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Tuesday, April 15, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: April 21, 8:29 PM UK
Dasey: New Zealand's quality soccer exports

Jason Dasey

From New Zealand to the United States and on to the English Premier League, it's a long and unlikely path that a growing number of players from the so-called 'Shaky Isles' are following.

Ryan Nelsen went to Blackburn Rovers from Christchurch via Washington DC while Wellington-born Simon Elliott had stops in Los Angeles and Columbus before ending up at Fulham.

Now, other New Zealanders are looking at America's MLS as a possible means of passage to Europe.

Toronto FC have two Kiwis on their books: defender Andrew Boyens has been joined this season by attacking midfielder Jarrod Smith. Columbus Crew's longest serving player is defensive midfielder Duncan Oughton, a member of the New Zealand national team since 2002.

They've all chosen the MLS ahead of the A-League and its New Zealand franchise, the Wellington Phoenix, despite little difference between the moderate wages in both leagues.

'The A-League is getting stronger but the MLS is more recognised throughout Europe,' Boyens told ESPN Soccernet. 'Hopefully it's a stepping stone to bigger and better things.'

Twenty-four-year-old Boyens is in his second season with Toronto after being selected in the first round of the 2007 MLS SuperDraft, following an impressive college career with the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

In May 2007, he earned his first international cap, facing up to Ryan Giggs' Wales in a friendly at Wrexham. Partnering the equally-inexperienced Ben Sigmund in central defence, Boyens helped the All Whites earn a creditable 2-2 draw.

'It was awesome to walk out beside Giggs and (Craig) Bellamy,' Boyens said. 'We took care of them all right, too.'

His team-mate, Smith, was one of the stars as Toronto pulled off an upset away victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy in their third match of this season on April 13th.

With all eyes on former England captain David Beckham and his Galaxy teammate, Landon Donovan, Smith marked his MLS debut by scoring Toronto's second goal in the 53rd minute in a 3-2 win at the Home Depot Center. Like Beckham, Smith wore the number-23 shirt. Former Premier League players Laurent Robert and Danny Dichio were among Smith's team-mates.

Thirty-year-old Oughton overcame a serious knee injury that ruled him out of the entire 2005 season to extend his MLS career with the Columbus Crew. He married a local Ohio girl, Carly, an ex-ice skater, and lives with a dog and three cats in what he describes as his dream home in the Columbus area. And as a U.S. Green Card holder, or permanent resident, Oughton is no longer classified as a foreign player.

He made an emotional return to the field, wearing the captain's armband midway through the 2006 season with the help of experimental treatment that saw his cartilage re-grown in a laboratory before being re-attached to his knee.

Earlier in his tenure at Columbus in late 2003, Oughton looked at moving to England where he trained with Nottingham Forest in the MLS off-season, arranged by former Forest player, Ian Woan, who had a short spell with the Crew.

The main recruitment programme is through the MLS draft... that's how you can get picked up by a club.
Andrew Boyens
But in the end, work permit issues and his ongoing contract with Columbus ruled out any thought of a possible move for the holding midfielder, described by Crew spokesman, Dave Stephany as 'an inspirational leader and the heart and soul of the team.'

Now in his eighth season with Columbus, Oughton says he couldn't imagine playing anywhere else.

'I've become like a piece of the furniture,' he said. ''I just love the club: the people in Columbus and the fans have been very good to me.' Oughton made the choice to remain in the United States while his contemporaries Ryan Nelsen and Simon Elliott moved on to richer pastures in the English Premier League.

Nelsen, who joined MLS the same year as Oughton, spent four years - two of them as captain - with dominant D.C. United before joining Blackburn on a free transfer in January 2005. He's since established himself as New Zealand's number one footballing export.

Growing up in Wellington, Oughton went to the same primary and high school as Elliott and they also played for the same junior club. They were reunited in early 2004 when Elliott was traded from the L.A. Galaxy to Columbus Crew.

Thirty-three-year-old Elliott spent two seasons with the Crew before signing for Fulham in January 2006 where he made 12 appearances before sidelined by a serious calf injury.

The common thread between the exports - apart from nationality - is U.S. college soccer opening up opportunities within MLS.

'We all studied here and played football at college,' Boyens said. 'The main recruitment programme is through the MLS draft... that's how you can get picked up by a club.'

Newcomer Smith attended West Virginia University, scoring 14 goals in 16 matches during his senior year. Already capped by the All Whites, the 23-year-old is the son of former Test cricketer Ian Smith, a well-known TV host and commentator for cricket and rugby.

Unlike many of their Australian contemporaries who have some kind of European background, emerging New Zealand players often need to find an alternative route to professional football abroad. They also don't have the exposure to Asia enjoyed by their cousins across the Tasman since the Aussies left Oceania to join the AFC a couple of years ago.

Sharing the American adventure has created a strong bond between the stateside Kiwis.

Columbus are one of Toronto's near neighbours - relatively speaking - a six hour drive over the border. The international teammates make a point of catching up whenever they can.

'We're a long way from home,' Oughton said. 'It's always good to see a familiar face.'

Boyens added: 'When we get together, we like to laugh about a few of the things that Americans and Canadians do.'

And across the Atlantic, Blackburn captain Nelsen remains the glowing reminder of what's possible for any Kiwi in the American soccer system.

'We watch him as much as we can,' Boyens said. 'He's definitely helping build the reputation of our players overseas.'

Just like its lamb and dairy products, New Zealand's best young footballers are also proving to be a quality export.

Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.


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