Yanks Abroad

15 Defining Performances: Americans Playing Overseas

Christian Pulisic raised eyebrows last week in a Champions League win against Benfica—and Brian Sciaretta wanted to determine where that effort ranked among American performances with overseas clubs.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
March 13, 2017
5:00 AM

LAST WEEK, WHEN CHRISTIAN PULISIC scored a goal and added an assist against Benfica in the Champions League, I started thinking about where this single-game performance ranked among Americans playing their club soccer abroad.

Pulisic is still just a teenager but what he did was remarkable—and unprecedented. Few Americans have ever scored in a Champions league knockout stage and those who have, including DaMarcus Beasley, did not influence the outcome the way Pulisic did

So after combing through so many of the best games from Americans playing abroad, I’ve settled on what I believe are the top 15.

My criteria: First, I consider not only the performance of the American player but also the context. How important was the game? Did it break new ground at the time for American players? How did that performance resonate with the supporters of that club?

I also limited my research to the modern era. I focused on the late 1980s and worked my way forward. Those of you hoping that 1920s Ajax great Eddy Hamel or Romford’s Bill Regan would make the list for being the first American to play at Wembley, sorry.

Another important note is that I am not considering American citizens who played for other countries. So Neven Subotic and Giuseppe Rossi are not eligible here. In the case of players who were able to switch from representing a different country to the United States, I only consider games after that player switched (this eliminated Aron Johannsson’s three-minute hat-trick for AGF Aarhus).

Finally, I give more weight to offensive production and goalkeeping. Many American defenders like John Brooks, Carlos Bocanegra, Geoff Cameron, Oguchi Onyewu, Gregg Berhalter, and others have played in important clean sheet wins. But it is easier to quantify a performance from an attacking or goalkeeping perspective (that being said, some defenders did make the list).

OK—enough context: Here are the 15 most definitive games played by Americans abroad.

15. Jonathan Bornstein

Queretaro vs. Pachuca; Liga MX semifinal; May 24, 2015

Often maligned by American fans for a handful of performances with the U.S. men's national team, Jonathan Bornstein has enjoyed a very nice career and in recent years he has done particularly well in Liga MX.

On May, 24, 2015 the California native scored the biggest goal in Queretaro history when his 50th-minute goal porved the difference-maker in the Liga MX playoff series against Pachuca. Pachuca won the first leg 2-0 but Bornstein’s goal gave Queretaro a 2-0 win in the second leg and the overall series win based on tiebreakers. 

Queretaro, one of the smallest clubs in Liga MX, improbably advanced to the final and it was Bornstein’s goal that punched their ticket.

14. Brad Friedel

Blackburn vs. Tottenham; League Cup Final; February 24, 2002

Brad Friedel might be the most successful American player in Europe and his record run of 310 consecutive Premier League games is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.

Friedel generated numerous highlights during that run. In one win over Southampton, opposing manager Gordon Strachan compared Friedel to Superman. Friedel also propelled Blackburn to an impressive win over Arsenal at Highbury in another Man of the Match outing.

But Friedel shined brightest in the 2002 League Cup Final, during which the Ohio native became one of the rare Americans to win a significant piece of silverware and the only to win a MOTM in a final. In the 2-1 win over Tottenham at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Friedel made a pair of saves on Les Ferdinand that changed the course of the contest and propelled Tottenham to the win.

Months later, Friedel would again turn heads at the 2002 World Cup for the United States.

13. Kasey Keller

Leicester City vs. Middlesbrough; League Cup Final; April 16, 1997

John Harkes may have been the first American to play in an English final, but Kasey Keller was the first American to win one when his Leicester City side defeated Middlesbrough 1-0 in a second leg replay thanks to a Steve Claridge goal in the 100th minute.

The first leg at Wembley was more dramatic than the second, as Middlesbrough scored in the 95th minute through Fabrizio Ravanelli but Leicester's Emile Heskey equalized 23 minues later. Under the format used then, a replay was held at Hillsborough Stadium.

Similar to the first leg, the second contest remained scoreless after 90 minutes. Keller's biggest save came just a minute after Claridge’s goal when he stuffed Emerson on a 1v1 from a shot taken near the penalty spot. Minutes later Keller would also dramatically deny Irish international Alan Moore.

The two matches are considered among England's most entertaining in a final and Keller was terrific across both legs, conceding just one goal in 240 minutes.

12. Maurice Edu

Rangers vs. Celtic, Scottish Premier League; February 28, 2010

The Old Firm derby between Rangers and Celtic is one of soccer’s oldest and most bitter rivalries. Many American players have played in this game—all for Rangers, interestingly—but few have influenced a result the way Maurice Edu did in 2010.

Normally a starter, Edu began on the bench but replaced an injured Lee McCulloch in the 25th minute and promptly helped Rangers control the central midfield. Shortly after coming on, it appeared as if Edu had given Rangers the lead but his goal was waived off when the referee called a handball on Kenny Miller—much to the chagrin of the Ibrox crowd. As the game drew to a close, Edu was part of a great counterattack but his shot flew just over the bar.

With the game still scoreless at 90 minutes, the fourth official indicated there would be three minutes of added time. With only a few seconds to go, Edu came up with the winner.

Beyond the goal, that entire effort from Edu in the Old Firm all but clinched the second straight Scottish Premier League title for Rangers (securing a 10-point cushion) and drew praise from U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley who would name Edu to the World Cup team that summer.

11. Jermaine Jones

Schalke vs. Twente; Europa League; March 15, 2012

It's too bad that Jermaine Jones was only able to begin playing for the United States internationally until later in his career—he made his U.S. national team debut at the age of 29—because most American fans missed just how good he was in his prime.

His best club outing as an American international came in the Europa League Round of 16 in 2012 while playing for Schalke against FC Twente. Twente won the first leg 1-0 at home and took a 1-0 lead early in the second leg in Germany.

Needing three goals, Schalke began a furious comeback. Known for his intensity in big games, Jones was instrumental in the team's effort, forcing many turnovers in the midfield and shifting the momentum to Schalke.

Schalke scored two goals to even the game on aggregate but it still trailed due to the away goal rule. But in the 71st minute, Jones put Schalke on top when he took a pass from Raul in the box, make a rapid turn, and fired home low shot to send the crowd into a frenzy.

Then, in the 81st minute, Jones took a loose ball inside his box, made a 70-yard run, and assisted on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s goal to seal Schalke’s comeback win.

10. Jay DeMerit

Watford vs. Leeds United; Championship Playoff Final; May 21, 2006

Jay DeMerit’s improbable story has Hollywood written all over it, and in fact there's a documentary about his career called Rise & Shine.

DeMerit's defining moment came in 2006 when Watford was pushing for promotion tp the Premier League. After finishing third in the league, Watford advanced to the English Championship playoff at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff against Leeds United.

The Wisconsin native scored the opening goal and was named Man of the Match. From 2004-2010, DeMerit was a key player for Watford but his game against Leeds United established him as a club legend.

9. Brian McBride

Fulham vs. Birmingham City; Premier League; May 3, 2008

Of all the Americans to play for Fulham over the years, Brian McBride is by far the most popular. In fact, the pub inside Craven Cottage is named in his honor. McBride enjoyed dozens of memorable games for Fulham but his showing against Birmingham City, an epic relegation battle that was part of the club's “The Great Escape," is his finest hour.

The team had played awful soccer that season and seemed certain to be relegated. But Roy Hodgson took over the club on New Year’s Eve 2007 and not long after that the club began a remarkable turnaround. On March 16, McBride provided the winning goal in a 1-0 triumph over his former club, Everton. On April 12, McBride was once again front and center of the rally when he scored the first goal in a pivotal 2-0 road win over Reading. That was the start of the club winning four of its final five games en route to safety.

The club's survival was essentially secured on May 3 when McBride put on an inspiring performance against Birmingham City. In the first half, he thought he had the opening goal but his header slammed off the crossbar. Then, in the 53rd minute, a headed goal proved to be the difference. Fulham scored again at the end to build a two-goal cushion but it was McBride who turned the tide in this decisive win.

Listening to the commentary on television, you could get the impression of the moment.

“McBride coming in. Fulham score! Fulham score! And who else could it be but Brian McBride? Seven minutes into the second half. Is this a Premiership lifeline for Fulham?”

Yes it was. A 1-0 road win over Portsmouth the following week sealed it.

8. Jozy Altidore

AZ Alkmaar vs. PSV Eindhoven; Dutch Cup Final; May 9, 2013

Many U.S. fans know of Jozy Altidore’s struggles in Spain and England but his two-year run in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar was terrific. In the 2012-13 season the New Jersey native scored 23 goals in the Eredivisie and eight in the Dutch Cup in what was the best single-season output for an American in Europe.

Altidore had many highlights that season but his most memorable game was his last, when he dominated the Dutch Cup final. His 14th-minute goal turned out to be decisive in a 2-1 win over PSV. Was that his best game of that magical season? Maybe not.  He had three hat tricks that year alone. But it was the most definitive because it gave AZ Almaar its first Dutch Cup triumph in 31 years.

7. Landon Donovan

Everton vs. Chelsea; Premier League; February 10, 2010

Many U.S. soccer fans list Landon Donovan as their favorite American soccer player of all-time. And why not: He has 57 goals and 56 assists in 157 caps for the U.S. national team, and he always seemed to deliver at important moments in the biggest international stages.

At the club level, however, there are many who wished he did more in Europe after unsuccessful stints in Germany.

His two brief loans at Everton were career highlights and after being named Everton’s Player of the Month in January, he saved his best overseas outing for Chelsea in 2010. .

In that game he controlled the midfield, assisting on a Luis Saha opener and drawing a penalty for an impressive 2-1 win at Goodison Park.

"That was Landon's best game for us," said Everton boss David Moyes afterward. "But I don't think we'll be able to keep him when his three-month loan expires, unfortunately."

6. Claudio Reyna

Rangers vs. Parma; UEFA Champions League; August 11, 1999

Ask longtime Rangers fans to name the loudest moment in Ibrox history and there's a good chance they would point to the moment when Claudio Reyna scored a 76th-minute goal  in the first leg of the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.

That goal gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead over favored Serie A side Parma. It proved to be the series winner because Parma won the second leg at home 1-0 but lost 2-1 on aggregate. As a result the Glasgow-based club moved into the group stages.

Reyna had only arrived at the club months earlier on a transfer from German side Wolfsburg. Rangers at the time was a huge club and Parma was among Italy’s most talented teams. (At the time Serie A was considered the top league in the world.)

Reyna’s goal for Rangers is still talked about by the club’s supporters and the former U.S. national team captain reflected on the moment in a 2016 interview. 

“It was an incredible night,” Reyna said. “The noise level is something I will never forget—from the moment we came out for the warm-up to the end of the game. Being able to get a goal was important but we still had a job to do back in Parma. If you look back at that team, it was an incredible achievement. They had world-class players throughout their team, but it showed the level we had in our team that we were able to compete with them and qualify. The goal for me was special for the importance more than anything as it helped us get through into the Champions League. It was amazing, and like I said, more than anything I will remember the noise that night. Ibrox was absolutely amazing and I had never experienced anything like that night in my career in terms of the energy and the support.” 

5. Tim Howard

Everton vs. Manchester United; FA Cup semifinal; April 19, 2009

For some players, there is no better feeling than sticking it to your former club. Tim Howard had the opportunity to do just that—in a 2009 FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

After beginning his career with the Metrostars, Howard went onto having a long and storied career in England. First with Manchester United, with mixed results, and then at Everton where he became an iconic figure.

Howard's performance against Manchester United in 2009 at Wembley was among his best and most famous achievements. For 120 minutes he made key saves to preserve a scoreless draw. Then, in the penalty shootout, Tim Cahill would miss the first for Everton but Howard bailed him out in saving United’s first two attempts—from Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand. That was all Everton needed to prevail and advance to the final.

4. Clint Dempsey

Fulham vs. Newcastle; Premier League; January 21, 2012

Clint Dempsey had a stellar career in Europe but his performance on January 21, 2012 was a standout. On that day Dempsey became the first and only American to register a hat trick in the Premier League—or any of the five top leagues in Europe.

Trailing Newcastle 1-0 in the 52nd minute at Craven Cottage, Fulham took a 4-1 lead over the next 16 minutes with Dempsey scoring two of the goals. In the 89th minute the Texas native completed his historic hat-trick on a 1v1 with the keeper. 

3. John Harkes

Sheffield Wednesday vs. Derby County; League Cup; December 10, 1990

John Harkes, who recently turned 50, was an American trailblazer in the European soccer world. He signed for Sheffield Wednesday in 1990 at a time when Americans in Europe were few and far between. He was not the first American in Europe but he is widely considered the first successful American there.

The New Jersey native was the first American of the modern era to play at Wembley Stadium in the 1991 League Cup final—where it suffered a tough 1-0 defeat to Manchester United. Two years later he scored in a League Cup Final in a 2-1 loss to Arsenal and only a few months after that he appeared in an FA Cup Final, again suffering through a tough loss to Arsenal.

His most important goal came shortly after he arrived in England. Fans back then were skeptical of his American heritage. Harkes had been playing for Wednesday's reserve team but when he got his chance in a fourth round League Cup replay against Derby, he seized the moment.

Despite playing out of position at right back in place of an injured Roland Nilsson, Harkes scored England's Goal of the Year when he sent a magificent 35-yard shot past legendary English keeper Peter Shilton. It was the gamewinning goal of what would turn out to be a 2-1 victory in Derby's run to the final at Wembley.

“My first goal, against Shilton, was, and is, absolutely the best and most important goal I have scored—hard to put into words really," Harkes recalled.

After that goal, Harkes became a mainstay with Sheffield Wednesday and he remains popular with the fans.

2. Clint Dempsey

Fulham vs. Juventus; Europa League; March 18, 2010

From 2007-2013, Dempsey scored 72 goals for both Fulham and Tottenham while setting new records for Americans abroad. He became the first American to score a Premier League hat-trick, reach 50 Premier League goals, lead a Premier League team in scoring, and play in the final of a European competition.

In 2010 Fulham reached the final of the newly created Europa League but its most stunning moment in that tournament came in the Round of 16 when the London club upset Italian giant Juventus. Still hobbled by a knee injury suffered weeks earlier, Dempsey started the game on the bench.

It was a remarkably difficult situation for Fulham, which had lost the first leg in Turin 3-1 and Juventus boasted a first-rate defense that was expected to get the job done in London. Juventus took a 4-1 aggregate lead in the return leg in just the second minute when David Trezeguet found the back of the net.

But then Fulham rallied for goals in the 9th, 39th, and 49th minutes to even the series. Dempsey came on in the 71st minute and hit what might be the most famous goal in Fulham history to complete the improbable comeback. While Dempsey played just 19 minutes that day, he made them count.

1. Christian Pulisic

Borussia Dortmund vs. Benfica; UEFA Champions League; March 8, 2017

Christian Pulisic may not the only American to score in the Champions League knockout stages but his performance against Benfica last week is still groundbreaking. 

First, Benfica won the first leg at home and with Pulisic earning the start, it was an enormous responsibility to try to turn the tide for one of Germany’s biggest and most popular teams.

Second, his age makes this a phenomenal achievement. He is just 18 years old, and for head coach Thomas Tuchel to have that much trust in an American for such an important game is hugely significant. Pulisic earned the start over Andre Schurrle, a German international in his prime.

Third, he altered the course of a Champions League knockout series with his performance against a very good Benfica team. Dortmund was down 1-0 after the first leg but Pulisic equalized the series with a terrific assist on a header and then scored the eventual winning goal. Dortmund tacked on two more goals but only after Pulisic turned the tide.

It was a completely unprecedented performance. Pulisic should go on to have many more games that could surpass this. But this game is the one that many will look back on years from now and conclude he moved from a top-tier prospect to an impact player.

What do you think of Brian's list? Are there any performances that don't belong here? Any that he missed? Share your take in the Comments section below.

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