All rise for Fulham
Behold the majesty of the Clint Dempsey-led Cottagers
Everyone has a secret crush. You know, the one you quietly pine for while remaining committed to the more long-standing ball and chain. And -- guess what? -- I know yours so let's get it out in the open.
You're a closet Fulham fan. There. Don't you feel better now? You can even tell your parents.
Of course you enjoy Fulham. What red-blooded, soccer-crazed American doesn't these days? This infatuation with the Cottagers doesn't mean you're being unfaithful to the club you've worshipped since childhood -- or since Wayne Rooney sprouted a new head of hair, depending on your timeline.
The dirty little secret of American soccer fandom has always been that it's OK to support more than one team. Here we can be blissfully wedded to -- let's randomly pick a club -- Arsenal without the drag of being monogamous. Just make sure you don't let it get out of hand and wake up in a bathtub missing a kidney and sporting a brand-new Pavel Pogrebnyak neck tat. What artist is ever going to get that spelling correct anyway?
If it wasn't clear before last Sunday, it is so obvious now that even Piers Morgan couldn't help but notice: Fulham is everybody's second-favorite team.
"Can you believe how many people are suddenly supporting the Cottagers?" asked my friend Jeff, gazing over the top of the mongrel horde at Kinsale Tavern watching the Fulham-Wolves game this past Sunday. And Jeff wasn't talking about Fulham fans -- there were only a handful of identifiable Cottagers sporting the team's colors in the packed bar. The other 80 or so reprobates were there for the Manchester United-Spurs match set to kick off about an hour later. Yes, the moshpit of ex-Pats and Americans shouting "Go on, Clint my son" and "There's only one Pogs" were guys in red United shirts with matching faces.
"And the best part," said Jeff, puffing out his Fulham training jacket, "is that it's no longer just about Dempsey."
The "Fulham As Mistress" phenomenon is not new. It has its roots circa 2004 as a grassroots pledge of allegiance to our fellow Yanks who were scrambling to establish their soccer cred in the EPL -- first, the lionhearted Brian McBride, then Carlos Bocanegra and (ahem) Eddie Johnson, and finally, Clint "The Nacogdoches Ninja" Dempsey -- but it's evolved into more than just red-white-and-blue jingoism.
With its quaint little ground and strong working-class ethos, Fulham is a throwback to the days of terraces, Bovril and spending wind-swept games huddled along the banks of the River Thames. And yet, despite seeming to fit all the traditions of English soccer -- densely-packed stands hugging a narrow, damp pitch, perfect for the long ball and leg-snapping tackles -- the Cottagers just happen to be playing some of the most entertaining soccer in the Prem.
Only Chelsea, Spurs, United and Manchester City have scored more goals at home, which is a bit ironic when you consider Fulham's stadium is called Craven Cottage. There is nothing fearful or risk-adverse about Martin Jol's Fulham side, enjoying a bold and adventurous 2012 thus far: 22 goals in its past 10 league games and six wins, a run of form that has catapulted the team to eighth in the table. And that's after it unloaded Bobby Zamora, who used to score a lot of their goals when he wasn't crocked or pouting about being underpaid.
Nor have the Cottagers forsaken their tradition of defensive solidity. They are as stout at the back as they were under Roy Hodgson, who worked miracles with a bunch of overachieving plodders by getting them to soak up the pressure and then sucker-punching their opponents on the break. It made for a stodgy mid-table team that ground out results but rarely quickened the pulse.
Enter Jol, who at first glance looks like a granite-jawed dock worker. Widely regarded as having gotten a raw deal at Tottenham after buying Gareth Bale and leading Spurs to within a bad lasagna dinner of a Champions League berth, the Dutchman has brought a forward-thinking philosophy to Fulham.
The Cottagers routinely commit six players to attack and sweep upfield with speed and panache. Jol has taken his immediate predecessor Mark Hughes' prize recruit -- Moussa Dembele, a Belgian-born Eredivisie-imported striker -- and redeployed him in central midfield, encouraging him to maraud forward while leaving old warhorse Danny Murphy to alternately act as creative linchpin and defensive shield. Along with the rebirth of Damien Duff, the nomadic Irish winger discarded by Chelsea four managers ago, and the addition of the stylish Costa Rican international Bryan Ruiz, another converted striker, Jol's re-tooled midfield has given Fulham a more assertive, aggressive personality.
With the new Cottage legend Pavel "The Pog" Pogrebnyak (five goals in three Prem games since Jol took him on loan from Stuttgart in January) spearheading the attack, Jol can afford to give Dempsey, one of only two Fulham players to start every Prem game this season, an all-access pass to rampage between the flanks.
Pogrebnyak's blunt-force approach around the penalty area -- his Russian name aptly translates to "undertaker" -- also adds an element Zamora failed to provide with any degree of consistency: a direct, uncompromising brute of a striker to complement quick-footed, crafty attackers like the Double D's: Dembele and Dempsey.
The evolution of the all-purpose American's game has been perhaps the most exciting part of the Craven Cottage revival for his fellow countrymen and women. Though, like McBride, Dempsey possesses the poacher's instinct and positional acumen for the sliding toe-poke or jack-knifing header in traffic, several of his 12 league goals have been marvels of technique and vision. No longer is Dempsey's value measured in how much mud or blood is caked on his uniform after 90 minutes of combat.
While there is still plenty of grit and determination to Dempsey's game, it now bristles with subtle flicks, clever dummies, reverses, defense-shredding passes and balletic, pirouetting moves in the box. It is often said that Dempsey plays with a studied fury -- he has the deadest cold eyes outside of Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" and a 5 o'clock shadow that starts at 8 a.m. -- but it is an intensity fused with bountiful skill. In January, he broke McBride's record for goals (37) in the EPL by an American and since then has netted two consecutive hat tricks as well as an impressive brace in the 5-0 demolition of Wolves, making him the seventh-highest scorer in the Prem this season.
If the club named a bar at Craven Cottage after McBride, what will they do in Dempsey's honor after he leaves? And don't say build a statue because they already have one. Come to think of it, Dempsey may be the second-favorite American at Fulham because clearly Michael Jackson will always be No. 1 in owner Mohamed Al Fayed's heart.
But then again, why should Dempsey ever want to leave? Sure, he could probably walk into any of the Champions League-worthy teams in the Prem -- can you imagine him and Jack Wilshire in the Arsenal midfield? Me neither -- but he'll never be able to make another club his own like he's done with Fulham. And it's not like the absence of competing in Europe's top tournament has held him back on the international stage, as evidenced by his superbly taken, opportunistic game-winner against Italy this month.
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Even though he plies his craft for an under-the-glam-radar club, he does more to fly the flag of American soccer than anyone else in the world, even a briefs-hawking David Beckham. Dempsey may lag behind Becks in jersey sales but I didn't see a single Beckham shirt in the raucous mob at the bar last Sunday. True, I didn't notice many Fulham #23 jerseys either, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were there in spirit, just beneath the colors of their lifelong clubs.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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