By Simon Evans
PRETORIA (Reuters) - Jay DeMerit's journey from lowly Southall to South Africa has been an American dream that will be realized on Saturday when the United States center-half lines up against England in the World Cup Group C opener.
DeMerit, who plays for Championship (second division) Watford, is one of seven members of the U.S. squad who earn their living in English football but none have taken his unusual route to the top.
Six years ago the blond center-half, ignored by teams in Major League Soccer, decided to try his luck in England but with little of note in his background and few contacts he had to begin in west London semi-professional club Southall, then in the obscure Combined Counties league.
Playing in front of tiny crowds against players with day jobs as plasterers, postmen and plumbers, was not what the Wisconsin-born defender was aiming for when he moved to London -- but it was a start.
A switch to Northwood of the Southern League was not a huge step up but he impressed in a pre-season friendly against Watford and was offered his first full-time professional contract.
Less than a year later, in March 2007, he made his debut for the national team and now, established at the heart of Bob Bradley's defense, the 30-year-old will be charged with trying to stop Wayne Rooney and company.
"This is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a long journey but I wouldn't have it any other way. I have never taken anything for granted and I'm not about to start doing now," he said after training on Sunday.
"It's a big, big dream, bigger than I ever would have thought but it's a natural progression. A long time ago this goal wouldn't have seemed in sight but two years ago it was and now it has been made possible," he said.
Although he will be performing on the biggest stage of all on Saturday, DeMerit, powerful in the air and brave in the tackle, hasn't forgotten his former team-mates.
"I've been in touch with them a lot - guys that I see on a day-to-day basis that I am still good friends with," he said.
"It's all about the journey but not forgetting people along the way. There are a lot of guys I know back in England which means this first game extra special of course," he said.
DeMerit's room-mate Stuart Holden told Reuters that the defender's climb up the ranks showed his battling spirit.
"It's a remarkable story to see where he is and it is a testament to his character and the kind of guy that he is.
"When you have to go a different route, and we have quite a few players on this team who have, it speaks to the character of the group and adds a different dynamic to the team spirit and the cohesiveness off the field," he said.
DeMerit believes that despite the form book favoring England, the U.S. are capable of springing an upset.
"Going into tournaments you have to believe you can do things but, yes, it would be an upset," he said.
"There are enough guys in this team who have had the big game experience at the international level and the club level to compete with teams like this. We have proven it before and want to prove it again," he said.
(Editing by Nigel Hunt)