Let's come right out and say it: Clint Dempsey is having the best season ever by a U.S. international in Europe. With his late equalizer against Chelsea on Monday, the Fulham sniper now has 16 Premier League goals this season. The only Premier League players who have more goals in all competitions than Dempsey's 22 are Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Sergio Aguero.
Naturally, the rumor mill is already in overdrive predicting Dempsey's future: Will he be leaving Fulham for a Champions League team next season? But all that talk is mere conjecture at this point, and if you ask me it takes the proper focus away from what Dempsey has already accomplished in this remarkable 2011-12 season.
To put Dempsey's achievements in historical context, I'm devoting this column to ranking the top 15 European seasons for U.S. internationals. First, some quick background on my (admittedly subjective) decision-making process. I'm using only each player's best season in Europe; otherwise, there would be a lot of repetition using Dempsey, Brad Friedel and Tim Howard (who've had several impressive seasons).
We're only using performances in the top-flight leagues of European countries (sorry, Jay DeMerit and Hérculez Gómez), and I tend to give higher value to attack-minded players over defenders, elite leagues over midlevel leagues and players whose teams finished higher in the overall league standings that season.
Will you disagree with some of these choices? Of course. We're just trying to have some fun with a good bar-room debate. Let's dive in:
What more can you say? No U.S. international has ever been in a scoring zone like Dempsey, who still has five games to see if can reach the 20-goal total in the Premier League, one of the world's two best leagues. Not bad for a guy who debuted for the New England Revolution in 2004 as a defensive midfielder. There's no way Fulham would be in ninth place right now without the Deuce.
No U.S. international can touch Beasley when it comes to the number of important UEFA Champions League games he has played in his career. Guus Hiddink signed Beasley to replace Arjen Robben, and the American performed well in his debut season, leading PSV in Champions League goals (four) as the team went all the way to the semifinals, going out on away goals to Milan. Beasley also won a Dutch title that year and was a constant pest on the wing.
It's an amazing tale: A goalkeeper goes straight from global anonymity in MLS to Manchester United, beats out a World Cup winner (Fabien Barthez) for the starting job and ends up being named the Premier League's best keeper by the PFA. Howard's season wasn't perfect: United finished third in the league, and his error helped José Mourinho's Porto to an upset in the Champions League. But Howard did become the first American to win the FA Cup, and he started almost all season for arguably the world's most famous team.
Friedel's consistency means you could pick from a number of seasons, but the Ohio native was a rock in '02-'03, posting 15 clean sheets and being named Blackburn's player of the year as Graeme Souness's team took sixth in the Premier League, the club's best finish since winning the title eight years earlier. Friedel deservedly was named to the PFA Best XI.
The 1998 U.S. World Cup captain was a mainstay on the back line as Kaiserslautern rebounded from a 12th-place finish the year before to win the Bundesliga for the first time in club history.
Harkes scored more memorable goals in other seasons, but he was a regular on a stunning Wednesday team in '91-'92. Think about it: A newly-promoted team finishes third in the English top flight, right between Manchester United and Arsenal? And the American was in the thick of it.
Probably the most under-the-radar big season by a U.S. international, Wegerle's '90-'91 campaign was a revelation. The South African-born forward had 19 goals, good enough for third place in the English top flight on a team that finished 12th in the league.
Many pundits picked Martin O'Neill's Leicester to be relegated, but all Keller's team did was win the League Cup and finish ninth in the Premier League. Keller had a lot of good seasons in Europe, but this one was the best.
Injuries often dogged Reyna, but he was at his best in Glasgow this season, winning the SPL title, making 42 appearances in all competitions and scoring six goals, including the decisive strike against Parma that took Rangers into the Champions League group stage. When I went to Scotland to do a story on Reyna in '99, it was clear that he was admired by the hardcore fans.
Granted, goal totals are a bit easier to pad in Holland, but you can't ignore Bradley's breakout season, in which he came out of nowhere to score 16 league goals (and 20 overall) for a team that finished fifth in the Eredivisie. Bradley's goal-scoring exploits in '07-'08 make it hard to compare with, say, his current role at Chievo. Is he having a bigger impact in a better league this season? Perhaps. It was a tough call.
It's too bad we didn't have ESPN3 and DirecTV and Fox Soccer 2 Go in 1990-91, which produced more performances on this list (three) than any other season. Stewart's 17 league goals gave him third place in the Dutch top flight, trailing only Dennis Bergkamp and Romário. His newly-promoted club also had a decent season, finishing 11th.
There's a reason they named the bar at Craven Cottage after McBride, whose nine Premier League goals (12 in all competitions) won him the club's player of the year award and helped Fulham stay up in the Premier League by a point. (Of course, it also helped that new acquisition Dempsey scored a big goal against Liverpool in the stretch run.)
Injuries curtailed O'Brien's club career, but in '01-'02 he was No. 4 in minutes played on an Ajax outfit that won the Dutch league and cup titles. Along with his performance next to Reyna at the '02 World Cup, it made you wonder what the duo could have accomplished in Europe had they not been star-crossed on the ailments list.
The big redhead broke new ground for a U.S. international when he joined Padova in what was probably the world's best league at the time. While Lalas's team didn't set Italian soccer on fire, finishing 15th in the league this season, Padova did beat Genoa in a relegation playoff to stay up. What's more, Lalas scored three goals, two of them coming in victories against Inter and Milan.
This season is still in progress, of course, but Altidore has been building up his goal total steadily in recent weeks, all the way up to 13 in the league and 17 in all competitions. AZ is in second place right now, and Altidore deserves credit for turning around his European fortunes.
Others who were considered: