Yankees' Cup clash can generate new respect for game in America

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The Independent Football

One American has become synonymous with this season's FA Cup, even though he would not know his Arsenal from his elbow. But today, with the mock crassness of Don King's television trailers wearing thin, two of the boxing maverick's compatriots will trade metaphorical punches at Old Trafford in a contest that should confirm the veracity of the pay-off line in which an English voice declares: "We don't need no Don."

The presence at the quarter-final stage of Tim Howard, in Manchester United's goal, and Brian McBride, the Fulham front-runner, gives US "soccer" a strong chance of being involved when the trophy is contested at the Millennium Stadium in May.

No big deal for a nation the size of the United States, you may think. Yet only one American has ever reached the final, John Harkes collecting a loser's medal for Sheffield Wednesday against Arsenal in 1993.

Harkes' uniqueness excited greater interest on this side of the Atlantic. When it became known that he would "set cleat upon Wembley's storied pitch", as one US paper put it, a reporter from the New York Post bemoaned his colleagues' lack of enthusiasm. "I wrote the story about him going to Sheffield Wednesday," he said. "It got changed to 'going to Sheffield, Wednesday'."

Things are changing. In the US, the sport's profile rose, without exactly threatening the supremacy of American football, baseball and basketball, when the national team reached the last eight of the 2002 World Cup. In England, the profile of American players has never been higher. Seven of the US squad now feature regularly in the Premiership.

The generation coming through behind them will be steeped in the culture of British football. A band of teenaged players, such as the strikers Kenny Cooper Jnr from Plano, Texas, and Danny Karbassiyoon of Roanoke, Virginia, are coming through the ranks at United, Arsenal, Liverpool and other leading clubs after being spotted in youth tournaments.

However, the fact that Howard and McBride came to English football having cut their teeth in Major League Soccer suggests the US game finally has a set-up capable of producing good-quality players.

The MLS' predecessor, the North American Soccer League, was notable for imports, veterans like Pele, Best and Beckenbauer seeking one last pay-day, rather than for developing home-grown talent.

"I learned to compete in MLS," Howard said. "That's a big thing for young players today." He and McBride could still walk down Broadway or Hollywood Boulevard unnoticed. But this afternoon they will play before nearly 68,000 people, the kind of gathering other American soccer players normally experience only when the USA meets Mexico.

At 24, Howard (aka "T-Ho") has revelled in the big-match atmosphere in his first English season, despite admitting to shaking with nerves before matches. He played basketball at high school in New Jersey, a familiar story among the succession of US goalkeepers to have earned a living in England.

If that helps to account for his ball-hand-eye co-ordination, and extraordinary elasticity, Howard's technique is something that cannot be explained by a facility for slam-dunking.

Sir Alex Ferguson, having paid New York's MetroStars £2.3m, was so impressed by his capabilities that he promptly dumped Fabien Barthez. In his English debut, the Community Shield fixture at Cardiff, Howard betrayed inexperience by under-manning the defensive wall for the free-kick that brought Arsenal's goal. He also gifted Southampton a winner in early season. Mistakes have since been scarce as hen's teeth.

"They (Americans) want to be the best at whatever they do," said United's goalkeeping coach, Tony Coton, seeking to explain his impact. "He could become the best in the world."

The media here initially focused on Howard's problems with Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that can trigger swearing outbursts. They soon came round. "The Yank's no plank" a Sun headline conceded.

Neither is McBride (nicknamed "Bake" after a baseball star, although his first love was ice hockey). At 31, he has had short spells with VfL Wolfsburg in Germany, Preston and Everton. A relatively modest pedigree, perhaps, although the man from Illinois has won nearly 80 caps and scored in the finals of two World Cups.

As a measure of McBride's status in US soccer, from his exploits with Columbus Crew and internationally, this homage by Bonnie DeSimone in the Chicago Tribune takes some beating. "He is capable of stunning acrobatics, launching his long body at any angle to meet the ball, his blond hair flying like a steeplechaser's mane."

The Fulham manager, Chris Coleman, defines his attributes in less florid terms. McBride is strong in the air - which could be interesting given United's recent fallibility on crosses - and neat on the ground, he says of the player he signed for £650,000 to fill the void left by Louis Saha's defection to today's opponents.

According to Carlos Bocanegra, the former Chicago Fire defender who is also with Fulham (but suspended today), "Whenever I played against him, my calves ached from jumping so much". McBride marked his Everton and Fulham debuts with a goal and scored another superlative effort against West Ham in the last round. More than anything, though, it is his work-rate and physicality that make him suited to English football.

Eager as Howard and McBride doubtless are to become America's first FA Cup-winners, they appear, like many US players, to be more rounded individuals than those British contemporaries who have devoted their entire being to "making it" since before they hit puberty. The end of the road to Cardiff would not, one senses, be the end of the world for either.

Consider their active charity work: Howard was named New York Life's "Humanitarian of the Year" (eat your heart out, Roy Keane) for his work in raising awareness and money for Tourette's. McBride donates $100 (£55) to the Central Ohio Diabetes Association for every goal or assist.

Then there are their extra-curricular interests. Howard studies the Bible with his wife ("Tim Swears on the Good Book" as one red-top quipped) and prefers walking to clubbing. McBride has a degree in secondary education from St Louis University and a passion for sky-diving. He has also guested on the The Late Show With David Letterman and won an award from the Baseball Writers of America for "outstanding accomplishment" outside their sport.

Don King will probably demand to know why United and Fulham must play at a stadium with the razzmatazz-free name of "Old" Trafford. His rants are, of course, aimed at emphasising the FA Cup's timeless appeal. As Howard and McBride go head-to-head, new respect for America's footballers could be a fascinating by-product of the great old competition.