Why the Golden Moment for Young USMNT Stars Abroad Is Happening Now

With players in significant roles at some of the world's elite clubs, a young group of Americans abroad has broken through the glass ceiling that hovered over prior generations. Why now?
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Dethroned by Real Madrid, annihilated by Bayern Munich and then disparaged and nearly abandoned by its most iconic player, Barcelona enters the 2020-21 campaign on unfamiliar footing. There’s a new manager, a lame-duck president and for the first time in 13 years, no title to defend.

A reluctant Lionel Messi will spend another season at the club, but a handful of big names have departed. Their replacements will have to get comfortable quickly with coach Ronald Koeman, high expectations and impatience at the Camp Nou and the pressure of rebounding from a disastrous (by its standards) season. That’s a lot to ask of most players. And as of this week, it’s being asked of an American.

Considering U.S. soccer’s modest track record in Europe, it might seem surprising that a club like Barcelona would enlist a young American at a time like this. But there’s evidence that times have changed. As Sergiño Dest was preparing to be unveiled as Barça’s newest acquisition, the most telling piece of evidence wasn’t the former Ajax Amsterdam fullback’s age (19) or nationality. Nor was it the fact that Barcelona won the right to Dest’s services in a tug-of-war with Bayern.

It was that, whatever his choice—the five-time European champion from Spain or the six-time European champion from Germany—Dest was going to have a young American teammate at his new club. He’s far from alone. Suddenly, somehow, there’s U.S. representation all over the highest echelon of the global game.

Barcelona’s Konrad de la Fuente, 19, and Bayern’s Chris Richards, 20, are on the fringes of their respective first teams. They’re prospects. But they’re also symbols of this new American incursion into European football’s top tier. We’ve been accustomed to seeing U.S. players at old-world clubs since the early 1990s, whether it was pioneers like John Harkes and Paul Caligiuri, or European natives with American roots like Earnie Stewart (now U.S. Soccer’s sporting director) and Thomas Dooley.

There was a glass ceiling those players typically couldn’t crack, however. While American goalkeepers earned more benefit of the doubt, field players rose only so far up the ranks, usually playing for mid-table or relegation-threatened teams once they reached the bigger leagues. Even in recent years, it’s been noteworthy when an American earned Champions League minutes. And when those minutes happened, they often came for a club like Rangers or Schalke 04, which weren’t expected to make a deep run. Remember when it was a huge deal that Clint Dempsey signed for Tottenham Hotspur and Michael Bradley joined AS Roma? Just a few seasons ago, those were significant, groundbreaking destinations for an American player. But combined, Spurs and Roma have won a single league title in the past three decades.

Americans are at Europe's top clubs

Now in a year in which normal has been redefined, Dest is among a cohort of young American men redefining the potential of the U.S. player. And most appear on their way to stardom. In addition to Barcelona and Bayern, there are Americans at Chelsea (Christian Pulisic), Juventus (Weston McKennie), Borussia Dortmund (Giovanni Reyna), Manchester City (Zack Steffen) and RB Leipzig (Tyler Adams). Steffen, the goalkeeper, is the oldest at 25. These teams are among the best in Europe, former continental champions and/or current contenders with massive global cachet. This amount of U.S. representation at that level of the sport is unprecedented.

“That’s how you start winning consistently. You need quality. And when you have your players playing at that level, that’s certainly quality,” USA coach Gregg Berhalter told SiriusXM last week. “When we used to play, you’d line up against [Francesco] Totti or Ronaldo or Christian Vieri, and you want their uniforms after the game. Now we have guys playing with these guys. They go back to the same clubs as these guys. It’s a different level.”

Previously, the high-water mark for Americans in Europe probably was the 2010 World Cup side coached by Bob Bradley. Among the 23 players who won their group in South Africa, only four came from MLS clubs (plus two from Liga MX). But while there was European quantity, there wasn’t necessarily quality. Most were on middling teams at best, and just three were on the books of sides that qualified for the Champions League: Oguchi Onyewu, who appeared just once for AC Milan; and DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu at Rangers, where neither was a regular starter.

At the 2016 Copa América Centenario, following five years of relentless prodding by Jurgen Klinsmann, just 11 of 23 U.S. players were at European clubs. Dempsey and Bradley had returned to MLS, and Jermaine Jones was in Colorado. Among the European-based athletes, a mere two—a very young Pulisic and Fabian Johnson—were at Champions League qualifiers.

That now seems like a lifetime ago in the evolution of the American abroad. Just four years later, in this season’s Champions League, the number of U.S. participants could reach double digits (and that includes coach Jesse Marsch at Red Bull Salzburg). And many of them are at teams that have their eye on the knockout rounds. In August, Adams scored the goal that lifted Leipzig into the 2019-20 semifinals. He became just the second American (after Beasley) to take the field at that stage of the competition. Next spring, it’s quite possible that number is eclipsed inside a single week.

For Berhalter and his colleagues at U.S. Soccer, this is obviously an exciting development and something they hope bodes well for the national team. They also believe this American invasion isn’t a coincidence. Why now? Why not 10 years ago or 10 years hence? Because, they contend, this is the Development Academy generation. This is what was supposed to happen when the USA finally standardized and professionalized player identification and development. The DA was far from perfect, and in April, U.S. Soccer abandoned the project because of cost and internal competitive issues, thus handing the reins to MLS.

But it was in place long enough—13 seasons—to influence one of the vital variables that contributes to the creation of an elite footballer. So many things have to go exactly right to produce an athlete capable of joining Barcelona or Bayern, from genetics and upbringing to being scouted at the right time, having a support network and, perhaps most important of all, a player's own determination and work ethic. No club or governing body can take credit for all of these (and U.S. Soccer isn’t trying), and it surely made a difference to Reyna and Pulisic that they’re sons of former pros, and to McKennie that he spent part of his childhood in Germany.

It’s also true, however, that all three spent time in the Development Academy. So did Adams, Steffen and Richards. They’re joined across the pond by Academy alumni like 20-year-old striker Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), 22-year-old defender Reggie Cannon (Boavista), 19-year-old forward Ulysses Llanez (Heerenveen on loan from Wolfsburg), 25-year-old defender Matt Miazga (Chelsea), 23-year-old defender Erik Palmer-Brown (Austria Wien on loan from Manchester City), 20-year-old forward Sebastian Soto (SC Telstar on loan from Norwich City), 20-year-old forward Timothy Weah (Lille) and others.

“What people are excited about is what we’ve been seeing coming, and what we’ve been excited about for years now. And this is only the beginning. It’s the impact of a 13-year project,” U.S. Soccer director of boys talent identification Tony Lepore told Sports Illustrated. “The academies are clearly developing more players that are ready to make this transition from academy to pro, and they’re so much better prepared than ever before. Not only are they ready, but what we’re seeing now is that they’re ready to go to the top levels internationally and make a difference. They’re young players making a real impact and helping their teams get results.”

The Academy changed youth soccer, bringing players into an environment where they trained together exclusively for 10 months per year under dedicated and licensed coaches, while maintaining a proper proportion between games and practices (Lepore said that prior to the USSDA, top youth teams trained 50% less than international counterparts). It encouraged players to compete against older age groups if capable, which accelerates development. At MLS clubs, it brought youth players into contact with members of the first team, allowing them to train and learn alongside adult professionals. And it prompted investment in better facilities.

Lepore said that in addition to the USSDA products in Europe, there are 30 teenagers currently earning minutes in MLS, another 10 on first-team rosters, and a further 120 teens active in the USL—some as young as 15.

“We have ignition right now. They’re making it to the first team in MLS. They’re making it in Europe—making it to the Champions League. And that inspires,” Lepore said.

“It’s been everything,” Berhalter told SiriusXM. “And when you think about all these players …who are now starting to see the field and starting to become pros and are going on to do great things, it’s because in this particular case, U.S. Soccer got together and said, ‘We’re going to have standards. We’re going to have specifications for trying to develop players. We’re going to hold coaches accountable.’ It’s that, and the clubs invested. The owners of MLS, they invested a ton of money in youth academies, in facilities, in coaching, and now you’re seeing the fruits of their labor.”

Another contributor was U.S. Soccer’s decision in 2016 to field national teams at every single-year age group from U-14 through U-20. That not only increases the amount of international exposure the players get, Lepore said, but it helps them become more accustomed to playing with each other. That’s supposed to pay dividends at the senior level. Even if Berhalter’s charges all play for different clubs, they’re hardly strangers. In fact, Dest and De la Fuente—who aren’t USSDA products—were teammates (and roommates) with the U.S. U-20s.

“Everyone’s story is unique. But what are those common threads,” Lepore said when addressing the life circumstances, personality traits and environment that might help forge a future Champions League player. “There are coincidences. But I think there are more common threads that happen over time. There are things that made an immediate impact on development in the U.S., but we knew it would really take a generation to see a lasting impact. If you look at some more common, less coincidental parts, you can see those themes.”

There’s a long way to go. The vast majority of the players mentioned here are just getting started at these big clubs, and have some work to do before they’re automatic additions to the starting XI. The USA still hasn’t produced a bona fide global star or a FIFA player of the year candidate, nor has this current generation had the chance to prove itself at the senior international level. And success there isn’t a given. Look no further than the African nations who’ve been sending players to top European clubs for years only to struggle mightily at the World Cup.

It’ll fall to U.S. Soccer, and increasingly MLS and USL, to nurture and develop the players who will follow Pulisic, McKennie and Adams to Europe. The hope is that this current crop isn’t a golden generation that eventually exits the stage, but a vanguard. If the common threads Lepore referenced can be replicated and maintained, and if soccer continues to grow in the U.S., then that hope should become an expectation. American players are a good value on the global market, and big European clubs will be more likely to invest if their success isn’t perceived as an accident or coincidence.

For now, these U.S. players climbing toward soccer’s summit are well aware of their status and the stakes. They keep track of each other, encourage each other and they’re eager for what’s to come.

“I think its an exciting group,” Reyna told Sports Illustrated recently. “And, you know, from Christian to Weston to Tyler Adams to Josh Sargent to Sergiño Dest and all the younger guys, we have a really, really good young core group. And I think we can build something with them for the next, who knows, 10 years. We can be together for a long time. So it's an exciting time for U.S. soccer and I'm really, really excited to play with them.”