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Three years ago,
in Jay DeMerit's previous life, Sir Elton John didn't ask to shake his hand.
Three years ago, before he scored one of the most lucrative goals in soccer
history, yellow-clad Englishmen didn't chant his name, didn't wear his jersey,
didn't burst into tears of joy over his flying header into a rippling net.
Three years ago Jay DeMerit, late of Green Bay, was a soccer vagabond in a
foreign land, an MLS reject plying the fields of London's city parks, a Sunday
pub leaguer sharing a friend's attic bedroom in a dodgy part of town and
subsisting on $70 a week and a steady diet of beans on toast.
When DeMerit dispossesses Man U forward Ryan Giggs early in the first half, the stand behind Watford's goal erupts: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! Later, after DeMerit swipes Cristiano Ronaldo's sneaky back-heel pass, the Watford hard cores launch into another favorite (also seen on yellow-and-black T-shirts):
Jaaaaaaaaay ... Jay DeMerit!
Jay-Jay-Jay from the U.S.A!
Man United ends up winning 2--1 on a second-half goal, but the Wisconsin cheesehead with Matt Damon's mug and David Beckham's old rooster-tail haircut has played a nearly flawless match, organizing Watford's back line while using his speed, smarts and aerial prowess to help keep the game close. "I like the challenge of going up against some of the best players in the world each week," the 26-year-old DeMerit says afterward. "If I can hold my own, it's only going to make me better. It's just another level I can get to."
Rare these days is the foreign crowd that embraces a U.S. athlete with such fervor. Even rarer is the still-unfolding fable of DeMerit, the unlikeliest of the record 13 American imports in the Premiership this season. How many Yanks go from mid-major college soccer to starting in the Premier League? From not being drafted by MLS to scoring a historic goal in front of 65,000 fans last May? From toiling in obscurity--DeMerit has never played for a U.S. team at any level--to staring down renowned strikers such as Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Andriy Shevchenko?
For five months the good folks of Wisconsin have had a hard time grasping the magnitude of DeMerit's finest hour: scoring the goal that clinched Watford's promotion to the Premier League. "Some do, some don't," DeMerit says over coffee in Camden Town, the hip North London neighborhood where he recently bought the flat he shares with his girlfriend, Katherine Carter. "I had some friends in Green Bay go, 'I heard you played in a game?' Yeah. I did. 'I heard you scored?' Yeah. I did. They don't really get the implications, and that's O.K. It's hard for people to understand sometimes."
Not that hard, though. The beauty of the Premiership--indeed, of most overseas leagues--is its meritocracy. Not only can players rise (and fall) through the ranks, but so can teams. After each season the worst three Premier League sides drop down a level, to be replaced by the three big winners of the second tier. Promotion and relegation, as the process is known, is a staple of England's four-division professional pyramid, and the stakes are enormous. These days each team that makes the jump to the Premiership is rewarded with television and sponsorship riches of up to $45 million.
In England the second tier's top two finishers receive automatic promotions, but the third Golden Ticket goes to the winner of a playoff among the next four teams. Which brings us to the scene of DeMerit moving upfield at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, to receive the corner kick that would change his life. His Hornets, defying forecasts of relegation to England's third tier, had soared to third and had already upset Crystal Palace in the playoffs. Now, with promotion on the line, they were facing favored Leeds United, winner take all, in a sold-out, three-tiered stadium so large that Boothroyd, channeling Norman Dale in Hoosiers, had taken his lads to see the field earlier that week--just to show that it was the same size as any other. "We came in with our mouths open," says DeMerit, "but everyone would tell you we weren't as intimidated when we walked out the tunnel for the game."