By Michael Lewis
LONDON – It was 1:15 a.m., three hours after the game and Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper Juergen Sommer could not sleep. He was still annoyed that his team gave away a discouraging 2-1 home loss to fellow west London club Chelsea on Jan. 2.
“I get myself so wound up for the game,” Sommer said. “I’m just so feared up for the whole game. There’s so much adrenaline in my body that it takes a while to fall asleep.”
So, the New York native decided to replay the game on his VCR. He watched teammate Bradley Allen give QPR the lead in the 70th minute. He then watched Chelsea tie it only eight minutes later as teammate Matthew Brazier, one of the six Under-23 players in the QPR lineup, headed the ball the high into his own net trying to clear a cross by Michael Duberry. And he also watched Paul Furlton head in the game-winner from the far post 71 seconds into injury time to give Chelsea its first victory at QPR since 1983.
Neither goal was Sommer’s fault.
“We had the game won,” Sommer said. “It’s a bitter, bitter feeling. It’s not one of my most pleasant evenings.”
QPR has been struggling of late, 2-6-3 in its last 11 games, trying to stay out of the relegation zone to the First Division. Sommer thought he and his teammates deserved a better fate in the match played before a crowd of 14,904 at Rangers Stadium.
“You get one win under your belt and you build some confidence,” Sommer said. “We beat Aston Villa and we played well against Manchester United. We’ve been building on strength. We didn’t get what we deserved tonight.”
Some of his evenings have been more pleasant because Sommer is living an American soccer player’s dream, playing professional soccer in England.
“When I’m playing against Manchester United, I have to look around,” Sommer said. “I’m here at Old Trafford and I’m playing against Eric Cantona. I have to pinch myself sometimes.”
Against Chelsea, Sommer was playing against Ruud Gullit, whose surgically repaired knees have seen better days, but who occasionally can greatly influence a match.
When he first came over five years ago, Sommer, like many foreign players, had some trouble adapting to the British culture, soccer and lifestyle.
The 6-5, 215-lb. Sommer had to learn to be a professional soccer player every day of his life.
“It dictates your entire life, your lifestyle, every day, every week, every month,” he said. “It’s a whole change of lifestyle. You have to be more attuned to your body to read the aches and pains.
As the saying goes, the English and Americans are separated by a common language. That goes for culture, too.
“It’s a different way of life, a different outlook on life,” Sommer said. “Being a foreign player you have to adapt and earn their respect. It took a while. It’s a learning process. It took a while for them to let you into their circle and soccer style of life.”
But he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
While growing up and playing youth soccer in New York City and Bridgewater, N.J., Sommer rooted for the Cosmos and dreamt about playing at Giants Stadium. Sommer’s family moved to Naples. Fla when he was nine, he had caught the bug. He eventually earned All-American honors at at Perennial Division power Indiana University, helping the Hoosiers to the 1988 national championship.
He went on to sit the bench at the 1994 World Cup as the third – emergency – goalkeeper before returning to Luton Town of the English first division, for whom he has played since the 1991-92 season. His contract ran out last year and was transferred to QPR in the Premier League for $924,000, the highest fee for an American player.
Luton had been asking for almost twice that amount, but there were no takers. So, Sommer’s contract ran out and a tribunal calculated his transfer fee. Don’t cry for Sommer, though. He did get a percentage of that fee.
Sommer, who turns 27 on Feb. 27, has experienced a bumpy ride with a number of inconsistent performances for QPR, which is trying to stay out of the relegation zone. “You can’t afford a lapse of concentration or you pay the price,” Sommer said.
Sommer has had his moments.
Take, for example, QPR’s 1-0 victory at Aston Villa on Dec. 23, when he leaped all over the goal area to make several outstanding saves.
“That was the best game,” he said. “I had so much to do. Not to brag, I pulled out some quality saves. It wound up to be a great game for me and the club.”
Former English international Ray Wilkins, the team’s player-coach, agreed. “You boys have given him some unmerciful stick,” he told the media. “I hope you redress the balance. All he needed was a bit of confidence.”
But there’s still plenty to learn. “at this level, I have proven my skills as a goalkeeper in shot-stopping,” he said. “I have to get to know the players, especially their strengths. … My game is becoming more rounded because of the higher caliber of matches.”