Brad Friedel began his career in the English Premier League when there were only a handful of Americans playing soccer overseas. He has watched the country's top league gain popularity in the U.S. and has seen some of his fellow Americans become stars in England.
In the process, the now 40-year-old Friedel has also become the Cal Ripken Jr. of English soccer. His 305 straight starts is the longest in the 20-year history of the Premier League and Friedel is now among the oldest ever to take the field for an English club.
"The thing that I'm proud about the streak is not so much the number of games. I'm very pleased and fortunate that I kept my form to where the managers felt that I could help the team win," Friedel said. "That's what I probably take pride in more. During the run, I've never wheeled myself out there injured so I could keep the streak going."
Friedel's 21-year professional career takes an interesting twist this week in Baltimore. In a rare friendly between Premier League teams on U.S. soil, Friedel's current team — Tottenham Hotspur — will play the first English team that signed him in 1997 — Liverpool — at M&T Bank Stadium in a 1 p.m. match Saturday.
The start to Friedel's English Premier League career, and ultimately his streak, nearly never happened.
A star at UCLA who in 1992 won the Hermann Trophy — soccer's Heisman Trophy — Friedel first tried to play in England that year. But he was denied a work visa in England for the better part of five years, starting his pro career in Denmark and Turkey before returning to the U.S. with the Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer while playing for the U.S. national team in three World Cups.
He eventually signed with Liverpool — the team he grew up outside Cleveland rooting for — in December of 1997.
"I never gave up on the dream. You can always have the dream whether it happens or not," Friedel said. "There were plenty of times where I thought it just wouldn't happen."
Friedel wasn't the first American in the English league, but he and others eventually helped erase the perception that the top U.S. players weren't as good as their Europeans counterparts. Many of the current U.S. national team players have become stars in Europe, most recently Clint Dempsey, who is now attracting interest from Liverpool after a breakout season at Fulham in London.
"It's been a long process," said Friedel, who after three years in Liverpool spent eight with the Blackburn Rovers and three more at Aston Villa. "I turned professional 21 years ago and we didn't even have a league in the U.S. Rightly or wrongly, American players going anywhere in the world was going to be a fight to be accepted.
"As the years have gone by and the likes of the MLS has gotten stronger and the performances at various international tournaments have been competitive, that puts U.S. soccer on the map a little bit more. We've had players go all over the world and be successful and that's going to bring the status of U.S. soccer to another level."
Gylfi Sigurdsson, a 22-year-old midfielder who signed with Tottenham earlier this month, can remember watching Friedel play growing up in Iceland.
“I was probably 9 or 10 years old (when he watched Friedel). He’s been outstanding wherever he’s been,” Sigurdsson said Thursday after Tottenham’s youth clinic at UMBC. “His commitment to training is outstanding. He’s in great shape, he looks good. I’m sure if he can stay away from injury, he can play next season as well. He’s a great example to young players to stay fit for many years.”
Despite playing sparingly during his three seasons in Liverpool — ultimately going to the Blackburn Rovers without so much as a transfer fee in return — Friedel said that during his time there "I probably learned more about myself as a person and and a player."
Two years after going to the Rovers, Friedel led the league with 15 "clean sheets" — or shutouts. Friedel barely remembers.
"I'm not a stat guy," he said with a laugh.
Nor did he realize two years ago while playing for Aston Villa that he was about to break the record for consecutive starts, held previously by David James.
"One of the team's press representatives told me with about 10 games to go," he said.
Not that Friedel expects to become the Jamie Moyer of the English league. Friedel said that he appreciates every game, including a friendly such as the one in Baltimore, more than he did before "because the end's coming." But he isn't quite ready to put away his goalie gloves.
"In my opinion, there's no better profession in the world than playing professional soccer and I want to do it until I physically can't do it anymore," Friedel said. "Most of my good friends in the game are all retired. They all tell me the same thing, 'Play as long as you can because retirement isn't as much fun."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun