On the proving ground of European soccer, American players have long had a dream: to be judged not by their passports but by their skills. That may finally be happening in England, where U.S. veteran Brad Friedel is being hailed as the top goalkeeper in perhaps the world's best league. With nine games left in the Premier League season, Friedel's Blackburn Rovers are in a respectable eighth place, not least because their big Yank is leading EPL keepers in saves (120), save percentage (.810) and penalty kicks stopped (two). Friedel's also leading in plaudits from the usually harrumphing Brits.
"He's the best goalkeeper in the Premiership, bar none," says Blackburn manager Graeme Souness, a verdict echoed by Bolton Wanderers boss Sam Allardyce and a Sky Sports fan poll. The BBC named Friedel one of its 2002 players of the year, ahead of homeboys David Beckham and Michael Owen. As their national team searches for a dependable netminder, Blackburn supporters have even taken up cheers of " Friedel for England!"
"As each year goes by, you can anticipate some situations earlier and make better decisions," says Friedel, 31, who's one of two Yank keepers—along with Tottenham's Kasey Keller—among the EPL's top five this season. "Kasey and I are over here because of hard work and some luck and having people who believe in you."
That last part is never guaranteed, especially if you're from the States. In 1998 Friedel earned the No. 1 job at Liverpool but found himself in the doghouse after a subpar performance against Manchester United. In November 2000, however, he was reunited with Souness, who had first coached the 6'4", 202-pound Ohio native at the Turkish club Galatasaray in 1995. Investing in an American was easy for Souness, a legendary iconoclast who, while coaching Scotland's Glasgow Rangers in 1989, enraged the team's notoriously sectarian fans by signing a Catholic. Souness's confidence in Friedel was rewarded when Blackburn earned promotion to the Premier League in 2001 and won the Worthington Cup final in 2002 behind the keeper's heroics.
"I don't think Graeme views me as an American," says Friedel. "He just sees me as a goalkeeper he likes. We won the Turkish Cup together [in 1996], and he remembers people who win with him. He has a group of players he trusts, which everyone in the game needs because there are a lot of people who just want to stab you in the back."
After Friedel made two game-saving stops in a 2-1 Blackburn win over Chelsea last month, opposing keeper Carlo Cudicini said, "He was fantastic. A lot of strikers think they can just blast it [past him], but his reflexes are excellent, and he's so big, you have to try to place it." About the only thing harder to place these days is Friedel's accent, a curious hybrid of Ohio and England, sprinkled with Britishisms (lads, footballers), which makes it easy to forget he's American. In this age of soccer globalism, that may be precisely the point.