North America: Foreign Players in the Football League

February 24, 2024 0 By Paul W

Historically, few North Americans ventured to the English league. During the 1920s there was a brief exodus in the other direction, in the boom years of the American Soccer League (ASL). Some returned after the ASL went into decline, having gained US nationality along the way.  

Most famously, Scottish-born Jim Brown was granted US citizenship on the eve of the 1930 World Cup, where he would score in the semi-final. Signed by Manchester United while still on the boat returning to the UK in 1932, Brown also went on to play for Brentford and Tottenham before the Second World War. 

Kasey Keller - John Harkes - Craig Forrest


Most of the US players appearing in the Football League during the post-War years had either moved to the UK as children, held dual nationality or had strong family ties. Another Scottish emigrant, Ed McIlvenny, earlier played for Morton and Wrexham before captaining the US team managed by compatriot Bill Jeffrey at the 1950 World Cup. After their historic win over England, he too was signed by Manchester United, playing twice under Matt Busby. Otherwise, work permit requirements largely prevented US players featuring in the Football League, while a steady stream of Brits left to play in the then-booming North American Soccer League (NASL) throughout the 1970s and early 80s.  

Goalkeeper Winston DuBose was one of the first to try his luck in England post-1978, having trials with Ipswich and Southampton at the end of the 1970s but unable to gain a work permit. It was a similar story with Gillingham in the early 1980s, before DuBose managed to win a contract at Oldham in 1988, where he started a single League Cup tie. Many other North Americans struggled to get a foothold in the Football League. Fellow US international Hugo Pérez had a trial at Southampton in 1987, again without earning a contract. John Kerr played in the top flight for Portsmouth in 1987/88 and in the early 90s returned to England with Millwall; in the same season Brent Goulet gained a contract and work permit at Bournemouth under Harry Redknapp.  

John Harkes - Craig Forrest

Above: John Harkes – Craig Forrest (Shoot! Annual 1992) Below: John Harkes – Tony Meola – Kasey Keller

John Harkes - Tony Meola - Kasey Keller

Appearing in the 1988 US Olympic team alongside Goulet was John Harkes as the national side built for qualification for the 1990 World Cup and hosting in 1994. With a UK passport through his Scottish-born father, Harkes was able to sign for Sheffield Wednesday in 1990, winning the 1991 League Cup, appearing in the Premier League and later moving to Derby. National team goalkeeper Tony Meola had a trial at Sheffield Wednesday with Harkes, but only managed short spells with Brighton and Watford in 1990 before failing to gain a work permit. Defender Steve Pittman spent most of his career in Scotland and had a stint at Shrewsbury in the late 1980s, while Marcelle Bruce played for Colchester between 1989 and 1991. 

Kasey Keller was back-up to Meola at the 1990 World Cup and went on to play over 100 times for the national team. After establishing himself in England with Millwall, he went on to a successful stay at Leicester, and also represented Tottenham and Fulham between spells in Spain and Germany. Fellow keeper Brad Friedel had a longer wait to play in England, denied a work permit when Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest and Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, and then Sunderland under Peter Reid, attempted to sign him in the early to mid-90s. Finally allowed to join Liverpool in 1997, Friedel then made 450 Premier League appearances in further moves to Blackburn, Aston Villa and Tottenham. Another goalkeeper, Jurgen Sommer signed for Luton in 1991 and went on to QPR. 

Kasey Keller, Soccer America

Above: Kasey Keller, Soccer America (April 1993)

Tony Meola - Cobi Jones - Roy Wegerle

South African-born Roy Wegerle was NASL Rookie of the Year in 1984 with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, where he was coached by Rodney Marsh. It proved to be the last season of the league where both Wegerle’s older brothers also played. With Marsh’s help he earned a move to England, signing for Chelsea in 1986 and going on to play for several Football League sides. Wegerle made his name at Luton before million-pound transfers to QPR, Blackburn and Coventry. He became a US citizen in 1991 and made appearances in both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. Returning to the USA in 1996, Wegerle and Mexican Hugo Sánchez are the only players to feature in both professional North American leagues, the NASL and then MLS (twelve years apart). 

Another US trail-blazer was Mike Masters, recommended for a trial at Ipswich by former England striker Paul Mariner. Unable to gain a work permit, he joined Conference side Colchester. In the 1991/92 season Masters not only helped them regain their Football League place, but made history by becoming the first player from the USA to score at Wembley in the Football Trophy Final. This record was later matched by John Harkes (1993 League Cup Final) and Christian Pulisic (2020 FA Cup Final). Unfortunately after Colchester’s promotion, Masters ran into the same work permit problem, and despite making his debut for the US national team in June 1992 never played League football.  

Bob Lenarduzzi - Randy Samuel - Carl Valentine

Canada supplied the Football League’s first foreign player in Walter Bowman, who initially toured the UK with the national side during 1888, which coincided with the first Football League fixtures. Bowman returned for a second tour and signed for Accrington, making a scoring debut in January 1892. As a Commonwealth country, access to English football was unrestricted which allowed a number of Canadian players into the League throughout the post-War years. In the 1970s these included Bob Lenarduzzi at Reading (later to play at the 1986 World Cup) and Gordon Sweetzer at Brentford. Oldham winger Carl Valentine became a Canadian citizen after signing and starring for the NASL’s Vancouver Whitecaps, and also appeared at the 1986 World Cup after returning to the Football League for a spell at West Brom.  

Other Canadians in the Football League during the 1980s were goalkeeper Don Ferguson at Wrexham (1986) after a trial with Luton and Colin Miller at Doncaster (1986-88). The national team captain, Scottish-born midfielder Miller had also played for Rangers and later several clubs in Scotland. The most notable contribution was made by the long-serving Ipswich duo Frank Yallop and Craig Forrest. Arriving in the early to mid-1980s, both remained at the club for over a decade when Ipswich returned to the Premier League, becoming the first Canadians to play in that competition. Goalkeeper Forrest spent his whole career in the Football League, later moving to West Ham, while full-back Yallop was inducted into Ipswich’s Hall of Fame in recognition of his service. 

Craig Forrest - Frank Yallop

Craig Forrest – Frank Yallop

Goalkeeper Paul Dolan had a trial with Notts County after Canada’s 1986 World Cup campaign but didn’t get a contract. A significant impact was made by striker Paul Peschisolido, who stayed in England for 16 seasons after signing for Birmingham in 1992. A further member of the historic 1986 World Cup side, defender Randy Samuel, arrived later in the Football League for a spell at Port Vale during the 1995/96 season. 

The Premier League era, coinciding with rising standards which saw North Americans playing across Europe, brought an influx of internationals following the 1994 USA World Cup led by Cobi Jones at Coventry: Landon Donovan, Mike Lapper, Eddie Lewis, Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore, Claudio Reyna, Tomasz Radzinski and Paul Stalteri. Alongside Forrest, Friedel, Keller and Sommer, many goalkeepers including Mike Ammann, Brad Guzan, Marcus Hahnemann, Boaz Myhill and Paul Rachubka also spent time in English football.  

Mike Ammann - Jurgen Sommer - Paul Peschisolido

Several images courtesy of Peter Lythe, Miles McClagan (Flickr & twitter @TheSkyStrikers) & Shahan Petrossian (Soccer Nostalgia).  

Brad Friedel - Mike Lapper - Roy Wegerle

The arrival of foreign players, North Americans among others, to the Football League is one of the topics discussed in my book Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League’s Last Decades