| Wednesday, October 2, 2002 21:10 EST
Friedel feels right at home in England
By Jim Litke
WEST BROMWICH, England -- This is Monday night football with
The Hawthorns, the 26,000-seat home of West Bromwich Albion, is rocking like the ``Dawg Pound'' used to in Cleveland's
old Municipal Stadium with the ball on the 1-yard line and Bernie
Kosar settling in over center.
Only here, it rocks that way from kickoff to final whistle, and
the fans sing nonstop, everything from inspirational hymns to bawdy
By pulling one game off the weekend schedule and putting it on
national TV every Monday night, England's Premier League has
borrowed a page from its American counterpart. But this is not your
Every time the referee calls a foul on West Brom, the volume
level threatens to pop the roof off the grandstand. Each score by
the visitors sends another orange wave of security guards scurrying
up the aisles to protect the hardy few out-of-towners.
Most Americans would find the scene intimidating. Not Brad
Friedel, who guards the net for the visiting Blackburn Rovers. He
is that rare American abroad, comfortable amid all the chaos.
``Football,'' said Friedel, referring to the game his countrymen
call soccer, ``is like a religion over here.''
And ``over here'' has been home to the U.S. national team
goalkeeper for most of the past 10 years.
``I miss some family back in the States, but this is home now,''
he said. ``I've just signed a four-year deal and I don't know how
much longer my body will hold out after that. But I don't see
myself moving back anytime soon.''
His is the story of a world-class athlete who realized early
he'd have to leave Ohio to find fulfillment. Besides excelling at
soccer, the 31-year-old Friedel was good enough to earn all-state
basketball honors and be invited to walk on at UCLA.
But he wasn't quick enough to stay with top-of-the-line guards
and at 6-4, Friedel was too small to bang bodies under the
basket. More important, though, playing soccer for Bruins coach
Sigi Schmid opened his eyes to what the big time might look like.
``Sigi had us work out with all the athletes -- basketball,
volleyball, track and field -- and there were always a few Olympians
around,'' he recalled. ``It made our program feel like theirs, like
we were as important as any of them.''
Friedel was called up for national team duty the first time in
1992. He's represented his country in the Olympics and the World
Cup nearly 100 times since. The surprising U.S. run to the
quarterfinals of last summer's Cup raised his profile back home,
but Friedel has been a mainstay on the international club scene for
He began with Brondby in Denmark and then moved to Galatasaray
in Turkey, where he first hooked up with manager Graham Souness,
the former Liverpool star and his current boss at Blackburn.
``I've never really felt out of place,'' Friedel said, ``except
for the first few months in Turkey and only because I didn't
understand the language.''
But even that probably worked to his advantage.
``They get so fanatical over there that occasionally you'd see
stones come flying out of the stands or hear people shooting off
guns. But all in all,'' he said, ``I've always felt safe.''
Friedel was back in Ohio during the 1996 and 1997 Major League
Soccer campaigns, playing for the Columbus Crew. He credits the
domestic league with playing a crucial role in the United States'
surge to No. 9 in FIFA's world rankings. But he holds no illusions
about soccer's place on America's sporting landscape.
``Some of our players might be in demand over here, but the
league is still regarded fairly poorly,'' Friedel said. ``They've
got a 100-year head start on us and plenty of nights it still
On this night, Friedel's work is limited to a few strategic
minutes. West Bromwich climbed into the top division just this
season, largely because of a stingy defense. Funneling the ball
through striker Jason Roberts, the Baggies threaten Friedel's goal
more in a 10-minute sequence opening the second half than the rest
of the game combined. But that's about it.
The Rovers counter with two goals in a six-minute span late in the second half, then Friedel tips away one more serious threat by
substitute forward Scott Dobie in the 78th minute to earn his
The Monday night game over, the TV crews were pulling up cable
when Friedel came back out on the field with a dozen teammates to
run some cool-down laps. The lights were dimmed and the small
stadium was almost empty.
He was still a long way from Ohio. But it felt just like home.
Friedel: In his element.