A funny thing has been happening during match days at Reading F.C. in the English League Championship.
When fans enter Madejski Stadium to watch the Royals -- and tickets are harder and harder to come by these days due to Reading's amazing form this season -- they are more likely to see American flags waving and hear chants of "U-S-A!" than to see any sign of British patriotism.
The show of support for the United States has nothing to do with political alliances, but it has a lot to do with the big, bald American goalkeeper who has played an integral role in guiding Reading to what is so far the best season in the 135-year history of the club.
"The fans have been so great to me over here and have really taken me in -- it's fantastic. I give my shirt away [to a fan] every game because someone told me you're not allowed to do it," Marcus Hahnemann said.
The tradition of giving his shirt away caught the imagination of the fans, and no doubt even the club approves of it now.
"They just chant, 'U-S-A! U-S-A!' And they're all English people doing it," Hahnemann said. "People bring American flags because I tend to give my shirt to someone waving one."
There are not many people more popular in Reading these days than Hahnemann, the 33-year-old U.S. international who achieved cult hero status at Reading shortly after arriving at the club on a loan spell from Fulham in 2001.
Hahnemann, who played for the Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer before moving to England, became a permanent fixture between the posts at Reading in 2002, when Fulham allowed him to leave on a free transfer.
This year, his consistency and shot-stopping ability have been nothing short of spectacular at times, and dominant always. Hahnemann has started every league game and one League Cup match, in the process recording 18 clean sheets and conceding only 18 goals all season (the best defensive record in the league). He and fellow American international Bobby Convey have proven instrumental in inspiring Reading to the kind of record not even the most ardent supporter would have thought possible back in August. Unbeaten in the league since the opening game of the season, the Royals lead all English professional clubs in points (73), goals (62) and goal differential (46).
Currently in the lead for the third-place playoff spot by 18 points, Reading's promotion to the Premiership for the first time in club history (the Royals never made the top-flight division before the Premiership's establishment either) is almost a given, something fans will savor after several near misses in the playoffs during the mid-1990s and in the last few years.
Hahnemann said he knew the Royals had a good team this season, but admitted no one saw this coming.
"We've already scored more goals than we did all of last year. We're one point away from last season's point total," he said. "Someone told me that the other day, and I was like, 'Are you kidding?'"
Hahnemann's contribution to Reading's success has not gone unnoticed. Reading recently inked him to a new deal, locking up his services through the summer of 2007.
"He's an integral player for us. I'm so pleased for him, his form has been nothing short of outstanding," Reading director of football Nick Hammond told the club's official Web site. "He's a major, major player for us both on and off the pitch. He's a fantastic influence, and he's a winner."
Convey, who arrived at Reading last year and has produced some scintillating performances himself for the club, made similar comments about his compatriot.
"Marcus has been great," said Convey, who spends Thanksgiving and Christmas with Hahnemann and his wife and children. "He's been really influential to the team's success this year. I'm really happy that he's doing well in a World Cup year."
After years in the international wilderness caused by a glut of American goalkeeping talent, Hahnemann finally began to receive serious notice once Brad Friedel retired from international soccer. Hahnemann's form this season has forced Bruce Arena to pay attention.
Kasey Keller's spot never will be threatened, but with Tim Howard on the bench at Manchester United and Hahnemann playing so well, it is difficult not to see Hahnemann becoming Arena's number two goalkeeper by the time the World Cup kicks off this summer.
A trip to the World Cup finals would provide the perfect cap to what has become a dream season, particularly since Hahnemann's parents come from Hamburg, the German city where the U.S. team will be based this summer.
"I'm not 25 any more, [and] you think, 'How many World Cups might I get a chance to go to?'" he said. "I try not to think about it too much. I really want to go to the World Cup, but me thinking about it will not change anything. If I concentrate on how we're doing here, everything will take care of itself."
Reading manager Steve Coppell, who played in the 1982 World Cup with England, no doubt will agree with that approach. After an impressive run in the first half of last season, Reading went on an 11-match winless streak that cost it a playoff spot by three points. In 2003-04, the team reached the playoffs but lost to Wolves in the semifinals. This season, the mantra at Reading has been "one game at a time."
"We're not allowed to talk about the Premiership, we're not allowed to talk about promotion or anything," Hahnemann said. "The farthest we are allowed to look ahead is six games."
Coppell, a former wide midfield player, may have instilled that kind of caution into his players off the pitch. But on it, they have played with a swashbuckling, fearless swagger that emphasizes the dribbling and crossing skills of the two wingers -- Convey (who has scored four goals and provided five assists) on the left and Glen Little on the right. With former Arsenal trainee Steve Sidwell excelling in the middle and a veteran defense that has jelled exceptionally well after a year together, Hahnemann said the spirit in the team is unbelievable.
"We just keep attacking and attacking and attacking," he said. "The confidence we have, and how much we want to score, it's amazing."
Recently, Reading demolished Cardiff City 5-1, dealing the Welsh club its worst defeat of the season. According to Hahnemann, there was a time when Reading would have sat on a 2-0 lead, but not any more.
"We destroy teams," he said, noting that if you could somehow bottle and sell whatever Reading has discovered this season, every professional soccer team would want to buy it.
That kind of confidence and familiarity with winning should prove useful to Arena this summer, regardless of whether Hahnemann or Convey ever take the field. Both expressed a firm belief that the U.S. team, though handed a tough draw, can advance.
"I hope we just approach it like we do with all the games at Reading," Hahnemann said. "You have the first game, you try to win it. You play the second game, you try to win that. I don't see why we can't beat anybody."
If he can carry with him to Germany some of the magic that has gotten into the Royals this season, he and his teammates should inspire as much American flag waving on this side of the Atlantic as he has in England.
Mike Hanzel is a freelance writer who covers soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org