For a crop of American players who lined up at Fulham, Craven Cottage feels like home. “It’s like watching a game from your grandpa’s porch,” said former stalwart Carlos Bocanegra, a smile obvious over miles of long-distance phone wires when he talks about the stadium on the banks of London’s River Thames.

Bocanegra captained the USA national team for six years, and is not one to get sentimental in interviews. But Craven Cottage, where he spent four seasons and “some of the best years” of his life, tugs the heartstrings of one of the toughest defenders in American history. “You can’t imagine a more picturesque place to play,” he told about the tiny stadium, built in 1896 on a corner of what were once royal hunting grounds. “It’s intimate. It’s quaint. You can feel the tradition and history.”

American hero Brian McBride, Fulham’s top-scorer in the 2006-07 season, leans on the notion of family to help describe the place, where he played alongside his national team-mate Bocanegra. “You never felt that the fans were against you,” said McBride, now a TV analyst but formerly among the most courageous strikers ever to play the game. “If you gave it your all, you could really feel the bond with these fans.

Link to the past
“You can be awed by the amenities and the high-tech stuff at some of the big stadiums in the world,” McBride said, nostalgia pulsing in his voice, remembering the way Fulham fans and players made their way, on foot on matchdays, to a ground that looks frozen in a previous time. “You can’t buy what Craven Cottage has.”

McBride and Bocanegra followed American goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann and winger Eddie Lewis to Fulham. The club, so often up and down the divisions, thrived in the English Premier League for 13 straight years with American help, perhaps most notably in the form of Clint Dempsey, who joined his mates in 2007 and went on to become a club legend. The Texas-born striker added a touch of class that took the minnows to the rarefied air of a UEFA Europa League final. Dempsey was named the club’s player of the year for 2011-12 and his 50 goals there make him the top American scorer in England’s top tier, a mantle he took over from previous holder McBride.

You can’t buy what Craven Cottage has.

Former USA and Fulham star Brian McBride

Goalkeeper Kasey Keller and enigmatic striker Eddie Johnson also had stints at Fulham. They helped pave the way for Emerson Hyndman, a promising teenage midfielder who is on the club’s books today.

“We weren’t a team that was going to play like Barcelona,” McBride said with a knowing chuckle, noting that Fulham toiled in the long shadows cast by glamorous neighbors like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. “You had to show the fans that you’d fight to keep the club up.” McBride wears the scars of these fights proudly; a close look at his face reveals the deep lines you might expect of a heavyweight boxer rather than a top-scoring forward.

At a time when American players did not figure in the big European leagues, Fulham became a refuge for the Stars and Stripes’ leading lights. The tradition of commitment and grit, fighting spirit and combativeness entrenched in these American players was coveted at humble Craven Cottage. The fit was hand-in-glove.

Relationship revived
The American relationship with Fulham will be highlighted again on Friday, when Jurgen Klinsmann’s USA play for the first time at the ground, against Colombia. It will bring full circle a flirtation that started in 1999 and has seen nine Americans wear Fulham’s colours.

“It will be great for some of the younger guys to play at the Cottage,” McBride said, hoping they can have some of the experience he had during his time at the club, who are now in the second-tier of English football after losing a relegation fight last year. The sad news was met in predictable style by the club’s loyal fans, who gave the team an ovation on the final day of the season, unfurling a banner reading: Fulham. Family. Forever. “They’ll feel the character of this stadium and it will give them a boost.”

The conversations with the two former Fulham captains, now retired, wind down in the usual way. But it’s clear there’s a question still to be asked. A best memory at Craven Cottage? McBride lands on his final season, when Fulham just barely scraped by to remain in the top flight. “True elation,” he said, describing how he walked the pitch with his actual family, his wife and children, and also his adoptive Fulham family.

Bocanegra remembers that same gratitude. “I scored a late goal against Spurs one year. It was big derby for us,” he said, making the early steps into a coaching career for which he seems tailor-made. “The fans were buzzing. You just knew that goal, that win, made their week. It was a special feeling, because I ruined a few of their weeks too!”

When Colombia come calling at the Cottage to take on the States, global superstar James Rodriguez might wonder why the support against him is so fervent. “I just hope the new guys, these young American kids, have a little taste of what I love about Craven Cottage,” concluded McBride, whose name adorns a small pub under the main stand.