Foot in U.S., But Eyes On England

matthew mbuta - crystal palace usa
While Crystal Palace USA has tapped area colleges to fill its roster, it has also signed players from Japan, Colombia and Cameroon. Matthew Mbuta, above, played last season in Malaysia. (The Washington Post)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 22, 2007

If you did not know any better, you might think the Washington area's newest pro soccer team had just relocated from the south end of London.

The name (Crystal Palace), the colors (red and blue), the crest (an eagle perched atop a ball) and the jersey sponsor (a Dubai logistics firm) are the same as those belonging to a 102-year-old club. And if you listen closely, you will surely detect a few English accents on the pitch.

What you have discovered, though, is not the Crystal Palace, which has wallowed in England's second or third tier for much of its unglamorous existence -- but Crystal Palace USA, a feeder club founded last year for the purpose of developing players and expanding a humble brand name in a country where only major European and Latin American clubs, such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Boca Juniors, have nurtured loyal followings.

In addition to running a youth academy, the local branch has a senior squad that competes in the United Soccer Leagues' second division, a 10-team circuit on the third level of the U.S. pro system with clubs scattered from New Hampshire to Bermuda.

The local office is in White Marsh, Md., just north of Baltimore, the training grounds at Johns Hopkins University and the primary home field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. So far the club has had a difficult go of it competitively, losing its first four matches before defeating the Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads, 3-0, on Saturday, but its backers are taking a broad approach.

"We've done fantastically well to get to where we are," said Dominic Jordan, vice chairman of the London organization and brother of Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan. "Longevity is important to us. We don't want to be in today and out tomorrow. We want to ensure a proper structure, a proper agenda, proper support."

The only other European club as heavily involved in American pro soccer is Alaves of Spain, which operates the San Francisco-based California Victory in the USL's 12-team first division.

What Crystal Palace and Alaves have done is akin to a Major League Baseball team launching a formal program in Latin America, only the soccer clubs are also fielding the equivalent of a Class AA or AAA baseball team in a modestly competitive league.

For Crystal Palace USA, winning games is perhaps secondary to developing top-caliber players, offering them to the parent club or selling their rights to teams elsewhere in Europe or MLS.

"Palace sees America as a real breeding ground," said Peter Medd, a Frederick County native who shares local coaching duties with his former Towson University teammate, Jim Cherneski. The team is supported financially by the London office as well as by a U.S. investment group led by Medd's father, Randall, a horse trainer.

With American soccer cultivating more export-quality players and the U.S. sports landscape beginning to embrace the international game, it seemed to make perfect sense both commercially and developmentally for Crystal Palace to set up shop here. But why the Baltimore-Washington area?

The main reasons were Medd and Cherneski -- who was recommended to Crystal Palace by a friend coaching in the English system -- and the desire to be in an East Coast location that is easily accessible from London and could potentially draw youth players from several metropolitan areas.

Once it settled on Maryland, Crystal Palace set forth to build a small stadium and training facilities. It had planned to break ground this year in Aberdeen, Md., adjacent to Cal Ripken's baseball complex, but the deal fell through and a search for a new location is under way.

For now, the club's youth teams, with players ages 9 to 18, utilize various fields in the area. The program has three coaches and comes at no charge to the players.

The senior team has had a hard time attracting attention, drawing an average of only 378 spectators to three home games. The players, though, hope their performance will attract attention in London.

"It's a great opportunity because a lot of players dream of going over there," said defender Andrew Marshall, a Centennial High School graduate who played at Towson. "This program offers that direct link."

Medd and Cherneski's priority is to develop players for Crystal Palace, but if the club is not interested, they will attempt to sell their rights elsewhere. Proceeds would be split between the local outfit and the parent company.

While Crystal Palace USA has tapped area colleges to fill its roster, it also has signed players from Japan, Colombia and Cameroon. In addition, the London club plans to send players here each summer for offseason training -- the equivalent of a baseball prospect going to Mexico for winter ball.

This year's arrivals are both 19 years old: midfielder Lewwis Spence, who appeared in a Crystal Palace league match this year; and forward Charlie Sheringham, whose father, Teddy, is a former English national team striker and, at age 41 and still active with West Ham, the oldest non-goalkeeper in Premier League history.

The younger Sheringham hopes his U.S. assignment will help earn him a spot on Crystal Palace's senior roster when the English season resumes in August. "It seems to be a good standard here so playing a lot of games, training every day, hopefully it helps me grow up a bit and get bigger and stronger," he said.

While Spence and Sheringham are under contract with the London club, Crystal Palace USA pays the rest of its players between $1,000 and $4,000 per month. (Most players in the USL's second division earn from $700 to $1,500, while developmental players in MLS receive $1,075 or $1,475 monthly.) Many Crystal Palace USA players live in apartments in White Marsh paid for by the club.

Crystal Palace USA's roster is younger than most USL teams "for the simple fact that, if we went out and got a bunch of 30-somethings that never had a chance to play for Palace, it would be pointless," Medd said. "It's the nature of the club. We've had to live with that -- youthful mistakes sometimes -- but in the end, we will stay true to our mission."

Crystal Palace USA's ties to the parent club will grow stronger this summer when Peter Taylor, coach of Crystal Palace and former manager of England's under-21 squad, arrives to oversee training. There also are tentative plans for the local team to visit London upon the conclusion of its season to practice with the regular squad and perhaps play at historic Selhurst Park.

"They stress the pride in the club," Marshall said. "We're not playing for just an American team; we're playing for an English team with a great reputation for 100 years."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company