The American contingent in the Premier League is typically a tight one, but cracks have appeared in the facades of two of USA's best and brightest talents this week. Everton and US National Team keeper Tim Howard, writing in his forthcoming autobiography "The Keeper," has accused former American international and current Tottenham Hotspur player Brad Friedel of deliberately trying to "sabotage" his transfer to Manchester United back in 2003. Howard played for the Red Devils from 2003 to 2007.
Howard's claims stem from a time before the transfer was finalized when he was attempting to receive a work permit to play football in England. In order to convince the appeals committee to grant him a permit, he needed character references, and he sought them out from a number of then-current and former American soccer players. Here's what Howard wrote, according to excerpts appearing at ESPNFC:
Now I needed that elusive work permit. Manchester United would be presenting my case to an appeals panel. If four out of the six panelists agreed to grant the appeal, I'd get my permit.
Still, there was no guarantee. Players are denied work permits all the time. Cobi Jones, one of the most accomplished American players, had been turned down. If the same thing happened to me, I could forget Manchester United, forget the million-dollar contract they'd dangled in front of me.
All this work -- the hopes, negotiations, the phone calls, the scrambling to pull together myriad documents for Manchester United -- would be for nothing. I'd be going nowhere.
I needed character references from other players. Manchester United asked former U.S. captain John Harkes, the first American to play in the Premier League, and they asked Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, among others. Most signed without question.
However, Man U told us that Friedel had refused to submit a statement on my behalf.
"You're kidding me," I said. Friedel was among what was then a handful of American players in the Premier League; his influence was huge. Having himself been denied several times, he understood better than anyone exactly what was at stake. Why wouldn't he vouch for me?
I mean, who would sabotage his own countryman like that?
Howard's excerpt paints a pretty unflattering picture of Friedel, then playing for Blackburn, who comes across as petty, callous, and dismissive of the young keeper. The use of the word "sabotage" really sticks out here – it infers that the decision to not submit a character reference was done out of a sense of malice.
But that's not what Friedel says happened.
"It's complete garbage," Friedel says in a follow-up article, also on ESPNFC. According to Friedel, he didn't refuse to sign a character reference; he refused to sign a "letter of support" for Howard's work permit appeal when asked to do so by then-USMNT manager Bruce Arena. Moreover, Friedel claims was done not out of malice towards Howard, but because the statement that he received did not contain truthful information:
"I said, 'Sure.' It was sent to me, and the only thing that was true on it was my name," Friedel said. "The letter was full of exaggerations that the people on the PFA [Professional Footballers' Association] and appeals committee would have seen through.
"It said that I had been in direct competition with Tim Howard for the starting job on the U.S. national team for the last two years, when anyone who follows [U.S.] soccer knew it was between Kasey [Keller] and I.
"Yes, I refused to sign that. We got the letter and said 'We have to change this, because this isn't true.' We made our changes and sent it back. They didn't like what I was going to sign, so they didn't use it. And that was the end of the matter."
This is a slightly uncomfortable situation, because it's highly unusual that two American international soccer players, both playing in the Premier League, would be publicly feuding. Americans, for whatever reason, don't usually get a fair shot in England in comparison to players from other countries. It's a trend that's slowly changing, but both Howard and Friedel are players who had to play exceptionally well and overcome personal hardships to get – and keep – their shot. So when other Americans are working their way into the best European leagues, the ones who are already there generally are hugely supportive.
That's not the case here, although according to Friedel it's a misunderstanding, and he doesn't appreciate his reputation being tarnished.
"To be honest with you, all we're looking for is an apology," he said. "We can't get the book reprinted. I'm not looking for monetary gain. I just want an apology." When asked if he would possibly take Howard to court over these allegations, Friedel didn't rule it out, but expressed reluctance. Said Friedel, "I don't want to litigate against a fellow professional, against a fellow American and a goalkeeper."
It's difficult to know what to think about this dust-up. Friedel implies in his rebuttal that Howard might have been under pressure to "put something controversial in his book." Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding, one that has festered quietly in the background for years. Maybe Friedel really is a jerk and resented, for whatever reason, that Howard had an easier time making it to the Premier League than he did. Or maybe Friedel and Howard, despite their public personas, just really don't like each other all that much and are taking this opportunity to finally air their dirty laundry.
Either way, Howard's book seems to have stoked a fire of controversy, and controversy sells. Let's hope that it doesn't permanently ruin a relationship between two of the best goalkeepers ever to come out of the United States.