U.S. soccer player, the defender Jay DeMerit, lined up against England's Wayne Rooney when the teams clashed at last year's World Cup Finals in South Africa. The pugnacious striker was expected to inflict damage on the Americans. But DeMerit brought the muzzle and leash and tamed the threat. Flashback a few years -- Wayne Rooney was already a soccer superstar earning millions; Jay DeMerit was hitching rides to games and playing for a few bucks in the lowest rung of English football, possessed by a dream. Living on a diet of beans and toast, and broke for money, no one could believe that a kid rejected by Major League Soccer would go from nowhere to soccer's top table within a few years. No one, that is, except Jay DeMerit.
Now, there is a movie about this most American of stories. Rise and Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story is being released nationally this week. It narrates the Green Bay native's relentless pursuit of his sporting dream. He set off to Europe armed with a backpack, soccer cleats, little money, and determination in spades. His plan -- cold knock on soccer club doors asking for a tryout, the long shot at making it to the pros. Turned away, unable to get enough playing time to show his talents, time slipped by, the window was closing. He played for non-league teams that would have him. When the English professional club, Watford, came to play a friendly against his minnow club, DeMerit took his chance and shined. The Watford coach was impressed and offered him a trial, a contract followed. DeMerit proved instrumental in the team's rise to the English Premier League. Team USA came calling. Rooney met his match. The Green Bay spirit of never giving up had prevailed.
Watford, a satellite town near London, was like home, "a very caring, supportive, and sharing environment, that allows you to go out and do things," says DeMerit. "You know you have support and the people will be happy for you. I am very proud to be from Green Bay. It made it easy for me to fit into the culture at my English club, Watford, which was a family oriented place, supported by people who had followed the club for so long. The club was part of their culture, like Green Bay... one of the few U.S. cities where sport is the culture... I always felt at home." Luck seemed to have blessed him in this other brand of football but not so, according to DeMerit.
"I don't really believe in luck to be honest... it is about taking the opportunity when you find it. Everyone throughout their time will find the opportunity to be successful... I think if you keep a good attitude, and continue to develop, it eventually works out."
DeMerit's story and ultimate success somewhat parallels the trials of soccer domestically. Ridiculed or ignored and seemingly un-American, soccer was shut out of the sporting paradigm for decades. Not now. Soccer's arc of popularity is growing fast. MLS is expanding, attendances are up, major sponsorship and money is flowing to the game. NBC is set to broadcast MLS on its network next year. The doom merchants have been banished, the game's haters marginalized, they now hold the baton of ridicule. The attraction of the World Cup is evidence enough of how Americans "get" soccer, now a big fixture in the American sporting calendar.
Does DeMerit see success for the national team? "We need to create a solid identity to build on. The U.S. is still trying to find it. Until we do, I don't think we can really be that consistent but I also think there is enough talent from the U.S. that can easily be built up, and we can continue to compete against the best teams in the world. We showed in the last few years, back to 2002 for that matter, that we are capable of doing it. More guys will go play in Europe. That will help us get to a higher standard. It is going to take a core group of players to create that process. That comes along with younger players playing professionally at seventeen and eighteen. Look at the Landon Donovan's of the world who have now played in two or three World Cups. If you have enough guys that can build throughout a decade, that's when teams start to have a lot of success."