Jerome Kiesewetter remembers bonding quickly with the boy who was just like him.
“I met him when I was young. I would say 5 years old,” Kiesewetter said. “I started going out and playing soccer with my mom in our neighborhood and he was there, by himself. We kind of introduced each other and then started playing every day together.”
They had more than soccer in common. John Brooks also was the son of a U.S. serviceman and a German mother and both Berlin natives, from an early age, felt their American ties. Brooks spoke English at school and Kiesewetter, who’s about two weeks younger, was impacted by an early trip to New York City he took with his mother and sister.
“I slept over at his house and he slept over at my house. He’s family to me. He’s my brother,” Kiesewetter told SI.com. “We were talking about it when we were younger … We would say to each other, ‘Maybe one day we would play together for the [U.S.] national team. That would be so sick.’”
Fifteen years ago, the odds of two little boys living five minutes apart in a neighborhood south of downtown Berlin eventually turning pro and representing a country across an ocean were close to incalculable.
But Kiesewetter and Brooks already have played together with the U.S. U-23s and at this rate, it seems almost inevitable that they’ll fulfill their dream and be teammates at the senior level.
Brooks, of course, already has played for coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s side. Kiesewetter was at home in Tempelhof, watching, as his friend scored the stunning, 86th-minute goal that lifted the Americans past Ghana in their 2014 World Cup opener. It was past midnight in Germany, and Kiesewetter’s screams woke his mother up.
Kiesewetter was the first person Brooks called from Natal.
Perhaps Brooks, who just signed a new contract with Hertha Berlin, was similarly excited last Sunday, when Kiesewetter, 22, made his senior international debut against Iceland. Kiesewetter didn’t score, but the powerful, 6'0" forward made an instant impression. He entered the friendly in the 75th minute and within about six minutes, he’d hit a couple dangerous crosses and helped win three corner kicks. Playing high and to the right in a 4-2-3-1, Kiesewetter was imposing, fearless and a magnet for the ball. In the 89th, he ran onto a feed from Darlington Nagbe, took on Birkir Saevarsson (Iceland’s most experienced defender) and drew a foul. The resulting free kick led to Steve Birnbaum’s game-winning goal.
Kiesewetter told reporters following the game that he had “goosebumps” and that it was “just amazing to represent my country.” His prized souvenir was the substitution card he handed the fourth official when stepping onto the StubHub Center field.
“I think playing wide, he's very talented, because he has terrific speed. A bit like DeAndre Yedlin, his weapon is speed, and then going at people and not being scared about anything,” Klinsmann said of Kiesewetter following the first of a pair of friendlies that will close out this unique January camp. The Americans will finish up with a game against Canada on Friday evening outside Los Angeles (10:45 p.m. ET; Fox Sports 1, UniMas).
“In the beginning [he was] a little bit overwhelmed. ‘Oh my gosh, I’m with the senior guys.’ Then one step at time, he kind of settled and became calm on the ball and more relaxed,” Klinsmann said. “[Against Iceland] I think he came in for 20 minutes. This is not enough time to think too much. I think that helped him. Just a simple message: ‘Go in there and give it a go. Go against people one against one’—his huge strength. Obviously he’s very fast, and just try to create simple situations. I think within five minutes he had already three crosses and almost two ended up in goals. So this is a wonderful introduction to the senior level, if you can have that influence … That is a nice start for Jerome and we hope he continues to grow and continues to work hard, which he does.”
Kiesewetter has been grinding, but his career hasn’t yet matched his friend’s. The same year Brooks reached Hertha’s senior squad, 2012, Kiesewetter left their hometown club for VfB Stuttgart. He played with the reserves, returned to Hertha on a 2014 loan and then was back in Stuttgart, where he made two brief Bundesliga appearances last spring. But the 2015-16 season has been a struggle. Die Roten are in 15th place, two points beyond the relegation zone. There was a managerial change in November. Meanwhile, Kiesewetter has been playing exclusively with club’s second team.
“I think I’ve developed there very much, both as a player on the field and as an individual off the field” he told SI.com. “I’m by myself for the first time—living by myself, cooking for myself … For me, the most important point is just to get my playing time and to show how good I can be, how much I can help the team. That’s why I play soccer. I don’t play soccer to just fool around.”
He’s certainly helped the U-23s. Brought to the attention of U.S. Soccer coaches by Brooks, Kiesewetter was part of the squad that secured qualification for the 2013 U-20 World Cup and then returned to the fold under Andi Herzog, Klinsmann’s assistant and coach of the team vying for a berth in this summer’s Olympics. Frequently paired with Jordan Morris, Kiesewetter tallied six goals in 16 games for the U-23s and tied for the golden boot in last year’s CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament with four.
This winter, he’s part of a group of around 10 American U-23s who’ve been training with the senior players while preparing for March’s home-and-home qualifier against Colombia. The survivor will move on to Rio de Janeiro. Kiesewetter said that this camp represents his longest stay in the U.S. and a priceless opportunity to learn from veterans like Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Jozy Altidore. It has strengthened his ties to his second home and kindled hope for the future.
“I think it’s great how hard they work,” Kiesewetter said of the U.S. veterans. “Maybe they are 30 or 31 years old and you think they rest a little bit more, but it’s the complete opposite. You see them work every day. It’s amazing. This guy is earning so much money and he’s played so many games, but he still works hard and it’s just amazing to see. That inspires me.”
Considering Kiesewetter’s climb, it makes sense that it’s the effort, rather than the success, that strikes a chord.
“Guys like Michael and Jozy, they had their ups and downs but they work their way out,” he said. “I’d rather have the advice from the guy who was down and picked himself back up than a guy who was always in the right away and everything went right. That’s even more important … I’ve had my ups and downs also. I think a lot of top players have them.”
There have been plenty of ups over the past month.
In addition to Sunday’s excitement and the opportunity to train with the national team, Kiesewetter saw both the Los Angeles Kings and Los Angeles Clippers live—“It was great to go to my first NBA game. You can’t compare it to German basketball,” he said—and was able to spend a bit of time at the beach and enjoy some Southern California weather.
His father, who moved to Texas many years ago, is planning to attend Friday’s game, according to MLSSoccer.com. There was no contact throughout most of Kiesewetter’s childhood (he took his mother’s last name) but his father reached out several years ago and the pair have become close since then.
“Soccer brought us back together and I really appreciate that and our relationship is getting better and better. It’s good to have him back in my life,” Kiesewetter said.
Considering Kiesewetter’s performance against Iceland (and that of outside back Kellyn Acosta) and the do-or-die nature of next month’s playoff against Colombia, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him, Morris and several other U-23 players get more significant minutes against Canada. This is the last chance to hone in on the partnerships and patterns of play that might make a difference in an uphill climb to Rio. The magnitude of the opportunity is far from lost on Kiesewetter. Representing the U.S. in the Olympics would be another big step in a dream come true, and would provide a massive stage to show what he can do. He’s eager to find a place to play regularly and very well may be on the move when his contract with Stuttgart expires this summer. There is plenty at stake in 2016.
“It’s a very important year,” Kiesewetter said. “But it’s started good. Let’s say that.”