Pulisic, Steffen, Robinson headline Americans Abroad in England - Sports Illustrated

Americans Abroad in England: Pulisic's Chelsea Encore, Steffen's Man City Role in Spotlight

With the start of the new league seasons in England, all American eyes are on players who figure to play a role in World Cup qualifying—and a handful of others working their way into the mix.
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A decade ago, among the 23 players on the U.S. team that would win a World Cup group for the first time in 80 years, there were eight who spent the 2009-10 club campaign in England. Seven were on Premier League teams. On the 2015 squad that faced Mexico in a climactic playoff for a Confederations Cup place, there were seven men based in England. Four were from the Premier League, which was the most well-represented foreign circuit on the squad.

For a while, it appeared the England’s top tier was either the most welcoming or most preferred (or both) destination for American players abroad. But if there were a World Cup next summer, following the 2020-21 English season, how many Premier League players would U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter likely call on?

Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is the country’s best player and is a certainty to start—if he’s healthy. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen appears to have the national team’s No. 1 shirt sewn up, but he may find minutes at Manchester City hard to come by. Defender Tim Ream is a veteran who has Berhalter’s trust, and Antonee Robinson is in position to make the left back role his own. But both play for Fulham, which is favored by many to face relegation after one season in the top flight. And DeAndre Yedlin has slipped behind right backs Sergiño Dest and Reggie Cannon on the USA depth chart, and appears to be on his way out at Newcastle United.

There are additional Americans in England, either coming through at Premier League clubs, on loan from Premier League clubs, or in the Championship and League One. But at first glance, it does seem like the number of U.S. players in the top tier has declined. There are a few potential explanations: the increased buying power of MLS clubs, the Bundesliga, a dip in generational quality, the stringent U.K. work permit criteria or coincidence. Perhaps it’s some of each. Whatever the reason, as the Premier League season kicks off this weekend—less than two months after the 2019–20 campaign concluded—there are fewer Americans expected to play prominent roles.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s less reason for intrigue.

Christian Pulisic prepares for his second season at Chelsea

It begins with Pulisic, who enters 2020-21 facing more pressure and under a brighter spotlight than any American in Premier League history. And also, fittingly, with concerns about his fitness. Last season, following a groin injury and the pandemic shutdown, Pulisic lit up London and helped carry Chelsea to a fourth-place finish and the FA Cup final with five goals and four assists in 11 appearances. His adaptation to the Premier League was quick and appeared complete, and his ability to put defenders on their heels and change games was remarkable. He emerged as a legitimate star.

But this season presents several challenges, both new and wearisome. The first is Pulisic’s health. When he’s fit, he’s borderline unstoppable. But on a worrying number of occasions in his young career, Pulisic, who turns 22 next week, has been sidelined with muscle injuries. He’ll always be the first name on Berhalter’s team sheet when healthy, but the unpredictability of Pulisic’s fitness isn’t ideal. And the Premier League is relentless.

After scoring a sensational goal in the FA Cup final against Arsenal, Pulisic limped off with a hamstring injury. He’s been fighting to be ready for Chelsea’s Premier League opener on Monday at Brighton & Hove Albion, the last of eight games scheduled this weekend.

“He’s doing well. The leg is doing really well. It’s recovering, it’s healing and he’s in good spirits and the club is focused on getting him back ASAP. We have a lot of confidence in Chelsea and a lot of confidence in their medical staff, and a lot of confidence in Christian,” Berhalter said two weeks ago.

The U.S. manager said Pulisic’s “explosion on the scene” is “all down to his work ethic and him being focused on playing well. It was great to see, and we’re excited to see how he comes back and starts his second season in England.”

Berhalter isn’t in denial, however. He knows Pulisic has struggled to stay healthy for extended periods.

“This is something we have to look at, but it’s certainly not uncommon,” the coach said. “A lot of players go through this, particularly early on in their careers. But as his body strengthens and he gets used to these congested fixtures, I think he’s going to be fine.”

Chelsea manager Frank Lampard certainly will want to see Pulisic healthy, but he’ll be better equipped to handle his absence than Berhalter. That’s because Chelsea is deep, and this summer the Premier League’s third-most productive attack got even deeper thanks to a spending spree by owner Roman Abramovich. The Blues spent around $200 million to acquire in-demand attackers Timo Werner (from RB Leipzig), Kai Havertz (from Bayer Leverkusen) and Hakim Ziyech (from Ajax).

With that spend comes expectation, and in Lampard’s second season in charge, Abramovich probably will want to see his club push title favorites Liverpool and Manchester City at the top of the table and do well in the Champions League. The pressure for points, and maybe even for playing time, will be like nothing Pulisic has experienced in his career. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen

The second sure-fire USA starter in the Premier League is Steffen, who was U.S. Soccer’s men’s player of the year in 2018 and spent last season on loan at Fortuna Düsseldorf. Man City has recalled the 25-year-old netminder, however, which leaves him sitting behind Ederson on Pep Guardiola’s depth chart. If City doesn’t make a move over the next few weeks, how many games can Steffen realistically expect to play this season? And would sufficient rust accumulate to give Berhalter pause when selecting his teams?

Berhalter chose to focus on the positive when addressing the issue last month.

“Man City is a super high level … To gain that experience for a year, to be in that training environment and have the opportunity to potentially break into that team is exciting, and I think it’d be worth it,” the manager said. “You always have to weigh if you’re going to be sitting on the bench and not playing enough games, but to me that opportunity alone is something special. Not too many players in the world get a chance to play for one club like that.

“Hopefully they continue to play goalies in cups and other competitions and you can get some games there,” Berhalter continued. “Hopefully the national team can feature heavily in his development in that case.”

Manchester City launches its quest to reclaim the title on Sept. 21 at Wolverhampton Wanderers (which features another American on the rise, 19-year-old midfielder Owen Otasowie).

At the other end of the spectrum sit Ream and Robinson, who may get national team development every day while playing next to each other for the Cottagers. The USA’s left back spot is open, and Robinson has said he’s committed to seizing it. And Ream remains an experienced option for Berhalter at center back. It’s likely the pair will get plenty of work this season as Fulham adjusts to Premier League opposition. The club’s fight for survival will make for a tense campaign for the two Americans and for Berhalter, who will want as many players as possible competing at the highest level as qualifying for the 2022 World Cup begins next September. Fulham’s last stay in the Premier League lasted one season. It was relegated in 2019 after finishing 19th.

Among other Americans on Premier League rosters, both Yedlin and Tottenham Hotspur defender Cameron Carter-Vickers likely will be on the move. Yedlin, 27, has been at Newcastle for four seasons and his contract expires next summer. Both player and club have been considering their options, and reports have emerged recently tying the former Seattle Sounder to a potential return to MLS or to a league elsewhere in Europe

Carter-Vickers, 22, hasn’t been able to break through for Spurs and spent the spring of 2020 on loan at Championship club Luton Town. He was ever-present for the Hatters as they finished 19th and avoided relegation by three points. But that consistency was short-lived. The defender’s 2020–21 destination is uncertain. In recent days, AFC Bournemouth, which was relegated from the Premier League to the Championship, reportedly expressed interest in a permanent transfer.

Matt Miazga is another American Premier Leaguer on perpetual loan. The 25-year-old center back has been on the books at Chelsea but spent the past four seasons at Vitesse Arnhem, Nantes and Reading. His contract expires in 2022, but a future at Stamford Bridge seems unlikely.

Indiana Vassilev debuts in the Premier League

Meanwhile, nobody would blink if Aston Villa loaned out American attacker Indiana Vassilev. He’s just 19. But the U.S. U-17 World Cup veteran, who signed with Villa out of the IMG Academy in 2018, already has earned his first taste of Premier League football. He made his debut on Jan. 18, entering as a substitute against Brighton, and then made three more cameo appearances as Villa staved off relegation by a point. So even if the number of Americans in the Premier League drops, there may be a new one to watch.

The marathon Championship schedule begins Friday as Middlesbrough visits Watford, and a few familiar American faces will be starting their seasons this weekend. Duane Holmes, a crafty midfielder who played in two U.S. friendlies last year, was a regular starter for Derby County in 2019–20 before having injury issues toward the end of the season. The Rams host Reading on Saturday. 

Geoff Cameron remains at Queens Park Rangers (where he was named club captain), although he’s out of the national team picture. And New York Red Bulls academy product Matthew Olosunde, a defender who initially signed with Manchester United, now is at Rotherham United and was a regular as the club earned promotion from League One. The Millers begin their Championship campaign Saturday at Wycombe Wanderers. 

Remaining in League One but perhaps still on Berhalter’s radar is Lynden Gooch, who’s 24 and scored 10 goals in 33 matches for Sunderland last season.