His is a tale any aspiring U.S. soccer player should read. From a standout college career at UCLA, to playing for his hometown MLS club, to the uniquely challenging world of European soccer, Eddie Lewis has lived through it all. Rebounding from a dismal 2001 in which the 29-year old winger learned first-hand the hardships of life as an American soccer player in England, Lewis would re-emerge as a force for the U.S. MNT during the team's championship-winning run through the 2002 Gold Cup. He then proceeded to become one of the key figures in the USA's historic run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup. Lewis sat down with ussoccer.com to talk about the lessons he's learned on his incredible journey. Click on the audio links to hear Eddie's answers.
ussoccer.com: After a dismal season in 2001 in which you rarely got playing time for both club and country, you had an outstanding performance in the 2002 Gold Cup, which essentially solidified your place on the World Cup team. How we were you finally able to regain your confidence on the field?
Eddie Lewis: The difference was just that I finally had come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t not playing at Fulham because I wasn’t a good player. It was for a number of other reasons that were totally out of my control, and for the first seven or eight months I just didn’t deal with it well. For the first time I wasn’t playing regularly. My confidence had dropped. I was in a foreign country. I didn’t really have anyone to sort of help me along with the experience, and I struggled. Bruce had every right and deservedly did the right thing by not calling me in.
And by the spring of 2001 for some reason it just finally clicked around again, and I was okay with the fact that I wasn’t playing. I knew I was still a good player but other things were affecting my playing time out of my control. It just all seemed to start to come back, and I just sort of began to grow month by month. And by the time I got another opportunity, which was January 2002, I was ready. I knew it was make or break for me. I had been out of the picture for the year and this was it; this was my chance to either make the team or not. And it just feels good to look back and know that I sort of seized the moment.
ussoccer.com: Do you remember anything specific that helped pull you out of the slump?
Lewis: I remember I was playing reserve team games, and I sort of accepted the fact that those were going to be my games. I might sit on the bench for the first team, but I’m probably not going to get on. I started to play well in those games and get comfortable again. It wasn’t a particular game or anything anyone said; it was just sort of finally accepting the fact that these are the circumstances, but it doesn’t mean you’re not a good player. And once I accepted that, it just all seemed to roll off my back, and not mentally affect me the way it was for so long. And at that point I didn’t seem to be affected by the negative stuff and I was able to grow from the positive stuff.
ussoccer.com: Winning the 2002 Gold Cup really helped build momentum for the team heading into the World Cup, and also helped a few players emerge as potential candidates. Looking back, how important were those results for both individual players and the team?
Lewis: It was a team obviously primarily based of MLS guys. All of the talk early on in the tournament was that there are a couple guys from Europe that are here, but just the guys who really don’t play, and it’s a young MLS team, so the expectations were low. Coupled with the fact that for me personally it was such a big tournament - to not only play well individually but also win the tournament. …[Winning] was big not only in Bruce’s eyes, but a lot of the soccer critics, even outside of the U.S. And it was a big confidence builder for the team.
ussoccer.com: Many people felt the group that won the Gold Cup – again, mostly MLS players – played better as a unit than did the European-based players who played in the friendlies leading up to finalizing the World Cup roster. Why do you think the Gold Cup team performed so well?
Lewis: I think a lot of those players weren’t necessarily cast in stone [for the World Cup]. The games meant a heck of a lot more to them. It’s never easy to play in Europe. I definitely would say that sometimes those games are more difficult being away from home. But again, it was a big moment for the team, and I think for certain players individually we were able to really carry momentum all through the rest of that spring and into the summer. I definitely say that if the Gold Cup went differently, that some of the players, as well as possibly the results that we had in Korea might have been different.
ussoccer.com: Your performances continued to improve all throughout the spring, so much so that it seemed you were in a great position to have a starting spot for the opening game against Portugal. You didn’t play in the first two matches. What were you feelings like at that point?
It seemed to be the same feeling for every player on the team. Whether Bruce wanted you starting every game, coming off the bench, or just being a reserve, everyone wanted so badly for the team to do well. I didn’t start the first couple games, but it almost didn’t matter. And when I got my opportunity, I played well. The cross against Mexico I’ll take to my grave with me. It all worked out so well, and I was so happy for really all the players.
ussoccer.com: Well, before you go to your grave, can you take us through “the cross”?
ussoccer.com: The Confederations Cup in 1999 (in which the United States finished third) was really your first exposure to high-level international soccer. How did that experience help in your development as a player?
Lewis: The Confederations Cup was really the first big tournament of my life, really, at any level. It was a serious FIFA tournament, with a lot of big teams - everything from the press and media surrounding it, to the quality of players and the style of play and the pace of the play, it was a big tournament and a big opportunity. From a growth standpoint - and I think that the same will really apply for the some of the younger guys this summer - the fact that we got third place was really an amazing achievement.
More importantly, the professional growth that some of the younger players got was the most important thing.. It’s something you can only gain from the experience. And no matter how it goes in terms of results, that’s going to be a valuable asset for 2006.
ussoccer.com: You were one of the first players from MLS to make the jump to Europe, and obviously had some difficult experiences in the early going. In fact, your experience could probably provide some insight into what life is like for an American professional in England.
Lewis: It was certainly an eye-opening experience. Right after I arrived, Fulham failed to gain promotion, and the manager got sacked. At the time, I wasn’t too bothered. I was sorry for him, but I had played in San Jose where we had gone through three or four managers - almost one a year. I just assumed ‘well it’s a new coach, but that’s fine.’ Then, a few of the board of directors called me and my agent a bunch of times saying that everything was going to be okay for me. I didn’t’ really even understand why they were calling me. I wasn’t worried at all. I figured I would come back in the summer.
Things were okay at the beginning, but the manager didn’t like that I was leaving for international games that weren’t on international fixture dates. Not only that I was going half way across the world, but also sometimes for a week or two at a time to play two qualifiers. I was starting at the beginning of the year, but it just started to seem that month by month, I was always having to fight my way back into the starting team, and then it began to drop off and drop off. One time I came back from a game and we had signed another left-footed player, and that’s when I began to realize that this might not be the best. Before long, it was all downhill. Knowing what I know now, I probably would have understood the situation and maybe even gotten out sooner, but definitely dealt with it better. Now I see it every year all the time, and its part of the big business of soccer, especially in Europe.
The management is very business oriented, especially in terms of buying and selling players. I was used to MLS, where you are kind of stuck with the roster you had. There weren’t too many players, and the club certainly wasn’t going to go out and be buying players by the month. That was a hard lesson, but again it really took me until the spring of 2001, almost a full year, to sort of grasp the fact that this was going to be the way it was. That won’t happen again, that’s for sure.
ussoccer.com: Ever have any regrets about making the move?