While football – or “soccer” – is still a growing sport in the USA, and Major League Soccer is now attracting some genuine superstars (albeit aging ones for the most part), the list of American players who have succeeded in leagues abroad remains a relatively small one.
With that said, there have been some players from the States who have made a strong impact in the Premier League since its inauguration in 1992/93.
Following in the footsteps of John Harkes – the first American to play in the Premier League – these five players have probably been the most successful imports from the States to the world’s most popular league.
#1: Clint Dempsey
Clint Dempsey wasn’t the first American to make his way to Fulham in the mid-2000’s – when he signed for the Cottagers in January 2007, he joined up with compatriots Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra, but he almost certainly made the most impact in the Premier League.
Dempsey cost a fee of £2m – it doesn’t sound much, but at the time it made him the most expensive American import in Premier League history.
It didn’t take him long to settle in, either – he made 10 Premier League appearances in his first season and scored his first goal in a 1-0 win over Liverpool – the goal that effectively saved Fulham from relegation.
Over the course of the next 6 seasons, Dempsey was one of Fulham’s most consistent performers – helping them to a surprising appearance in the 2009/10 Europa League final and scoring 23 goals in 46 games in 2011/12, making him Fulham’s top scorer for that season.
His form that season earned him a £9m move to Tottenham, and while he wasn’t quite as big a success at White Hart Lane he did provide some memorable moments, most notably his 93rd-minute equalizer in a game against Manchester United in January 2013.
That would be his final full season in England, as the summer of 2013 saw him sign with MLS side Seattle Sounders, although he did spend another 2 months on loan at his old club Fulham.
When his Premier League career was over, Dempsey had 57 goals in 218 games – a respectable total by anyone’s standards.
#2: Brad Friedel
When goalkeeper Brad Friedel signed with Liverpool as a backup to first-choice keeper David James in late 1997, few people would’ve predicted that he would end up breaking records at his future clubs and end up spending well over a decade playing in the Premier League.
Friedel found first-team opportunities hard going at Anfield and ended up moving to Division 1 side Blackburn Rovers in 2000, where he helped them to gain promotion to the Premier League with consistently solid performances.
In his first season back in the top flight he helped Blackburn win the League Cup in a Man of the Match performance, and he was even compared to Superman by then-Southampton boss Gordon Strachan after a particularly stunning game.
In the summer of 2008, Friedel moved to Aston Villa for around £2.5m, where he was equally successful, saving a penalty on his debut against Reading.
By 2011, he had become the oldest player to ever play for Villa, and when he moved to Tottenham that summer he later became their oldest ever player too.
His biggest impact, though? Somehow Friedel managed to play in 310 consecutive Premier League games, across nine separate seasons, for three different clubs (Blackburn, Villa, and Tottenham).
It’s a record that stands to this day and the likelihood of it ever being broken appears to be slim. Friedel eventually retired at the end of 2014/15 – at the ripe old age of 44.
#3: Tim Howard
When legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel left Manchester United at the end of the 1998/99 season, it was always going to be hard for the club to replace him.
When the likes of Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, and Fabien Barthez largely failed, United turned to the USA for their next candidate and brought in New York MetroStars’ keeper Tim Howard.
Howard was installed as United’s #1 for the 2003/04 season, but despite making 44 appearances, he largely struggled and was blamed by many for United’s Champions League exit at the hands of Porto.
After continuing to struggle at Old Trafford, it appeared that his Premier League career was doomed, but a loan move to Everton in 2006/07 completely rejuvenated him.
From there Howard made 354 appearances for the Toffees and helped them to top 5 finishes in 2007/08, 2008/09 and 2013/14.
In the 2011/12 season, he even scored a goal against Stoke City – a wind-assisted 101-yard clearance - becoming only the 4th goalkeeper to ever do so in Premier League history.
When it was finally announced in March 2016 that Howard was moving back to MLS with Colorado Rapids – leaving Everton after 10 seasons with the club, he stated that
“I will remain an Evertonian for life; this will always be my team, my club”.
It was telling of the massive contribution the American keeper gave to the Premier League – something unexpected after his questionable start at United.
#4: Brian McBride
The 5th highest all-time leading goalscorer for the USA national team, striker Brian McBride had two successful spells in the Premier League.
Although he was never the most prolific goalscorer – scoring 37 Premier League goals in 148 appearances for Everton and Fulham – he was usually beloved by the fans for his high work rate and battling approach.
McBride first arrived in England outside the Premier League, on loan from MLS side Columbus Crew to Preston North End in 2000.
While he only played 9 games for Preston, he made enough impact with boss David Moyes that the Scotsman decided to bring him to Everton two years later, where he scored 4 goals in 8 games, including one on his debut against Tottenham.
When Everton were unable to make his transfer permanent, he headed back to Columbus before Fulham signed him in January 2004.
He spent 5 successful seasons at Craven Cottage – finishing the 2006/07 season as Fulham’s top scorer with 12 goals, and after being named Fulham’s Player of the Year, he was named the captain for the upcoming 2007/08 season.
When he finally left Fulham at the end of 2007/08 – after winning their Player of the Year award again, he’d become such a popular figure at the club that a bar inside Craven Cottage was named ‘McBride’s’ in his honour a year later.
#5: Claudio Reyna
While he didn’t spend that long in the Premier League, just under 6 seasons in the end, many of which were curtailed by unlucky injuries, former USA national team captain Claudio Reyna, who represented his country in 3 World Cup tournaments, made a strong impact during his time with both Sunderland and Manchester City and was always popular with the fans.
After spending two seasons in Scotland with Rangers, where he made 58 league appearances and scored 10 goals along the way, Reyna moved to Sunderland in December 2001 for just over £2m.
The remainder of the season saw him appear in 17 league games for the Black Cats, scoring 3 goals as the side narrowly avoided relegation.
October 2002 saw him rupture his ACL, sidelining him for the rest of 2002/03, and from there he moved to Manchester City for a fee of £2.5m.
He played 31 games for City in his first season there and although his next two and a half seasons were damaged by injuries, he still managed 87 appearances for the Citizens and became a popular player with the fans.
Had Reyna not suffered so many serious injuries, he could well have become the best US import to the Premier League point blank, as the flashes of skill he did show during his time at Sunderland and City, suggested he had massive potential.
As it was, he was still a success and, is largely recognized as one of the best US players of all time.