Green Bay, Wisc., native Jay DeMerit (6) is probably the unlikeliest of all American players to be pursuing his dream in the English Premier League, one of the world's top soccer leagues. The 26-year-old defender has become a key player at Watford despite never having played for a U.S. team at any level.
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DeMerit took a chance three years ago after a successful college career and a brief stay in American amateur soccer. He moved to England with $1,800 in his bank account, looking for tryouts at any level. After stints at a couple of lower-division clubs (and painting houses to make ends meet), DeMerit got his break with suburban London's Watford, a second-division club.
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It was a Hollywood moment, almost the soccer version of "Rocky." In the League Championship playoffs in May, DeMerit headed in what would prove to be the decisive goal against Leeds United. Watford won the match and, with it, promotion to the Premier League for the 2006-07 season, turning the American defender into an overnight celebrity.
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In two years' time, DeMerit went from sharing a friend's attic bedroom and living off $70 a week to defending Manchester United players and meeting Watford's president, Elton John. "It was kind of surreal," DeMerit says of meeting the pop icon. "We talked about Brett Favre, of all things."
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DeMerit's heroics and hard play have made him an improbable fan favorite at Watford's Vicarage Road stadium. Hornets supporters routinely chant "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and "Jaaaaay, Jay DeMerit! Jay-Jay-Jay from the USA!"
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As a defender in the Premiership, DeMerit must mark some of the best forwards in the game, including Arsenal's Thierry Henry, Chelsea's Andriy Shevchenko and Man Utd's Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha (pictured at left). "I like the challenge of going up against some of the best players in the world each week," he says. "If I can hold my own, it's only going to make me better."
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When DeMerit signed with Watford, his contract paid him $45,000 a year, but his play since has earned him a three-year deal that pays him 10 times that for the '06-07 season. He and girlfriend Katherine Carter recently purchased a flat in London's hip Camden Town neighborhood.
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DeMerit is still a work in progress at the top-flight professional level, but his parents, John and Karen, have been supportive every step of the way and often come to England to see their son compete.
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With his hard-nosed style, DeMerit has earned the respect of his teammates. "Jay's got total respect from all the players here," says fellow Watford defender and Scotland international Malky Mackay. "He's always had the physical attributes, but his development has come in deciding when to challenge, when to drop off and when to play the pass."
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DeMerit is one of a record 13 Americans currently playing in the English Premier League, but unlike most of them, he has never played for the U.S. national team. Watford manager Adrian Boothroyd boldly predicts that DeMerit one day will become the U.S. captain.
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"My goal is to keep progressing," DeMerit says, "whether that means being on the [U.S.] national team, continuing to move higher with Watford or, if not, then moving somewhere else. There's no reason I can't continue to set higher goals and get to the pinnacle of my profession."
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