At the time, Weston McKennie couldn’t have imagined the ultimate destination. It was the fall of 2017, and he was 19 years old. At that point, the young midfielder had been at Schalke 04 for a little more than a year and was fewer than a dozen Bundesliga games into his senior pro career. Juventus wasn’t in the picture. Moving to a club like that was inconceivable.
But moving forward wasn’t. That’s why McKennie was there—why he’d given up on a choice between a scholarship to the University of Virginia and a contract with FC Dallas—because Germany was the ideal launch pad. McKennie wasn’t sure where he was headed in the fall of 2017, but he was certain he was in the right place.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more hidden talents out there [in the U.S.] that people don’t know about because some kids aren’t given opportunities,” McKennie said. “Take for instance in MLS, the coaches, they feel no type of pressure when it comes to promotion and relegation and they’re still struggling to play their young players.”
That stood in stark contrast to Germany, he told Sports Illustrated. There, even with additional competitive pressure, putting younger players on the field was considered smart. It increased both their value and the level of competition within the team. He cited himself and compatriot Christian Pulisic as examples, as well as a promising 18-year-old attacker at Bayer Leverkusen named Kai Havertz.
“Over here, they give their young players more of a chance than in America,” he continued. “Germany does it really well. That’s why you see the fleet of players coming to Germany. There’s a lot of opportunity here and a lot of willing coaches over here.”
Pulisic, now at Chelsea, and McKennie prospered thanks to those chances, those coaches and the quality surrounding them (not to mention their own talent and drive). And there’s a fleet of Americans behind them eager to do the same. As the Bundesliga kicks off Friday with a meeting between perennial champion Bayern Munich and McKennie’s old club, Schalke, it’s become the definitive foreign league to watch for those with an interest in American soccer. Even with the departure of Pulisic and McKennie, a chunk of the young U.S. national team core remains. There are U.S. players almost everywhere, including at the top.
If eight-time defending champion Bayern is going to be challenged this year, that push probably will come from either 2019–20 runner-up Borussia Dortmund or Champions League semifinalist RB Leipzig. Both teams have a young American set to play a key role. In Leipzig, 21-year-old Tyler Adams has displayed both maturity and versatility in becoming an important part of coach Julian Nagelsmann’s squad. Adams can play as a holding midfielder (his preferred position) or on the right flank (or even as a center back, as he did in last weekend’s DFB-Pokal opener). And as he proved in last month’s Champions League quarterfinal against Atlético Madrid, he can pick his moments in the attack as well. Limited by injury toward the start of the campaign, Adams earned 14 Bundesliga appearances during the 2019–20 season, including 10 starts, and should accumulate many more if he can stay healthy this term.
“When you think about playing in pressure games, there aren’t too many games that have more pressure than the Champions League quarterfinal and semifinal, and he got to play in both of those games,” USA coach Gregg Berhalter said of the positive conclusion to Adams’s season. “He’s had a phenomenal rise this season, coming back from the injury he had, hanging in there and putting himself in a position to have an impact has been great to see. He’s going to be a big part of what we do. If he can handle those games, he can handle World Cup qualifying.”
Leipzig opens its league campaign Sunday against Mainz.
At Dortmund, all eyes will be on 17-year-old attacker Giovanni Reyna, the son of former USA captain Claudio Reyna and former U.S. women's midfielder Danielle Egan Reyna. Gio Reyna has yet to be capped by the senior national team, but that won't be the case for long. Berhalter already talks about the son of his longtime friend as if he’s part of the squad. Reyna burst on the scene at the Westfalenstadion after the winter break, earning promotion to the first team and impressing with his technique, athleticism and awareness. He scored in the DFB-Pokal, had an assist in the Champions League and, as he turns 18 this fall, should become a fixture in the BVB lineup. That’s the least of what he expects.
"Now, I’m ready,” Reyna told Sports Illustrated this summer. “Even towards the end of the year, I wasn't fully like out of my shell. But this season, coming back, I think a lot will change. … I think now this season, I want to make a really big jump.”
Reyna scored in the season opener, a 5–0 DFB-Pokal win over MSV Duisburg, on Monday. Dortmund hosts Borussia Mönchengladbach on Saturday.
The other young attacker expected to play a key role for the national team is Josh Sargent. His 2019–20 season wasn’t as fulfilling, as Werder Bremen rarely scored and barely avoided relegation. But he remains atop the power ranking of future U.S. strikers, a position where Berhalter lacks the luxury of depth.
Sargent, 20, tallied four goals in 34 appearances in 2019-20 and then scored the opener in last weekend’s 2-0 DFB-Pokal defeat of Carl Zeiss Jena.
Berhalter said over the winter that he was anxious to see what Sargent might do with better service.
"With Josh in particular, I see it as some of the team function in how they’re creating chances and looking to make the most of their players,” the manager said. “It’s been difficult at times. They haven’t been creating a lot of chances. That’s difficult for a striker at times. For him, it’s hanging in there and continuing to do the things that got him to that level.”
Among Bundesliga-based Americans who are a bit older, center back John Brooks potentially is the most vital to the U.S. national team. At his best, he’s arguably the top center back in the player pool. But injuries and dips in form over the past several years have made him difficult to count on at the international level. He missed the fateful World Cup qualifying stretch run in the fall of 2017 and has just six caps since.
Last season at Wolfsburg, Brooks, 27, started 25 of 34 Bundesliga matches. His campaign ended with a red card in last month’s Europa League round-of-16 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk.
“John had a good season,” Berhalter said recently. “There were ups and downs like every player, but especially at the end of the season I thought he came on really well. After the break, he was playing every game, and he had some really good performances. It was really good to see. Getting a red card and those types of things are part of the learning experience. John is still young enough that he is learning. For us, he’s an important part of the team. When know when he is playing his best, he is a very good center back, and he can help us.”
Wolfsburg, which has sent 19-year-old American winger Ulysses Llanez on loan to Heerenveen in the Netherlands' top flight, finished seventh last season. It begins its '20–21 Bundesliga campaign on Sunday against Leverkusen.
Defender Timmy Chandler, 30, is no longer part of the national team picture but remains an important player at Eintracht Frankfurt, which hosts Arminia Bielefeld on Saturday. Fabian Johnson, 32, is a free agent after spending the past six seasons at Mönchengladbach.
Meanwhile, there are younger Americans whose best club and international days are ahead of them. There are plenty following in the footsteps of Pulisic and McKennie. A couple are on the books at Bayern and Schalke, who contest Friday’s opener. Attacking midfielder Nick Taitague, 21, joined the Schalke academy in 2017 and finally has earned promotion to the first team. The club expects him to see plenty of top-tier action this season.
The talent backlog is a bit more imposing at Bayern, the European champion. But Chris Richards, a 20-year-old center back, will be hoping to get his shot. He was a mainstay for Bayern’s reserve team, which won the 3. Liga title, and he made his Bundesliga debut on June 20 against Freiburg. Also at Bayern, 18-year-old German American forward Malik Tillman earned promotion to the reserve team in June and went on to score five goals in eight games.
There are a slew of Americans below the Bundesliga level, either in the lower divisions or on the junior teams of top-tier clubs. Among the more recognizable names are midfielder midfielder Alfredo Morales at Fortuna Düsseldorf, striker Bobby Wood at Hamburger SV and midfielder Julian Green at Greuther Fürth (which also employs Tillman's 21-year-old brother, Timothy). Green is still only 25 and had one goal and one assist in last weekend’s DFB-Pokal win over Meinerzhagen.