Editor's note: ESPN Soccernet.com writer Marc Connolly spent five days in England at the end of February visiting American players who are part of the growing U.S. contingent who play professionally for top-notch clubs on both the first-team and reserve sides.
LIVERPOOL, England -- One by one, a stream of players, coaches and employees burst through the glass doors of Liverpool Football Club's Melwood Training Grounds facility to escape the non-stop winds and temperatures that have dipped into the twenties on this dreary Thursday morning.
"Not a good night for a game, is it?" says goalkeeper coach and former England National team goalkeeper Joe Corrigan as he walks through the immaculate lobby that features wood-paneling, a ceiling that is three stories high and walls painted with Liverpool red.
Walking into this modern three-year-old complex is quite a contrast from the fortress-like grounds where the playing fields are located. Situated right in the middle of a blue-collar West Darby neighborhood and across the street from the Old Derby Arms Pub, the happenings on the training grounds are virtually impossible to see due to the high cement walls with barbed-wire that surround the compound. Picture a fenced-in private school smack-dab in the middle of Staten Island.
Once inside, it is a whole different story, as the vibrant building contains the latest in training facilities, with a large gym, hydrotherapy pools, a major physiotheraphy room, a commissary and lounge for the players, as well as suitable offices for the coaches and a large room for the press to gather when necessary.
Being that it's in the same week when the brick walls near the entrance of the facilities were vandalized with a horrible "Hope you die of AIDS, Houllier" message towards the team's manager, the security has tightened. But nevertheless, the friendly spirit that the city is known for prevails, as autograph seekers are allowed to gather at the entrance gate without being bothered.
The first team will be taking on Bulgarian side Levski Sofia in the evening at Anfield, so there's a bustle of activity as various players pull up in their loaded BMWs, Audis and Mercedes to pick up tickets or get treatment from the medical staff.
One such player on the 35-man roster who won't be playing in the match is American Zak Whitbread, who is still rehabbing a pulled quadriceps muscle that forced him out of the Under-23 Olympic Qualifying Tournament last month in Mexico.
His inclusion on the roster as the wearer of the number 37 shirt looks great in a game program, not to mention on a resume for a 20-year-old soccer player, but he has yet to make an official appearance with the Reds, and is currently a full-time member of Liverpool's Reserve Team.
|Connolly in England|
The series of articles that Marc Connolly is writing from his travels in England during the last week of February will be published as follows:
Thurs, March 4: Jonathan Spector on the Man. United way
As the side's starting left back, Whitbread has appeared in 13 of the team's 20 matches, which ranks third on the team.
When Whitbread appears in the team's press room for a post-workout cup of tea, he looks like most Americans his age. Standing at 6-foot-3, he looks much thinner than his listed 180 pounds. Wearing a baseball hat, baggy jeans and a retro-printed T-shirt, he resembles your average college kid scurrying across campus to get to his 9 a.m. Marketing class.
Though he's paid as a professional player as part of one of the world's true powerhouse soccer clubs, and is only one step away from playing for the first-team in front of one of the largest legions of fan bases on the planet, Whitbread seems to have a very ordinary life.
In fact, he still lives with his parents; says he plays a lot of pool and ping-pong with his friends after training in the morning; eats most of his meals at the Melwood cafeteria, and still gathers with his non-soccer-playing friends to watch the other big clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid play on television.
While the entire Liverpool staff, including press officer Ian Cotton, are more than accommodating for Whitbread's guest, being a fellow American and all, the longtime Liverpudlian is as much English as any of them.
He just happened to be born in the States, making him eligible to wear a U.S. jersey, which he has proudly donned nine times over the past six months.
In total, he's started in five Under-20 World Cup matches, played in an Olympic qualifier and been to Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Spain as a part of both the U-20 and U-23 National Teams.
Yet, as Whitbread says, he's never been to the United States.
Officially, that's not true, since he was born in Houston, Texas in January of 1984. But his parents, Barry and Lynee, moved the family back to England before he celebrated his first birthday. Oh, and yeah, there was also the time he bought some snacks in a Chicago airport on a layover.
So it makes sense why Whitbread's interest in American culture has been a major topic in his life recently.
"I'm dying to get over there," he says. "I'm just so interested in seeing the whole culture and interacting with American people. When the opportunity arises, I'll be right over."
Playing for Liverpool doesn't give a man many chances to make a trip across the Pond.
His season starts at the beginning of July and goes right through mid-May.
Now that he's a bona-fide U.S. player with no chance to play for England in the future -- England approached him last year about joining the U-19 National Team -- and not listing himself as "American-British" or simply "British" as was once the case, perhaps this will be the year.
If that's the case, he says his prime destinations are New York City, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and his birthplace of Houston.
"There are so many places I want to go and experience there," he says. "It's something I'm looking forward to doing."
At the same time, he's quite happy in Liverpool, where he's lived for the majority of his life, outside of the five years he spent in Singapore when his dad was the country's National Team coach during the late-nineties.
While growing up in Liverpool, he was a fan of Manchester United - yes, the hated Red Devils, who are the Yankees to most everyone in England.
But, because Liverpool was his father's team of choice, he joined the club's "Centre of Excellence" at age eight, and eventually worked his way through the Academy from U-15 through U-19 before joining the Reserves last season.
Whitbread is still young enough that he considers David Beckham one of his idols, as well as Liverpool's 30-year-old center-back Sami Hyypia.
"I remember a few years ago when he signed with Liverpool how you could tell right away how great of a player he was," says Whitbread. "I was a young lad then, and I looked up to him. Getting to play against him in training has been huge for me, and the advice he's passed on really has helped."
Whitbread also admits that he was in awe the first time he saw his jersey hanging in the locker room next to some of the world's best players.
It came in an exhibition match against Thailand last summer during the club's Far East Tour, and before he would step onto the field with the first-teamers for the first time outside of training.
"I walked in and saw my jersey hung up there right next to guys like (Michael) Owen and (Steven) Gerrard," he says. "That day there was 60,000 people there, and everyone was an avid Liverpool fan. After the start of the second half, the manager (Gerard Houllier) put me in. I was in a situation where I was out there with Gerrard, Hyppia and Owen, and I was ecstatic. I didn't want the game to ever end."
It wasn't too long after his trip to Asia with the first team when he first played for the U.S.
It came in August when he traveled to Spain to join the U-20s at the L'Alcudia International Tournament, where he started three of the five matches Thomas Rongen's squad played.
That led to his being named to Rongen's side for the 2003 World Youth Championships in December. He started every match and scored his first goal for the U.S. to help the squad reach the quarterfinals.
His play led to his inclusion with the mostly MLS-based side that unsuccessfully tried to qualify the U.S. for the Athens Games this summer.
Unfortunately, he was only able to play in one match for Glenn "Mooch" Myernick.
"It was so disappointing," says Whitbread. "I was training really well, getting along with the guys, and I started in the two training games before the tournament started. In the first half of the first game, I felt a twinge in my quadriceps muscle. I continued to play, but I knew it wasn't right. I went in at halftime and saw the medical staff, and there was a lump at the top of my leg where the muscle snapped.
"I taped it up really tight and tried to give it a go, but it was uncomfortable enough that I had to come off. The medical staff knew I'd be out for the rest of the tournament. So we felt the best decision was for me to come back here and get treatment from the Liverpool staff. It was frustrating because it was such a great experience to play in that tournament, and I was excited to try and help the team qualify."
Like most Americans, Whitbread anxiously kept checking the Internet for updates on the team's match against Mexico in the semifinals for the right to play for the CONCACAF championship, and a trip to Athens.
"I was at my mate's house checking on the website to see what was happening," he says. "I couldn't believe it when I saw the score (Mexico 4, U.S. 0). It sounds like it was quite difficult for the lads."
It was. Whitbread's presence on the field would've helped, without a doubt, but it still would have been quite a fight going up against the Mexican buzzsaw.
While disappointed to not get a chance to play in the Olympics, Whitbread will now have a better chance of getting with the first team going into the 2004-2005 season, which will include a preseason trip to the United States in late-July, where the team will be based in Connecticut, and play matches at Gillette Stadium and the Yale Bowl in New Haven.
It'll give the young left back a chance to finally see the U.S., and play in front of many of his new fans.
Perhaps even Bruce Arena.
"Both Thomas Rongen and Glenn (Myernick) mentioned that the manager watches all the games, and takes notice of our development," Whitbread says. "So I want to really establish myself, and prove that I'm capable of going all the way to the National Team. That's the stage where we all want to be playing. That's the next step. And it's up to me. If I play well enough here, hopefully the manager will see it, and put me in the picture."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.