfielders to the center back pairing — in  my opinion, teams are built through the spine of the team and should be. Making sure all of those pieces are in place for Gregg Berhalter is his best challenge.
The best part is that we probably have three World Cups with this group. I kind of see this one as a trial run to see what we've got. But think about this group in another four years — that's the jam.
SA: You expectations for the USA at the World Cup?

JAY DEMERIT: I think it's similar to 2010. Get out of the group. I love the England matchup. A hate boring group stages. So it should be a tournament from the start. Anytime you play against those teams it's a good marker to see where you're at as a team as well. It'll depend on the health of our players. If we play with the group of guys that got us here, we'll do just fine. Once you get to the second round, you never know — it's one win and you're in.
SA: What do you think of U.S. players in your position?

JAY DEMERIT: I like a Walker Zimmerman. He reminds me of me — the guy that wants to battle and I like his character.

SA: What are you up to these days?

JAY DEMERIT: I run youth programs off of the Rise and Shine brand that we've created through the success of the movie a long time ago. Within that we've started a charity —  youth programs, three leadership programs, a DJ camp, soccer camps. No we're gamifying the program.
It's what I was working on during Covid. We partnered with EA and they're helping us turn the leadership program into an app where you can compete, win points, and turn those into things like concert tickets, free coffees, or a Zoom with a certain celebrity. EA has funded half a million dollars to try and get this thing off of the ground.

Photo: Perry McIntyre/ISIphotos

3 comments about "Jay DeMerit: U.S. 2010 World Cup defender on playing in and against England -- and advice for the 2022 team".
  1. John Polis, November 19, 2022 at 1:49 p.m.

    Thanks for writing this very interesting and entertaining story about one of the originals who went to Europe and clawed their way up the ladder. It's a microcosm of our entire country and its unceasing effort to grab ahold of the world's game with both hands.

  2. stewart hayes replied, November 19, 2022 at 2:22 p.m.

    I agree on many levels.  

  3. frank schoon, November 20, 2022 at 9:28 a.m.

    Good Interview,Arlo....

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