If a new global soccer cycle wasn’t set in motion the moment Hugo Lloris lifted the World Cup four weeks ago in Moscow, then it certainly began this weekend.
The Premier League, Ligue 1, Eredivisie and Argentine Superliga campaigns kicked off. Germany and Spain staged their super cup games (UEFA’s version is Wednesday). Bayern Munich won by five goals, Cristiano Ronaldo found the net for Juventus (yes, it was an intra-club exhibition, but all of CR7’s bianconeri firsts will be momentous) and Arsenal’s title hopes were dashed. So it’s official. The page has turned and the new quadrennium is upon us.
For U.S. national team watchers, that dawn should bring a slight sigh of relief. The pain caused by missing the World Cup was real, but the grinding-your-teeth-as-Panama-plays-Belgium portion is in the past. The World Cup cycle is over for everybody, and all but France—that leaves 210 nations—move forward with questions or concerns. So the USA is no longer an outlier, and it may even have had a slight head start thanks to last fall’s qualifying failure. A bunch of new American internationals made their senior debuts in the ensuing friendlies. Meanwhile, the U.S. Soccer Federation, under a new president, appointed its first national team GM. Earnie Stewart is on the job and has been charged with identifying the next full-time coach.
That search continues as the European and Latin American seasons begin, and the U.S. national team’s impending overhaul—not to mention the increasing spending power of many MLS clubs—ensures they’ll be seasons like no other. The days of following key U.S. veterans in Europe are over. That’s in part because many returned to MLS, and in part because now, there aren’t really that many key U.S. veterans. With a new coach coming, four years to go before the next World Cup and 10 months before the next official competition, there’s not much sense in relying on older players at this point. In fact, you’d probably need only one hand to count the men over 25 who should play a key role over the next 18 months.
The U.S. national team is young. So is its foreign contingent. European clubs with the resources to invest in (or gamble on) American talent, not to mention their incentive to develop it and the logistical ease of giving young players a taste of first-team action, have become attractive options—especially as more MLS teams seem to rely on imports. While there’s been a drop in the number of established U.S. players abroad, there are more potential stars overseas than ever. Watching Americans in foreign leagues now is as much about keeping track of the national side’s future as its present.
“We all that sense that there’s a small nucleus of veterans, and it’s probably one of the first times in a long time—if not the first time—we’re starting with a bunch of fresh faces,” Schalke 04 midfielder Weston McKennie, 19, told SI.com this spring. “[There are] a bunch of fresh faces at once. It’s kind of like building an actual new foundation of a house that’s been broken down.”
McKennie, an FC Dallas product who’s impressed in his four appearances with the senior U.S. side, said there’s no definitive right or wrong when it comes to choosing Europe or MLS at the start of a career. It depends on the player. But he was clear when asked why Germany has been right for him and his good friend and Revierderby rival, Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund.
“You see that Dortmund sees a future in the player, sees the development [possibility] and does everything they can to develop that person. If they think he’s ready, they’ll move him up,” McKennie said. “Over here [in the USA], it’s a little bit harder. You have college. You have eligibility rights. That’s one of the differences in Europe. If a player is 15 years old and you have an injured player on the first team in Europe, you can move that 15-year-old onto the roster for that weekend. In America, you can’t do that because he can’t go to college then, and doesn’t want to risk that future at 15.”
McKennie and Pulisic are among the more than two dozen U.S.-eligible players now in Germany, where clubs spend more time and money on development than just about anywhere in the world. The pair has compatriots in England, France and several other significant European leagues, and there are a couple up-and-coming players to watch in Mexico as well.
As the season begins, here’s a look at the present and future national teamers with big years ahead for foreign clubs.
We’ll start with the country that won the World Cup, and a player with sensational pedigree who’s already starting to make his own name—forward Timothy Weah. The New York City-born son of former FIFA World Player of the Year George Weah, 18-year-old Tim plays with enough skill and confidence to stick around at a loaded Paris Saint-Germain side that’s gunning for a Champions League title.
Once the season is in full swing, he’ll likely have to settle for spot duty behind the likes of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani. But Weah has made the most of his opportunities so far, scoring in PSG’s Trophée des Champions defeat of Monaco and then Sunday’s Ligue 1 opener, landing himself a spot on the cover of L’Equipe.
At some point, Weah may go up against U.S. defender Matt Miazga, whose loans away from parent club Chelsea took him to the Netherlands and now to Nantes. The 23-year-old has seven U.S. caps and is one of several center backs 25 or younger competing to anchor the American back four. Miazga won the KNVB Cup with Vitesse Arnhem and even captained the team, but Ligue 1 will represent a step up. Miazga was in the 18 but didn’t play in Saturday’s 3–1 loss to Monaco.
The number of U.S. players in the Premier League is low, and may drop further temporarily as we wait to hear how much time Newcastle United’s DeAndre Yedlin will miss after suffering a knee injury on Saturday. The right back is 25 but has 52 caps already—experience that would be valuable to an incoming U.S. manager.
Yedlin is the only established EPL American who has an obvious national team future. Fulham’s Tim Ream, 30, and Huddersfield Town’s Danny Williams, 29, may be too old to play a part in the U.S. rebuild. Instead, it’s worth paying attention to how Tottenham Hotspur defender Cameron Carter-Vickers, Manchester United defender Matthew Olosunde and Fulham midfielder Luca de la Torre—each is 20 years old—progress with their clubs. Carter-Vickers spent time last season at Sheffield United and Ipswich Town and could be headed back out on loan.
In the lower tiers, Wigan Athletic left back Antonee Robinson, an Everton loanee, and skillful Sunderland midfielder Lynden Gooch have international potential and will be getting minutes. That’ll keep them on the U.S. radar, and Gooch’s strong start in League One may attract interest from above.
Steady speculation about a Premier League move for Pulisic didn’t pan out, which means the attacker will remain in Dortmund until at least the winter. But the pressure isn’t any lighter at the Westfalenstadion, where BVB has struggled to keep with up Bayern and where Pulisic didn’t make much obvious progress in his second full pro season. That’s not a slight against him. He’ll turn 20 next month. But now entering his third Bundesliga campaign, and with the USA’s future clearly tied to his growth and performance, he’ll have to take another step forward—whether it’s to spark the attack for Dortmund or entice offers from even bigger clubs.
McKennie is a midfield dynamo who scored in a friendly win over Fiorentina this weekend. His development seems inexorable, and he’ll be worth watching as a likely starter during Schalke’s Champions League campaign.
Among younger U.S. vets in Germany, both Wolfsburg defender John Brooks and Hannover 96 forward Bobby Wood, each 25, will be looking to bounce back from difficult 2017–18 seasons. They’ll both almost surely remain part of the national team picture, assuming Brooks's health and Wood's production rebound. On the younger side, striker Josh Sargent, 18, already has three U.S. caps and one goal even though he’s yet to make his official debut with Werder Bremen. He’s played and scored for the club’s U-23 side, but it’s unclear how or if he’ll be used when Bundesliga play begins at the end of the month.
Nürnberg’s Timothy Tillman, Bayern’s Chris Richards and Schalke’s U.S. pair of Haji Wright and Nick Taitague are among the other new names to file away. In the 2. Bundesliga, Julian Green (Greuther Fürth) and Joe Gyau (MSV Duisburg) remain active.
Right back Shaquell Moore made his senior U.S. debut in June and will spend 2018–19 on loan from Levante to Reus Deportiu in Spain’s Segunda División. Moore’s league season begins Sunday at Las Palmas.
In the Netherlands, center back Erik Palmer-Brown is on loan from Manchester City to NAC Breda. He didn’t play in a 5–0 loss to AZ Alkmaar to open the Eredivisie season, which may be a good thing. Forward Andrija Novakovich, who got his first U.S. minutes in March, tallied an impressive 22 goals last season for Telstar in the Dutch second tier. He’s now moved up a level with newly-promoted Fortuna Sittard, going 90 minutes in their 1–1 draw at Excelsior on Saturday.
In Belgium, winger Kenny Saief, 24, remains an intriguing player who’ll spend his first full season at powerhouse Anderlecht. His introduction to the U.S. setup has been limited by injuries. Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who has been beaten to the national team No. 1 shirt by the Columbus Crew’s Zack Steffen, remains at Club Brugge.