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The Most Intriguing Americans Abroad Storylines Entering a World Cup Year

With potential World Cup roster spots on the line, a number of Americans playing for clubs abroad have all the motivation they need to be sharp from start to finish in 2017-18.

The first 15 minutes of Christian Pulisic’s 2017-18 season were glorious.

Now comes the next nine months, when all the soon-to-be-19-year-old will have to do is build upon his breakthrough 16-17 campaign, establish himself as a regular starter under new Borussia Dortmund coach Peter Bosz, help BVB stay within sight of Bayern Munich, raise his game in the potential absence of the unhappy Ousmane Dembélé and the injured Marco Reus, and fly to and from the USA for crucial qualifiers and, hopefully, preparation for next summer’s World Cup.

Every time Pulisic succeeds or fails at any of the above, it’ll be news. Such is the burden associated with being American Soccer’s Next Big Thing, but it’s also part and parcel of playing in Europe, where the stakes and scrutiny remain high for just about everyone. Beyond the entrenched elite at the very top of the continent’s major leagues, places and points are precious and up for grabs. And beyond the likes of established stalwarts like Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson, minutes and influence can’t be taken for granted by Americans playing abroad.

The 2017-18 European season already is underway. In fact, the Champions League kicked off about six weeks ago. But with the English Premier League starting this weekend, the Spanish Supercopa set to pit Real Madrid against Barcelona on Sunday and Neymar poised to make his Paris Saint-Germain debut, now feels like the right time to examine the challenges and narratives ahead for several prominent U.S. players during this new European season and World Cup year.

Here’s an Americans Abroad (in Europe) XI of 2017-18 storylines:

GK Ethan Horvath

Jesse Gonzalez committed to the USA and Bill Hamid started and played well in the a Gold Cup win over Nicaragua, igniting the battle for the national team’s third goalkeeper spot behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. The 22-year-old Horvath appeared to be on the inside track under Jurgen Klinsmann, but the landscape has changed.

Fortunately for the Colorado-born goalie, he’ll have an opportunity to make his case after transferring from Norway’s Molde FK to Belgian power Club Brugge (such stats never tell the whole story, but it’s worth noting that UEFA’s coefficient system rates Norway’s Eliteserien No. 27 in Europe compared to a No. 8 ranking for the Belgian first division).

The spotlight just got brighter. Brugge faces AEK Athens in Europa League play next week and already is 2-0-0 in league play, with Horvath yielding one goal across two matches.

D DeAndre Yedlin

Yedlin took a longer, more courageous route to the Premier League when he signed with second-tier Newcastle United last year. It paid off—he became the Magpies’ regular right back and helped them win the League Championship title and return to the top tier. Now comes the challenge of proving once and for all he’s a Premier League player while holding down his starting spot with the USA. The 24-year-old is off to a tough start thanks to a hamstring injury and will miss Newcastle’s EPL opener against his old club, Tottenham Hotspur, on Sunday.

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D John Brooks

If the World Cup started this weekend, Brooks probably would be a starter. But the USA isn't short of center backs hoping to work their way in, and Brooks will have to maintain his position while getting used to a new city and a new club for the first time. The Berlin native moved this summer from Hertha to Wolfsburg for a €17 million fee that set a record for an American transfer. He’ll have to justify that investment and get comfortable quickly for a team that plunged to 16th last season after three years in the Bundesliga’s top eight.

D Matt Miazga

Miazga got a Gold Cup look but wasn’t able to push past the likes of Omar Gonzalez and the Matts Besler and Hedges. He’s on the very fringe of the World Cup picture. But this is a big season ahead for the 22-year-old, regardless. On loan from Chelsea, Miazga helped Vitesse to the Dutch Cup title—its first major trophy in 124 years—while making 23 Eredivisie appearances last season. He’ll be back in 2017-18 aiming to earn additional minutes while helping Vitesse through its Europa League campaign.

Even if Miazga never winds up playing at Stamford Bridge, this season represents a chance for him to cement his status as a European starter and build upon the value that fell following his €4.6 million move from the New York Red Bulls in January 2016.

D Tim Ream

Ream, 29, has had a good career. He’s been an MLS Rookie of the Year finalist in New York, a two-time club player of the year at Bolton Wanderers and he’s earned 25 caps with the USA. That’s good, but far from great, and the clock is ticking on the versatile defender if he’s finally going to take the next step. Getting Fulham over the hump and back into the EPL would be a great start. The Cottagers finished sixth and were beaten in the promotion playoffs last season.

USA coach Bruce Arena has shown confidence in Ream, starting him in qualifiers at Panama and Mexico. Those are plum assignments. But competition for a place on the plane to Russia will be fierce, and this is Ream’s last chance to get to a World Cup. He’ll have to prove himself week-in and week-out in London to stay in the picture.

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MF Danny Williams

Timing hasn’t been on Williams’ side. He came along during a period of robust central midfield depth on the national team and struggled with injuries the year before the 2014 World Cup. He became a consistent cog at Reading, but the Royals were struggling and opportunities with the USA were limited.

Finally, the tide appears to have turned. Williams, 28, and Reading enjoyed a memorable 2016-17 and finished third in the Championship. He parlayed that success into a deal with promoted Premier League side Huddersfield Town, which beat the Royals in the playoff final. Now, as he gets his EPL shot, there appears to be space open behind Michael Bradley at the heart of the USA midfield. Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman seem to be exiting the picture, leaving Williams to compete with the likes of Dax McCarty, Kelly Acosta, Sacha Klejstan and Cristian Roldan. A good start with Huddersfield will put Williams right back in the mix.

MF Christian Pulisic

His season in the spotlight couldn’t have started better thanks to a beautifully-taken, 12th-minute goal against Bayern in last weekend’s DFL Supercup. Pulisic was subbed out ahead of extra time, however, and BVB fell on penalty kicks. It was a conveniently symbolic '17-18 debut. The 18-year-old has accomplished plenty. But there’s still so much more to do.

A key this season will be avoiding stretches like the one last February and March, when he rarely was in former coach Thomas Tuchel’s starting 11. It also will be worth watching how his role at Dortmund translates to the USA. Will Arena prefer to keep Pulisic on the right, where he’ll likely play for BVB? Or will he shift Pulisic toward the middle, where he played against Honduras and Trinidad? The player's rhythm and confidence in Dortmund could influence those decisions.

The Bundesliga campaign begins next weekend at Brooks’s Wolfsburg.

MF Emerson Hyndman

The 21-year-old has been on the cusp for a while now, and after a strong spring in Glasgow, where he was named Rangers young player of the season despite spending only half of it there, it’s time for the FC Dallas product to take the next step.

Hyndman has been nursing a foot injury, which will leave him a bit behind as Bournemouth begins its season. Once he gets healthy, and if he can stay healthy, Hyndman will have to either work his way into the Cherries’ lineup or go back out on loan. Either way, 2017-18 has a make-or-break feel for the talented playmaker. He’ll show he can stay fit and contribute in a manner worthy of European football’s very top tier, or he may face giving up on the EPL for the time being and finding another path.

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F Terrence Boyd

Once considered potential national team competition for Jozy Altidore, Boyd’s trajectory has been destroyed by knee injuries. As a result, he’s played only three minutes for the USA over the past three years and has seen his club career go from the likes of Hertha and Dortmund to SV Darmstadt in the 2. Bundesliga.

Boyd is now 26 and should be desperate to have a productive season for the first time since '13-14. Newly relegated Darmstadt will need him. Last season’s leading scorer, Antonio Colak, is now at Ingolstadt, and it's uncertain where the goals will come from. If Boyd can deliver, his prospects for a return to Germany’s top tier and the USA will brighten for the first time in ages.

F Julian Green

He made the 2014 World Cup team thanks to Jurgen Klinsmann’s fixation on his potential. Not much has gone right since for the Tampa-born forward. He’s still only 22, so there’s time. But legitimate questions certainly can be raised about whether he’ll ever be the star he seemed primed to become when he was being groomed by Bayern Munich and when he scored against Belgium in Salvador.

By getting out of Munich and moving to VfB Stuttgart, Green has given himself a real chance to earn some playing time. He started a handful of 2. Bundesliga matches in the second half of the '16-17 campaign and scored in a February win over Fortuna Düsseldorf. Green is far from Arena’s radar. But becoming a Bundesliga regular with promoted VfB will be a critical part of the long journey back.

F Bobby Wood

Nurturing Wood arguably will go down as Klinsmann’s most significant national team achievement. The Hawaiian got comfortable and confident after a slow international start and possesses the sort of speed of play, thought and nose for goal that left many thinking he’d be challenging the likes of Altidore and Clint Dempsey for a starting role.

He’s featured only three times under Arena, however. Timing has something to do with that. But so does Dempsey’s renaissance, Jordan Morris’s effectiveness and the tactical problems presented by an attacking glut that also includes Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and others. Wood not only will be making his World Cup case this season, but he’ll be charged with sparking a Hamburger SV attack that was the second-worst in the Bundesliga in '16-17. The club is betting he can and signed him to a new deal in June. Now Wood will have the big-money, big-market pressure on him to deliver. Europe gives, and Europe demands.