U.S. veterans have endured mixed results overseas, but a rising crop of young talent lends hope for the near future, writes Brian Straus in his season in review.
The trend already seemed to be gaining momentum as the U.S. national team headed to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.
For nearly three years, coach Jurgen Klinsmann had been urging American players to step outside their comfort zones and test themselves in the planet’s top leagues. But the perception that opportunities were limited abroad, plus Major League Soccer’s increasing spending power, combined to create more of an influx than an exodus. Bigger paydays attracted some, and the opportunity to be the cornerstone of a franchise lured others.
Klinsmann’s 23-man World Cup team included 10 MLS players, an increase of six from 2010. And within a few months, the likes of DaMarcus Beasley, Mix Diskerud, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea and Jozy Altidore were heading back to the U.S. or Canada as well.
MLS hasn’t given up on trying to lure U.S. internationals. Tim Howard is joining the Colorado Rapids this summer, and Alejandro Bedoya was tempted before deciding to stay in Nantes.
But as next month’s Copa América Centenario draws near, Americans have re-established their presence in Europe and Mexico. Thanks to the departure of a handful of players and the emergence of several more who went abroad some time ago, Klinsmann now could field a pretty competitive team comprised entirely of men earning their living outside MLS. Among the 40 named to the Copa América preliminary roster, 21 play abroad. And several have made an impression.
As European campaigns comes to a close, the Liga MX playoffs kick off and the May 20 23-man Copa roster deadline approaches, Planet Fútbol stakes stock of the season for Americans playing abroad and who’s now in frame for the Copa and this fall’s World Cup qualifiers. Reasonable people can debate the performance and progress of the teams Klinsmann has put on the field, but present and future player pool looks to be as deep as ever.
For so long the home of America’s great goalkeepers, the Premier League has been a frustrating place for Klinsmann’s top two this season. Tim Howard, 37, was phased out by under-fire Everton coach Roberto Martinez at the end of January while Brad Guzan, 31, has faced relentless pressure playing behind a miserable Aston Villa squad that’s headed for the Championship. While Howard has been given the opportunity to start the Toffees’ final two home games, Guzan has sat out the past two matches following a 4-2 home loss to Southampton on April 23.
With neither in form, the Copa starter likely will be determined during the camp that commences Monday. The U.S. will play friendlies against Puerto Rico (May 22), Ecuador (May 25) and Bolivia (May 28) before the tournament. Guzan has started 28 of Villa’s 37 EPL games, yielding a league-high 58 goals, while Howard started 24 times for Everton and was beaten 35 times.
U.S. U-23 goalie Cody Cropper joined Milton Keynes Dons last summer and appeared 12 times for the Championship club, which will play in England’s third tier next season.
The picture is more promising a few yards forward, where Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin have solidified their spots at Stoke City and Sunderland, respectively.
They’re the only American field players starting regularly in the Premier League. Cameron, who signed a new deal last year and now is tied to Stoke until the summer of 2018, has played center back, right back and defensive midfield for the Potters this season but usually anchors the back four. Only five clubs have yielded more league goals than Stoke’s 54. Cameron is expected to play in the middle for Klinsmann but could fill in on the flank in a pinch.
However, Yedlin’s improvement should mean Cameron can stay central. The 22-year old’s speed and ability to get forward and create never were questioned, but his defensive stability and positioning were issues when he signed with Tottenham Hotspur two years ago.
Yedlin struggled in London, but a loan move north has helped him find the focus and playing time he’s needed. The former Seattle Sounder has started 20 EPL games entering the season finale—he reclaimed the role in February after two months on the sidelines—and helped set up Sunderland’s massive game-winning goal last weekend against Chelsea.
He should have the right back spot close to locked down for the U.S. Yedlin still isn’t a finished product but could be a sought-after transfer this summer.
There’s defensive depth in England as well. Eric Lichaj, Jonathan Spector and Tim Ream continue to gut it out in the second-tier Championship and all can be said to be on Klinsmann’s radar now that Lichaj has pushed his way onto the 40-man Copa roster.
Lichaj, 27, has been a Nottingham Forest regular for three years and started an impressive 43 games this season. Klinsmann has preferred Yedlin, Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler or Brad Evans at right back but finally will get a close look at the Chicagoland product this month.
Ream, 28, started 29 times in his first season at Fulham, during which the Cottagers were threatened with relegation. Ream is comfortable both in the middle and at left back—versatility which may help as Klinsmann pares down his roster. Spector, 30, last played for the U.S. in an October friendly against Costa Rica. The Birmingham City veteran, who plays in the middle or on the right, had 25 starts this season but has been a first choice only four times in 2016.
First-year Chelsea defender Matt Miazga earned 136 minutes of Premier League playing time across two matches in early April and will be in camp with Klinsmann. U.S. U-23 center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is at Tottenham, where he dressed for several Europa League games this season. The 18-year-old Spurs academy product is the London-born son of an American father.
Four years ago, it appeared that German-born defensive midfielder Danny Williams was on the cusp of becoming a U.S. regular. But he was capped only twice in 2013-14 as he transitioned from TSG Hoffenheim to Reading. He played for the U.S. six times in 2015 and had a 2015-16 good season for his Championship club, establishing himself as more of a box-to-box presence and scoring a career-high six goals. Although his spring was tarnished by a three-game April suspension that followed an on-field confrontation with Reading captain Paul McShane, his overall performance leaves him firmly back in the U.S. picture.
U.S. U-20 and U-23 linchpin Emerson Hyndman, a Dallas product who joined Fulham’s academy in 2011, has had a frustrating campaign.
Despite his skill, vision and obvious upside, the 20-year-old failed to find consistent playing time as Fulham fired its coach, used another two on an interim basis and then hired Slaviša Jokanović in December. Hyndman could be on his way out of Craven Cottage this summer after starting nine games and scoring one goal (a stoppage-time game-winner against Cardiff City) this season.
Fabian Johnson can make a strong case as the most outstanding American abroad thanks to his prolific season with Borussia Mönchengladbach. The winger has been a mainstay for the club, starting 32 games and scoring eight goals. Five of those starts and two of those goals came in the Champions League as Gladbach finished 1-3-2 in a brutal group that included Manchester City, Juventus and Sevilla.
The two questions facing Johnson, 28, are whether Klinsmann will have to deploy him at left back despite the player’s preference and performance in midfield, and whether he’ll be properly recovered from the groin injury that’s kept him out of Gladbach’s past two games.
Two other potential Copa starters are defender John Brooks and, surprisingly, playmaker Christian Pulisic. No one doubted the Borussia Dortmund teenager’s potential, but his quick comfort in the first team had Klinsmann believing the 17-year-old was ready for a World Cup qualifier in March.
Pulisic has played 12 times for Dortmund’s senior squad, starting on four occasions and scoring twice.
Brooks, 23, left his poor 2015 Gold Cup in the rear-view mirror with a strong season for Hertha Berlin. He battled through a couple injuries to start 22 times this season and in January, he signed a new contract lasting through 2018-19. Both Brooks and Hertha have struggled recently, however. The player missed time with a knee issue before returning last weekend and the club has lost four straight, leaving its European fate in doubt heading into Saturday’s finale at Mainz.
Although he plays in the second division, Bobby Wood’s breakout 17-goal season at Union Berlin has validated Klinsmann’s patience with the Hawaiian striker and drawn the attention of Bundesliga clubs. Wood, 23, has an excellent chance to make the final Copa roster.
The mercurial Timmy Chandler is on the 40-man team after recovering from an August 2015 knee injury and earning four starts at Eintracht Frankfurt in March and April. The 26-year-old right back suffered a muscle injury last month, however, and is only now returning to the field.
Elsewhere in Germany, Alfredo Morales, who’s had trouble breaking through the U.S. midfield logjam, lost his starting spot at FC Ingolstadt in early February then suffered a groin injury. He’s earned a few minutes as a reserve over the past couple weeks. World Cup forward Aron Jóhannsson was lost for the remainder of Werder Bremen’s season following an October hip injury. And round-of-16 scorer Julian Green has fallen from that perch, netting 10 goals for Bayern Munich’s reserve team, which competes in Germany’s fourth tier.
Elsewhere in Europe
He was talking transfer with the Philadelphia Union last year but Alejandro Bedoya now is one of the most successful and consistent Yanks abroad, perhaps surpassed this season only by Johnson. The 29-year-old has spent his entire pro career in Europe, going from Sweden to Scotland back to Sweden and then to France’s FC Nantes, where he’s tallied five goals in 30 appearances this season. Bedoya scored again in Saturday’s loss to Caen. He’s tied to Nantes until the summer of 2019 and his play should make the club reluctant to see him leave, or at least increase his transfer value.
Bedoya excels for Nantes playing just behind the forwards. It remains to be seen whether Klinsmann will get the most out Bedoya in the wider role he often plays for the U.S.
Since leaving D.C. United in March, Perry Kitchen has established himself quickly at Scotland’s Hearth of Midlothian. He’s got a lot of competition in the U.S. midfield, but Kitchen’s move and subsequent progress are exactly the sort of things Klinsmann wants to see. Kitchen, 24, already has started seven games for Hearts and is set for Europa League football next season. Also in Scotland, Arsenal loanee Gedion Zelalem, 19, has played 21 games and started 15 for second-tier champion Rangers.
Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath earned a call-up to the 40-man squad after a strong season at Norway’s Molde FK. The Colorado product, 20, was a regular in net for both domestic and European matches. Molde fell in Champions League qualifying last year before going on a Europa League run that ended with a round-of-32 loss to two-time defending champion and 2016 finalist Sevilla. Horvath, who’s one of several potential heirs to Howard and Guzan, may just squeak past Nick Rimando and David Bingham and seize the third goalkeeper spot on the Copa roster.
Other players to keep an eye on post-Copa America are forward Rubio Rubin, 20, who’s appeared three times for Klinsmann but missed most of FC Utrecht’s season with a leg injury; defender Erik Palmer-Brown, a 19-year-old on loan from Sporting Kansas City who’s been starting for the FC Porto reserve squad that won the Portuguese second division; and Josh Gatt, 24, the hard-luck winger who’s undergone three knee surgeries and his hoping to return to the field with Molde this summer.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Bob Bradley, the pioneering coach who took over at French club Le Havre in November. The second-division club has gone 11-6-6 under his watch, but remains three points out of the final promotion spot with just one game remaining. Le Havre's goal-differential deficit of six makes it unlikely to secure a promotion miracle in its finale.
The eight clubs qualified for the Liga MX playoffs kicking off Wednesday feature a combined three players called up to the 40-man roster and several more who will be contending for places after Copa América.
Defender Omar Gonzalez needed a change of scenery after seven seasons in Los Angeles and found it at Pachuca, the storied Mexican club that finished second in the Clausura standings and tied for the league lead in goals allowed. The 27-year-old center back adjusted quickly, scored a goal in February and was an every-game starter before missing last weekend’s regular season finale. He’s been less consistent with the U.S in recent months.
Ventura Alvarado, 23, was anointed by Klinsmann as a starting center back for last year’s Gold Cup but struggled alongside Brooks. Meanwhile, his position at star-studded Club América has been even harder to maintain. He did contribute to Los Aguilas’ CONCACAF Champions League title with a good performance at right back in the first leg of the finals but he’s started only five games in the Clausura.
Edgar Castillo started both World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in March. They were his first U.S. appearances in two years. Although the has looked a bit overwhelmed against top international opposition, he plays a position of need—left back—and Klinsmann couldn’t ignore his Liga MX campaign. Castillo, 29, was a regular starter for first-place Monterrey before suffering an injury last month but should be back for the liguilla.
Monterrey will face arch-rival and reigning champ Tigres UANL in the quarterfinals. Once favored by Klinsmann, Tigres midfielder Jose Torres now is out of the U.S. picture. The 28-year-old, who left Texas for Mexico as a teenager, has started only one Clausura contest.
Club Tijuana’s 14th-place finish knocked several Americans out of championship contention. Michael Orozco, who’s on Klinsmann’s 40-man roster, has started three straight games after missing the first chunk of Xolos’ season. Klinsmann frequently counts on the 30-year-old. U.S. junior internationals Paul Arriola, Alejandro Guido, John Requejo and Amando Moreno also saw their seasons conclude. Defender Greg Garza has missed the entire 2015-16 year with a hip injury.
Plenty of fans were hoping to see 2015 MLS Cup champion Jorge Villafana make Klinsmann’s list. The 26-year-old left back settled in well at Santos Laguna following his departure from Portland and started 13 of 17 Clausura matches. Santos finished seventh and will face Pachuca in the quarterfinals.
Elsewhere, 2010 World Cup defender Jonathan Bornstein remains a frequent starter for Querétaro, who fell in this season’s CCL quarterfinals. Former Real Salt Lake playmaker Luis Gil played nine times this spring for Los Gallos Blancos. Miguel Ibarra, who starred for Minnesota United and earned three caps under Klinsmann, didn’t make the 40-man preliminary roster and has seen his minutes dwindle at Club León. He was limited this season to appearances in Copa MX. Midfielder Joe Corona spent the spring with Dorados Sinaloa, for which he’s started twice.
Americans Abroad Starting XI
Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan
Defenders: Tim Ream, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin
Midfielders: Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams, Perry Kitchen, Alejandro Bedoya
Forward: Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood