What do Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, former Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez, ex-Spurs and Sunderland misfit Teemu Tainio and Football League journeyman striker Luke Rodgers have in common?
Well apart from the fact they’re all decent scores in Scrabble, they’re also current club team-mates – turning out in Major League Soccer for New York Red Bulls. As unlikely bedfellows as they may sound, World Cup winner and two-time PFA Player of the Year Henry struck up a strong partnership with ex-Shrewsbury, Port Vale and Notts County marksman Rodgers in the 2011 MLS season, with 25 goals between them. Rodgers had replaced former Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel in the Red Bulls’ roster – and he and Goldenballs are not the only Englishmen who will be plying their trade in the Land of the Free when the 2012 season starts on March 10…
Ian Westlake (Montreal Impact)
Born in Clacton-on-Sea, the midfielder is now based in the more metropolitan surroundings of Montreal, a city which makes its MLS debut this coming season. Westlake joined the Montreal Impact last July, scoring two goals in 13 games in the second tier North American Soccer League, and he has re-signed for them ahead of the 2012 campaign. Westlake began his career at Ipswich, making 113 league appearances, and later turned out for Leeds, Brighton, Oldham, Cheltenham and Wycombe in a nomadic nine-year Football League career.
Eddie Johnson (Portland Timbers)
While a youngster at Manchester United, Johnson scored in an FA Youth Cup final and was capped three times by England under-20s, but first team appearances were limited to loan spells at Royal Antwerp, Coventry and Crewe. He failed to make the grade at Old Trafford and after being released in 2006, Johnson played 74 games in the Football League for Bradford and Chester – without ever really becoming a regular goalscorer. That changed when Adrian Heath, who had coached Johnson at Coventry, offered him a trial with his new club, the second-tier Austin Aztex. There, Johnson apparently regained his love of the game – and his touch in front of goal – and a couple of prolific seasons earned him a move to MLS club the Portland Timbers ahead of the 2011 season. His coach there? Diminutive ex-Chelsea forward – but not the three-time snooker world champion – John Spencer.
Richard Eckersley (Toronto FC)
Another one off the Carrington production line, full-back Eckersley was sitting on the Manchester United bench in the Carling Cup final three years ago, capping a season in which he made four first team appearances. Not content with his progress at Old Trafford, however, Eckersley refused a new deal and instead joined Premier League newcomers Burnley hoping for more first-team games. But this failed to materalise and, after just three cup appearances at Turf Moor, the man with the extremely northern surname travelled south for a loan spell with Plymouth Argyle. Further loans with Bradford and Bury followed, and Eckersley never played a league game for Burnley. But in another case of a mentor reviving a career, Paul Mariner – manager of Plymouth during Eckersley’s loan spell at Home Park – brought him over to Toronto, where the ex-Ipswich man is now Director of Player Development. Finally, Eckersley had found a regular starting place – albeit 3,000-plus miles away from his Salford birthplace.
Simon Dawkins (San Jose Earthquakes)
Whoever is Tottenham boss post-Euro 2012, they would be well served to keep an eye on their MLS parent club San Jose Earthquakes, where one Spurs reserve is looking to make a name for himself. Dawkins has endured a frustrating career since being signed by Spurs as a 16-year-old in 2004. He was released five years later, shortly after a goalless loan spell with Leyton Orient, and then tried out unsuccessfully with Strasbourg, Celtic and, er, Bournemouth – all the while training with Spurs in an attempt to keep fit. But in March 2011, his career suddenly took a turn for the better – evidently impressed by his efforts in training, Spurs gave Dawkins another deal and the next day loaned him to the Earthquakes for the first-team action he so craved. He struck six goals in 26 MLS games, and in the 2011-12 close season was being courted by Dutch side FC Twente, but has now rejoined San Jose on another loan spell.
Ryan Smith (Chivas USA)
A winger with 20 England caps from under-16s to under-20s, Arsenal youth product Smith also saw Football League action with Leicester, Derby, Millwall, Southampton and Crystal Palace. In March 2010, he decided to try his luck in the MLS and became a Kansas City Wizard – and his wing wizardry saw him create six goals and grab three himself in a season and a bit Stateside. Smith returned to England for personal reasons and during that time he earned a trial with Real Zaragoza but an unhappy Kansas refused to release him from his contract and he never played again for them. They relented when league rivals Chivas USA came-a-knocking and promised them two of their draft picks, and so Smith has joined Juan Pablo Angel in the Chivas 2012 roster. Smith has perhaps not lived up to the potential he showed when making his Arsenal debut as a 16-year-old nine years ago – but if he can impress for Chivas, and provide ammunition for Angel, he may yet return to Europe.
Dom Dwyer and Korede Aiyegbusi (Sporting Kansas City)
One Englishman out, one in – after Ryan Smith’s departure, the re-monikered Sporting Kansas City snapped up Sussex-born Dom Dwyer from college soccer during the 2012 draft selection. The 21-year-old came through the youth ranks at Norwich City before flying out to the USA, where a glut of goals earned him the national junior college player of the year title. He played for the University of South Florida in 2011 and this year joins the MLS ranks with Sporting – alongside another Englishman, Korede Aiyegbusi. Hackney-born Korede moved to the States in 2006, aged 18, also to play college soccer, but he already has two years of MLS experience after joining Kansas in 2010. A defender by trade, he has played eight pro matches and represented Great Britain at the 2009 World University Games. Dwyer and Aiyegbusi’s teammates at Sporting this year will include former Reading winger Bobby Convey.
Matt Watson (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Another college soccer graduate, Watson was born in Redditch but started his career in the States as a 19-year-old in 2004. He played two seasons for the University of Maryland but chose to forego his last two seasons of collegiate eligibility to turn pro. He played for third-tier side the Richmond Kickers and was named in the division’s all-star team, before moving up a division to the Carolina RailHawks. After three years with Carolina, Watson has finally made it to the MLS, former RailHawks boss Martin Rennie signing him for the Vancouver Whitecaps for the 2012 season. He will find a few familiar names at training – former Watford centre-back Jay DeMerit and ex-Spurs defender Lee Young-Pyo are among his teammates, while Scotland’s Barry Robson is to join when his Middlesbrough contract expires in the summer.