America at Large: The immigrant star earning his stripes
The Sporting Kansas striker marks a new era in the US pursuit of dual nationality players
Dom Dwyer celebrates scores on his debut for the US against Ghana on July 1st in East Hartford, Connecticut. Photograph: Jim Rogash/Getty Images
As the United States soccer team stood for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ before a friendly against Ghana earlier this month, Dom Dwyer had his right hand over his heart, a shirt with stripes across the chest and stars along the shoulders, and an enormous Old Glory behind him.
Evincing all the pride of somebody about to make his international debut, the camera also captured the curious symbolism of the moment. On the 4th of July weekend, when America annually celebrates its independence from England, here was a 26-year-old from Sussex playing for a country he first visited at 19 and with which he has no ancestral connection.
Just about 20 minutes later, Dwyer volleyed home the opener and then unfurled an even more impressive Robbie Keanesque somersault. The 28,000 or so inside Hartford’s Rentschler Field might have expected an audacious celebration from the debutante.
As a teenage Norwich City discard, he wore hot pink boots when turning out before a couple of hundred people for King’s Lynn in the lower foothills of the English non-leagues. If he was hardly likely to let the occasion of a first international goal pass without hallmarking it spectacularly then, his arrival signals an interesting development in the American game.
During the Jurgen Klinsmann era, recruiting players of dual nationality became a cornerstone of USSF policy as he sought, in particular, to scout the Bundesliga for individuals born to American servicemen or women who’d served in Germany. It wasn’t to everybody’s liking and hardly reflected well on the quality coming through in a nation of more than three million youth players. But, by bringing on board the likes of Julian Green, John Brooks and Jermaine Jones, whom he regarded as superior to those grown at home, Klinsmann was simply exploiting qualification rules that have served so many nations so well.
No familial or blood link
Dwyer’s is a story of a different stripe. Until he married Sydney Leroux (herself a Canadian-born American international), he had no familial or blood link to the USA. He actually grew up, as he openly admits, dreaming of one day wearing a crest of three lions over his heart.
That wasn’t to be. His development hindered by injuries, he was released by Norwich and, following off-Broadway stints with King’s Lynn and Staines Town, grasped an opportunity of a soccer scholarship to a small Texan college. Three years of fairly remarkable progress later, he was selected 18th in the Major League Soccer draft by Sporting Kansas City.
Even then, he had work to do. There followed a loan spell at Orlando City and a trial at St Mirren in Scotland before he eventually found his form and became one of the most prolific strikers in MLS. As the goals flew in, speculation started about him becoming eligible to turn his green card into full citizenship after fulfilling residency requirements. At the same time as he popped up on the US’s radar, the only stories ever linking him with England were not about international call-ups but a rumoured transfer to Brentford. Once he went through a naturalisation ceremony in March, a first American cap was only a matter of time.
"Players on the national team should be – and this is my own feeling – they should be Americans,” said now US national coach Bruce Arena in 2013
“It’s been a long road to get here, and I really wanted to show the fans and show the country I’m very passionate about this country, and I’m very honoured to play for this team,” said Dwyer last week.
The great irony is that Dwyer has been given his chance by Bruce Arena. It’s not that long ago since Arena, Tim Howard and others, were voicing nativist concerns about too many foreigners representing the country.
“Players on the national team should be – and this is my own feeling – they should be Americans,” said Arena in 2013. “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”
Arena started to change his tune when he was accused of xenophobia and compared to Donald Trump. By the time he returned for a second stint in charge of the national team last year, he was, unsurprisingly, much more open to the idea of a man with an English accent coming on board. Not least because Dwyer represents a viable striking alternative to the ageing Clint Dempsey and the unreliable Jozy Altidore. As always in international soccer and, increasingly, rugby, everybody is very pious about eligibility until they can exploit the loopholes to enhance their own prospects.
Having followed up his opener against Ghana with another goal against Panama in the Gold Cup, the second-rate Concacaf tournament Arena is using to blood emerging talent, Dwyer’s stock continues to rise. The nature of his career trajectory has prompted inevitable comparisons with Jamie Vardy’s journey from outhouse to penthouse and, while Sporting Kansas City are ready to quadruple his current salary to $1.2m, a trip to next summer’s World Cup might cause his earnings to be revised upward via a lucrative move to the Premier League.
In all the coverage, it has been pointed out the most famous goal in this country’s soccer history was scored by a foreigner. When Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens headed home the winner against England at Belo Horizonte in 1950, he was not yet an American citizen, eventually abandoning that process altogether, and returning to Port-au-Prince where he was infamously disappeared by the brutal Tonton Macoutes of Papa Doc Duvalier in 1964.
Dwyer’s story looks like having a happier ending.