(Saturday, April 12, 2008) -- Fulham faced a daunting task yesterday. After not enjoying a road victory for 18 months -- 34 consecutive English Premier League matches since August 2006 -- the Cottagers had to come away from Reading's Madejski Stadium with a full three points or otherwise relegation back to the League Championship appeared inevitable.
Thanks to a brilliant match from striker Brian McBride, the team captain who scored once and narrowly missed a hat trick, plus solid play from three more Americans, Fulham prevailed 2-0, leaving room for celebration though another season in the Premier League is far from assured.
Kasey Keller in goal, Clint Dempsey in the midfield, and defender Carlos Bocanegra who came off the bench to help preserve the triumph, were all Yanks who contributed to Fulham's success.
McBride contributed the vital first goal in the 24th minute with a classic. He worked to get a half step between two defenders and powered a perfect Simon Davies left-wing cross past Reading's American keeper Marcus Hahnemann to give Fulham both the lead and new hope.
Hahnemann was nothing short of heroic in goal for Reading. In the 41st minute, he barely beat McBride to a ball in the area in what would have given Fulham a two-goal lead. In the 51st minute, in an amazing sequence for both players, McBride took a cross in full stride and blasted a point-blank volley that Hahnemann somehow got a hand on and pushed up onto the crossbar.
In the 71st minute, Hahnemann did it again, pushing a point-blank header off a corner kick from towering Fulham defender Brede Hangeland against the crossbar to keep things at 1-0. But finally he could only get a hand on, but not stop a low, sharply hit finish from Erik Nevland on a counter-attack deep into stoppage time.
Keller, who continues to play as Finnish international Antti Niemi struggles to return from an Achilles injury, had to be sharp all afternoon to earned his third clean sheet in the 10 matches he has now played for Fulham, six in a row since coming back from arm surgery that kept him sidelined for four months. Dempsey worked tirelessly in the midfield for Fulham both on offense and defense. He came out in the 85th minute favor of Bocanegra, who came in to play left back as the Cottagers ran out the clock.
U.S. midfielder Bobby Convey, who played a half hour last weekend, dressing for a first-team match for the first time since March, did not dress for Reading. U.S. forward Eddie Johnson, who has struggled to find form since joining Fulham, missed a second week having been laid low with a virus.
Fulham (5-17-12, 27 points) is still in 19th place, needing five points to escape the relegation zone with four matches remaining, three against top teams. First comes Liverpool at home before a road game at Manchester City, a home game with relegation-challenged Birmingham City before a closing visit to Portsmouth. The Cottagers will need a minimum of six or seven points, plus help, if they are to avoid demotion.
Gaining only a single point out of its last three matches and with only one win in its last five outings, Reading (9-20-5, 32) is in 16th place and inching ever closer to the relegation zone. Reading must travel to the Emirates Stadium next weekend to face Arsenal, then visit Wigan Athletic, before its final home game hosting Tottenham Hotspur and a closing trip to Pride Park against already-relegated Derby County.
Both Fulham and Reading lost last weekend. Fulham fell surprisingly at home to Sunderland 3-1, while Reading went down on the road 3-0 to Newcastle United, one of the league's hottest teams.
Fulham, with McBride starting and Keller again in the net, had figured to beat Sunderland, another relegation-challenged side. However, they displayed little enthusiasm and created few good scoring chances against the visitors who seemed more motivated.
Keller was not busy, making only two saves on the afternoon. The match looked to end scoreless at half time, but a stoppage-time goal by Danny Collins seemed to take the life out of Fulham.
Dempsey came on in the 62nd minute for Fulham, but Bocanegra stayed on the bench.
Two weeks ago, it was heartbreak for both teams in a 2-2 draw between host Derby County and Fulham. With Keller playing superbly in the Fulham goal, it looked like the Cottagers would end their long road drought. But Tino Villa's second goal of the day denied Fulham the victory and the two desperately needed points. One point for a draw did cellar-dwelling Derby no good as relegation has long been a certainty.
Keller kept Fulham in the match with a great save on Davy Jones in the 23rd minute and another on Kenny Miller three minutes later. After Diomansy Kamara tied the match at 1-1 for Fulham, Keller stopped a free kick from his U.S. teammate Eddie Lewis.
In the second half, Keller stopped a drive from Mile Sterjovski and a minute later a curving shot from Lewis. In the 71st minute, he robbed Robbie Savage and three minutes later denied Robert Earnshaw. When Fulham's Hameur Bouazza put his club ahead 2-1, it looked like the Cottagers might win, but Villa was unmarked for an equalizing header 90 seconds later.
Johnson came on in the 81st minute for and had three golden opportunities, but did nothing with them.
Keller, who at 38 is the oldest player in the Premiership appearing regularly, has told management he would like to sign a new contract for next season, even if the Cottagers are relegated.
Last weekend, Reading simply could not contain Newcastle's $54-million front line of Obafemi Martins, Michael Owen and Mark Viduka. Each scored a goal in an easy 3-0 win in front of 52,179 happy home fans at St James' Park.
The Reading defense was missing Steven Taylor, ruled out just before kick-off with a stomach bug, and looked shaky in the face of a concerted onslaught. The game was 18 minutes in when Martins chested down Nicky Butt's hard pass, rounded Andre Bikey and drove his ninth goal of the season past Hahnemann, who once again generally acquitted himself well while facing a barrage of shots.
Two minutes before intermission, Owen lost hismarker and in one motion met Habib Beye's pass and lifted the ball over the advancing Hahnemann to make it 2-0.
Reading had its chances, but its finishing was lacking. Newcastle came out very strong in the second half, resulting in Viduka's scoring blast in the 58th minute for a safe 3-0 margin.
Convey, who had not appeared with the first team since early March, came on in the 60th minute. He did not seem to favor his surgically repaired knee, but added little to the match.
Two weeks ago, Reading faced off against visiting Blackburn Rovers, who employ American goalkeeper Brad Friedel. Both Hahnemann and Friedel were at the top of their games with the result a 0-0 draw.
The shutout was more difficult for Hahnemann after teammate Marek Matejovsky was sent off with a red card in the 72nd minute. Hahnemann, who finished with six saves to two for Friedel, made a brilliant point-blank save to deny Roque Santa Cruz, while Friedel saved Andre Bikey's powerful header.
In the 39th minute, Hahnemann clashed with Blackburn captain, central defender Ryan Nelsen. After a save, Nelsen kneed the ball out of Hahnemann's hands, and the big keeper then attempted to go through Nelsen to get it back with both players clawing at one another. Both were booked.