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Grant Wahl previews USA-Mexico CONCACAF Cup showdown
5:50 | Planet Futbol
Grant Wahl previews USA-Mexico CONCACAF Cup showdown
Thursday October 8th, 2015

FC Nantes is based in an old port city and features a sturdy sailing ship on its crest. The club’s squad and leadership is appropriately cosmopolitan. There are Frenchmen, of course, along with players from Argentina, Iceland, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, Venezuela and elsewhere. The current chairman is Polish, the manager is Armenian and its first scorer this season was a Kosovar defender who spent his childhood in Switzerland and plays internationally for Albania.

But it’s the American who takes the lead inside a victorious Nantes locker room.

It started in the fall of 2013, when Alejandro Bedoya notched a late game-winning goal against AC Ajaccio and its Mexican goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa. Bedoya had just returned from U.S. national team duty in Panama, where the Americans scored late and saved El Tri’s World Cup skin. When told it was his duty to lead the postgame victory cheer in Ajaccio, Bedoya went with the first thing that came to mind: “I. I believe. I believe that. I believe that we. I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”

CREDITOR: Watch Bedoya lead ‘I believe’ chant at Nantes

Born at U.S. Naval Academy football games in the late 1990s, the “I believe” chant had become American soccer’s soundtrack by the time Bedoya arrived in France in mid-2013. And it soon was beloved at the Stade de la Beaujoire, where supporters belted it out, along with Bedoya’s name, following a season-ending loss. A little more than a year later, it’s a staple, home or away, whenever Nantes earns three points. The latest rendition came last week at Lille, where he helped set up the only goal in a 1–0 victory. And it surely will be heard Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, where Bedoya and the U.S. will face Mexico for the right to represent CONCACAF at the 2017 Confederations Cup.

“Every time [Nantes] win a game, we do it in the locker room,” Bedoya, 28, told SI.com. “It’s either me leading the chant, or sometimes somebody else gets involved. But they always seem to mess it up because of their accents!”

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They need Bedoya to do it right. He’d worked hard to integrate and ingratiate. He learned the language, played different positions and demonstrated his willingness to “Do anything to help the team win,” he said.

Now, after several setbacks and false starts, he’s increasingly influential and even indispensable for both club and country — just like he always hoped (and expected) to be.

“It’s really cool that I’ve kind of imposed myself and that American mentality and spirit into a whole other culture. It’s not just the group of players that have taken a liking to ‘I believe.’ The fans love it and so does the whole club,” Bedoya said.

Nantes likes him so much, in fact, that chairman Waldemar Kita stepped in when it appeared Bedoya’s permanent return to the U.S. was imminent. Bedoya had just finished his senior season at Boston College when he left for Sweden (his good friend Charlie Davies had recommended the Allsvenskan) back in January 2009. Nearly seven years later, following an ill-fated stint in Scotland, a return to Sweden and then his transfer to Nantes, Bedoya is a father feeling the pull of home and extended family. This summer, he was deep into negotiations with the Philadelphia Union and presumed to have an understanding with Nantes that when the offer was right, Bedoya would be allowed to leave.

Then Kita changed his mind.

“He said there was no way he was going to let me go because I’m too important to the club right now. He chose to not put me up for sale even though we had agreed on that possibility,” Bedoya said.

He then emphasized the point for good measure. The chairman wouldn’t let him leave. It’s not the sort of thing one hears often about an American player in Europe.

“It feels good in a way. You always want to play somewhere you’re wanted,” Bedoya said.

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That’s been hard to find for Americans abroad. Even the likes of Michael Bradley (AS Roma) and Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur) have felt undervalued by their clubs, and Major League Soccer’s growth and increased purchasing power has helped drain Europe of top-tier American talent. At the moment, only three U.S. born-and-bred field players are established regulars in one of UEFA’s top 10 leagues. Geoff Cameron starts in the Premier League for Stoke City. Rubio Rubin is at FC Utrecht in the Netherlands. And then there’s Bedoya, who fought his way to France and then into Nantes’s long-term plans.

That never was a given. Bedoya’s story sounds similar to that of so many Americans who’ve moved to Europe. Whether they flourished or faltered, the broad themes are consistent.

“There’s still that kind of, maybe, a stigma, that we’re not at that level — that we can’t really compete,” Bedoya said. “It always seem to surprise them when we beat someone or when [the U.S. national team] gets some results in Europe.”

In addition, there are the challenges off the field. Navigating relationships inside a foreign dressing room and the cultural quirks of a foreign city are daunting at best, and often prove exhausting.

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“There’s a different vibe over there in terms of the camaraderie aspect. In the States, you’re more likely after a game or whenever to say, ‘Hey man, you want to go for a pizza or go watch a movie?’ There, it’s more of a business. It’s cutthroat,” Bedoya said. “I’ve had many friendships where I thought I was close with a guy in the team and they get sold or I move elsewhere, and I don’t hear from them again. I don’t think that’ll happen [in the U.S.]. Everybody over there always tells me how Americans are so friendly. ‘Wow, you invited me to come to your house for dinner? That’s awesome!’ But it’s normal to me.”

He said his first three months in France were “pretty difficult.” Many players, apart from a couple Spanish speakers, distanced themselves (born in New Jersey and raised in Florida, Bedoya speaks Spanish thanks to his Colombian parents). And there was always a concern that as an American, he wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

But that goal and moment of locker room acceptance in Ajaccio marked a turning point. Nantes was newly promoted to Ligue 1 and represented a bit of a risk for Bedoya, who left the known quantity of Sweden for the brighter lights of France. Some might have excused him for playing it safe if he chose to do so. His 2011 move to Rangers FC was blighted by injury and the club’s eventual bankruptcy. The mood in Scotland was sour. Bedoya’s car was egged. And he fell out of favor with the national team, from which he was excluded entirely in 2012. Bedoya worked his way back with Helsingborgs and played in the UEFA Europa League. He helped the U.S. win the Gold Cup in 2013 and then signed with Nantes, and a year later he started three of four World Cup matches.

“He developed more drive and more consistency in his game and he showed that in his games with us as well. He confirmed his learning curve at Nantes also within our environment. That’s big,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of Bedoya last year.

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Drive and consistency have been the hallmarks of his career. 

“I don’t think it’s for everyone. Not everyone is cut out to make it in Europe. People get homesick. People struggle. The climate here changes. There’s all these different scenarios that play into it,” Bedoya said. “It takes a little bit of meditation and it also takes a strong support group.”

He initially leaned on his father, Adriano, who was part of the setup at Millonarios and Deportes Quindio before leaving Colombia for New Jersey in 1981. Now Bedoya has his partner, Beatrice, and their six-month old son, Santino.

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There is intelligence, skill and versatility, but not much flash, to Bedoya’s game. His comfort in a variety of roles and systems, touch on the ball, work rate and an ability to connect with teammates makes him the sort of player who finds ways to fit in and contribute. And it’s allowed him to be almost ever-present for club and country. As a playmaker, shuttler or grinder, he excels thanks to a knack for finding those vital slivers of space and a willingness to combine and defend.

He doesn’t put up big numbers (two goals and five assists in 44 games for the U.S.), but he frequently makes the play that’s needed. During the win over Ghana in last year’s World Cup opener, he led the Americans with five tackles. Against Portugal six days later, Bedoya paced the U.S. midfield with a 91% pass completion rate.

“With soccer, there’s a bigger picture with what someone can provide to the dynamic of a team,” he said. “It’s different things that maybe people don’t see, but when you study it and follow somebody more closely, you really see what they bring to the table.”

That versatility can work against him in the short term, he said. He may not immediately spring to mind when a manager is looking for a particular sort of player. Or maybe his national team coach decides to deploy him as a defensive midfielder (for the first time in his career) against Brazil. But in the long run, flexibility has served Bedoya well. He’s started 48 Ligue 1 games for Nantes and scored eight times, including the club’s top goal of the 2014–15 season, a thunderbolt at the Parc des Princes that led to a jersey swap with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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Moments like that continue to fuel him. But they’ve also helped carry him toward a crossroads. He’s signed with Nantes until the summer of 2019. But a return to MLS becomes more intriguing by the season.

“This is always what I’ve wanted to do, to play in Europe and to try and play with and against the best … When I step on the field against PSG, Monaco, Marseille, Lyon — these are big, big clubs throughout their history and to this day. They have some of the best players in the world. So that challenge in itself is something I always pride myself in taking on,” he said.

“At the same time, you get in a certain place in your career where you feel like you’ve done what you could and you’re not getting any younger. It’s winding down and you start to think about different things,” he continued. “Guys in the past have made decisions based on family or financial reasons, and it’s life changing. I don’t care what anybody says. I’ve heard people say things about lack of ambition and I don’t think it makes me any less ambitious, because I’m a professional and I’m going to keep doing what I do to always be at my best and to get better. MLS is a growing league. Many players — I talk to them all the time — want to come to MLS.”

Bedoya said he didn’t know exactly where things stand with the Union following CEO Nick Sakiewicz’s ouster last week, and he’s now playing under the assumption that he’ll be at Nantes at least through the end of the 2015–16 season. His love for playing in Europe hasn’t wavered. It’s just that the allure of home has increased, as evidenced by his regular engagement with American fans, media and issues. Bedoya has been gone, but he hasn’t entirely left.

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He’s funny, opinionated, outspoken and proud of his B.C. business degree. He isn’t afraid to take on the NRA or questions surrounding racial and gender identity. He keeps tabs tabs on MLS’s structure and spending, Andrea Pirlo’s love life and Deez Nuts’s presidential campaign. He wants to help MLS evolve — “I feel like players are too much afraid to speak their mind sometimes,” he said — and interact with younger athletes.

When Bedoya returns to South Florida, he makes time for coaches and kids at his old club, Weston FC, or former teachers from St. Thomas Aquinas High School. At some point, he hopes to bring his new family, not to mention the perspective and experience gleaned from a unique European adventure, back to the U.S. for good.

“I love being back here. There’s a different environment, a different air you breathe and so much to take in,” he said. “When I get to come back and play [for the national team], it’s the best.”

It’s special in part because it’s rare. He’s played fewer than 30 matches in the U.S. as a pro, and Saturday’s will be one of the biggest. Every meeting between the Americans and El Tri is special. But this one, the first between the countries’ first-choice squads in two years, is massive. There never has been a more important U.S.-Mexico game with a longer runway for buildup and hype than this one.

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It’s a game that Klinsmann said represents “an opportunity that will not come back to you anymore in your career. You need players that really now embrace that moment.” It’s a game that “will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

In games like that, a coach needs players who aren’t awed by the occasion or spectacle. Since taking over in 2011, Klinsmann has said over and over again that American players must do more to push existing boundaries and be more willing to test their limits. He talks frequently about the value of  “cold water.” Whether or not Bedoya returns to the U.S. and plays in MLS, he already has built a career out of swimming in the cold water. The obstacles, stakes and scrutiny in Sweden, Scotland and France forged a confident, adaptable player who’s eager to take the big stage.

“Everything is magnified in Europe,” he said. “In that aspect, I feel like I am better equipped to go out in front of 90,000 fans against Mexico. Of course, I’m going to feel a little bit of butterflies. But I’m going to be able to handle it and be all right.”

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