Now one of them was going to the Premier League. "I knew he would score!" Keane screamed, half in ecstasy and half in anger that he hadn't taken the 22-to-1 wager offered by William Hill on number 6 to bag a goal. "It was in the stars!"
It started, like any good buddy movie, with two friends seeking an adventure. C'mon, Jay, let's go to Europe and give it a crack. The year was 2003, and the more DeMerit listened to Keane, his Irish-American teammate on the Chicago Fire Reserves, a nonpaying MLS minor league affiliate, the more it made sense. DeMerit's Danish ancestry meant he could acquire a coveted European Union work permit. What's more, DeMerit was convinced that he could hang with anyone after a solid college career at Illinois-Chicago, even though no MLS team had drafted him or made a contract offer. "If someone had, I probably would have stayed," he says, "but no one did. So I said, Screw it, I'll go."
With little more than their backpacks, their soccer cleats and enough dollars to cover overnight buses and youth hostels, they toured Europe for six weeks in search of a tryout. In the Netherlands they rented old bicycles and doorstepped the manager of Sparta Rotterdam. (All they got were free tickets to that night's game.) In Belgium they waited half an hour to speak with the coach at Royal Antwerp before giving up. (They left a note -- Your loss! -- under his door and skedaddled.) Only when their money ran out did they return, suitably chastened, to the cramped house they shared with Keane's mother, three brothers and a sister in London's hardscrabble Wembley neighborhood.
That summer DeMerit returned to the U.S. and saved $1,000 working as a bouncer and bartender in Chicago. He went back to London in the fall looking for more tryouts -- and any way to stay fit in the interim. "I knew I'd have to play in whatever park I could find," says DeMerit, who earned $70 a week playing with Keane for a ninth-division team called Southall Town on Saturdays and not a cent for their pub-league games on Sundays. "We'd bring the nets and set 'em up and play," DeMerit recalls. "Some of the guys would be drinking on the sidelines at 11 in the morning." At one point when their financial situation looked particularly grim, DeMerit and Keane took temporary jobs painting houses.
Yet after nearly two years of grinding, the big break came with astonishing swiftness. In July 2004 an old coach from Southall Town invited DeMerit and Keane to play a couple of preseason games with his new team, seventh-division Northwood FC. In one game both players impressed then Watford manager Ray Lewington enough that he offered them two-week trials. Pro sports can be cruel indeed -- Keane couldn't crack Watford's roster and has since bounced around clubs in England, Scotland and Spain -- but DeMerit thrived with the reserve squad, and Lewington told him to suit up for the senior team's preseason finale against Spain's Real Zaragoza (which had beaten Real Madrid the previous season). "I thought maybe I'd get five minutes at the end," DeMerit says, "but I got to the stadium and I was in the starting lineup. I'd never even trained with the first team, so I was s------- myself."
DeMerit kept his composure for 90 minutes, and the next day Watford offered him a one-year, $45,000 contract. "I would have done it for free," says DeMerit, who recently signed his fourth contract in two years, a three-year deal that pays him $465,000 this season.
"Jay's got total respect from all the players here," says Watford defender Malky Mackay, a Scottish international. "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. He's certainly good enough to play in the Premiership and get into his national team." Second-year Watford manager Boothroyd goes one step further, predicting that DeMerit will someday become the U.S. captain.
The 6'1", 185-pound DeMerit would settle for receiving his first national-team call-up (he'll have to wait until the U.S. hires a new coach), but he has enough on his plate in a Premier League season that will test him like no other. Success for Watford, which has the Premiership's lowest payroll, will mean finishing no worse than 17th out of the 20 teams; the fight to avoid relegation could be just as thrilling as the race at the top of the standings. Two months into a 38-game season, Watford stood in 19th place through Sunday on four ties and three one-goal defeats. But like his Hornets, DeMerit had held his own in nearly every match -- despite playing out of position in recent weeks at right back. "My goal is to keep progressing," he says, "whether that means being on the 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."
And if that means turning pop icons into his starstruck fans, hey, no problem. Before last spring's regular-season finale, a small man in a blue suit and pink glasses bustled into the Hornets' locker room. Sir Elton John, Watford's lifetime president, had a question: Where's the American? "It was kind of surreal," DeMerit says of their meeting. "We talked about Brett Favre, of all things."
These days, in fact, it's getting harder to tell which one's the rock star, John or DeMerit. During his trip home over the summer, DeMerit spent a day in the recording studio with some old friends who own an indie music label in Minneapolis. The resulting track, a guitar-screeching ode to Watford called Soccer Rocks, celebrates the fairy-tale story of an Everyman and his underdog team who somehow make it to the Premier League:
Let me bring your dream to you/Show you all what you could do/Soccer rocks!
The singer, like the player, is still a work in progress, but you can't fault his effort. Besides, you never know where the smallest opportunity might lead if the right people take notice. Boothroyd says he's sending the demo to Sir Elton.