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Assessing the Many January Transfers, Loans Abroad for U.S. Prospects Leaving MLS

The winter transfer window was a busy one for young U.S. internationals, with a slew of players both in frame and on the fringes of the USMNT radar changing up their club situations.

The winter has been loaded on the U.S. men’s national team front, at least compared to the average.

There’s the World Cup qualifying side of things, with a young U.S. side inching ever so closely to the nation’s return to the grand stage after the failure of the 2018 cycle. A big part of the evolution of the national team, as has been well-documented, has been the number of rising talents who have made their way at a young age to some of the top clubs and leagues in Europe, and that’s the other element of the busy winter. That number of prospects heading abroad continues to grow, evidenced by the handful of young talents who left MLS for destinations overseas over the last few weeks.

There’s a lot that has been transpiring abroad recently. Christian Pulisic is headed to the FIFA Club World Cup with Chelsea, while Gio Reyna has finally made his return from injury after five months out and Jordan Pefok resumed scoring with the resumption of his club’s season, bringing his season tally in all competitions to an impressive 18 goals. 

But the drumbeat of talent joining the and other U.S. stars abroad keeps getting louder, with a new set of players now experiencing the club game at a different level. Here’s a closer look at the moves for those who got caught up in the January transfer winds and the circumstances under which they currently find themselves:

George Bello, Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike left MLS to go abroad

Ricardo Pepi (Full transfer to Augsburg)

Pepi’s move was the talk of the transfer window from a U.S. perspective. After being linked to all sorts of top-level clubs, he wound up at Augsburg, shattering both the German club’s and FC Dallas’s outgoing and incoming record transfer fees, respectively, with his $20 million move. With that price tag comes expectation and pressure, and it doesn’t help that Augsburg is in the thick of a relegation scrap. The club won without Pepi on Saturday—he had just featured in sub-zero temperatures with the U.S. days prior and was not available—to move four points clear of the automatic drop, but it still sits in the relegation playoff place with 13 Bundesliga matches to go. Pepi, 19, has played three times for his new club (two starts) and has yet to score (his last goal for club or country came Oct. 7, a span of 14 matches), but with the stakes rising as the season hits the home stretch, he’s going to need to contribute to ease the external pressure off his move.

That pressure, at least, doesn’t figure to be coming from his manager, Markus Weinzierl, who said upon the transfer that, "Ricardo Pepi makes a great impression. We think long-term with him. He is still very young. He gives us another alternative upfront. But we need to give him time. We will be very, very careful with him. It’s not his fault that the prices are so crazy."

Daryl Dike (Full transfer to West Brom)

Dike’s transfer is the classic example of why initial judgments don’t always stick. On the surface, his reported $9.5 million move from Orlando City seemed great. Go play for a manager under whom he succeeded while on loan at Barnsley last spring, on a team that has Premier League promotion hopes, in a league with which he is already familiar. Sounds pretty ideal, right? 

Fast forward a couple of weeks and Dike is on the shelf for two months after suffering a hamstring injury, and that manager, Valérien Ismaël, has been fired, with Steve Bruce stepping in. Dike will have the last two months of the season, under an unfamiliar manager, to make his mark and commence the process of getting back on the USMNT radar. His situation is no longer as conducive to that happening as it once appeared.

George Bello (Full transfer to Arminia Bielefeld)

Bello enjoyed an instant introduction to his new team, making his Bundesliga debut five days after his deadline day transfer from Atlanta United with an encouraging 20-minute stint in Saturday’s draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach. The immediate returns are solid for the 20-year-old left back, especially with the depth chart behind Antonee Robinson in flux for the U.S. Lock down a more permanent role in Germany and enjoy that development that comes along with it, and a more prominent place in the USMNT’s future is there for the taking. Like Pepi, Bello’s new club is hovering quite close to the relegation zone, so the downside of spending at least a season in a lower league remains in play. Nevertheless, it seems like the opportunities will be there for Bello to shine.

“He is a very open guy. He is willing to work. He wants to learn. He is a good guy, a good character. He is fast and he has good technical skills, so all in all it is a good package," Arminia Bielefeld manager Frank Kramer said. “He can help us and we have to work with him so that he can improve and get into the team and the ideas we have as quickly as possible.”

Kevin Paredes (Full transfer to Wolfsburg)

After becoming D.C. United’s record-setting export, Paredes made the bench for the first Bundesliga matchday for which he was eligible, and even though he didn’t see the field, that bodes well for his immediate future as an 18-year-old in a new league with a new team. Wolfsburg eased its relegation worries a tad by snapping a nine-game winless stretch (0-7-2) in that match with a win over last-place Greuther Fürth, but, as with Pepi and Bello’s moves, there's still cause for some short-term risk over a move with long-term potential. The Bundesliga remains the best place for teenage U.S. prospects to blossom, though, and that figures to be the plan for a player who could be in for a rapid ascent.

"Kevin is a player who is comfortable both on the left wing and as a No. 8," Wolfsburg sporting director Marcel Schäfer said in his assessment of his new signing. "He has good pace and incredible dynamism, great attacking drive and is really, really ambitious."

James Sands (18-month loan to Rangers)

After winning the MLS Cup with NYCFC, Sands immediately jumped into action in Scotland by making two starts for Rangers. He hasn’t appeared in any of the club’s last three games, though, including the Old Firm rivalry bout vs. Celtic for which he remained a spectator on the bench. 

Unlike any of his counterparts who have made the move abroad, the potential for European football is in Sands’s immediate future, with a Europa League knockout round vs. Borussia Dortmund (and Reyna, a former NYCFC academy teammate) set for Feb. 17 and Feb. 24. That Sands gets to play under a manager like Giovanni van Bronckhorst, a versatile threat back in his playing days, should be a bonus, though Aaron Ramsey’s arrival on loan at the transfer deadline does add another wrinkle into the club's midfield. Unlike Ramsey, Sands’s loan comes with the option to buy.

Justin Che (18-month loan to Hoffenheim)

After spending time on a short-term loan with Bayern Munich last year, the 18-year-old Che has returned to Germany lower down the Bundesliga table at Hoffenheim. He’s a teammate—temporarily, anyway—of fellow U.S. international and FC Dallas academy product Chris Richards, who is at Hoffenheim on loan for the rest of the season from Bayern. Like Richards, he could be featuring for the first team at his new club sooner than later.

“Che has a good combination of dynamism and other essential attributes for a defender. He's flexible, and can play on the right, in the middle or on the left of the defense,“ said Hoffenheim manager Sebastian Hoeneß, who previously coached Bayern Munich II and has some additional insight into Che’s potential. ”He made a good impression with the Bayern reserves. He made his presence felt there without any problems. He’s an exciting player, who can hopefully be a first-team option for us very quickly.“

That would be an ideal outcome for a player whose loan comes with a buy option.

Cole Bassett (18-month loan to Feyenoord)

Like Paredes, Bassett was an unused substitute in his first match eligible for his new club. But unlike Sands, he has not been registered for his new club’s squad in the knockout stage of European competition (Feyenoord is in the third-tier Europa Conference League), and it may be that the 20-year-old has to wait a bit longer to get integrated, despite his desire to get involved immediately.

”My plan personally is I want to try to play as soon as possible,“ Bassett told Dutch outlet Rijnmond recently. ”I know that they’ve given me a little bit of time, and maybe it’s more toward next season, but for me, as a player, I don’t think you look at it like ’Oh I want to wait six months to play.’ I want to play in the Sparta game, personally.“

That didn’t happen, but Bassett does not lack confidence.

”If you look at all the players over the years that come through here and have played here, you see a lot of young players that have come up and gone on to have really good careers but also played well here first, so that's the most important thing for me is to come here and develop and learn coach [Arne] Slot’s system and then also get play time on the field and really start to play well for this club.“

Slot was a former teammate of U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter in their playing days, something that’s an added bonus for Bassett, whose loan comes with an option to buy.

”They had a talk on the phone before I came over. It’s good to know that they know each other,“ Bassett said. ”Just for Arne and Gregg to have good conversations and good communication back and forth of how I’m doing, hopefully, helps me get back into the national team picture.“

Auston Trusty (Full transfer to Arsenal, loan back to Colorado)

There’s nothing wrong with working the club ownership pipeline to your benefit. Just ask Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig). So for Trusty (a fine MLS player, but there’s a reason your first reaction to his deadline day move to Arsenal was most likely ”whoa“) to secure a transfer from one Kroenke-owned property to another is a good utilization of his circumstance. Now the question is when, if ever, Trusty plays for Arsenal. The Gunners already said outright that they would be loaning him out for the 2022-23 season, and it’s hard to envision him qualifying for a U.K. work permit any time imminently given he is presently uncapped at the senior U.S. level. At the very least, the center back will spend another half a season in Colorado before embarking on an adventure abroad, and being under Arsenal’s control should open some new and fruitful doors for the 23-year-old—even if they’re not to the home locker room at the Emirates.

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