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The Yanks Go Marching Into the Premier League

There has not been this many USMNT players in England’s top flight in a decade, and it’s where a strong national team nucleus will be preparing for the 2022 World Cup.

During the first couple days of the most recent U.S. men’s national team camp, each player met for about 1520 minutes with the media in Cincinnati, cycling through a hotel meeting room that was a short walk from Fountain Square. It would be the last chance for domestic writers and reporters (along with pretend journalist Weston McKennie, who crashed a couple sessions) to spend time with the World Cup qualifiers before everyone reconvened more than five months later in Qatar. 

Every potential topic was on the table—World Cup expectations, World Cup memories, personal journeys and public gossip. And so it was toward the end of Tyler Adams’s session that a reporter asked for his thoughts on playing England in November given the rumors connecting him to Leeds United.

It was May 31. The summer transfer period wasn’t officially open.

“To Leeds?” Adams asked while the reporter was still speaking.

“I mean, you're the first one telling me about Leeds,” he said next. “So I don't know if that's a thing.”

Five weeks later, Adams, who’d spent more than a decade with the Red Bull organization in New York and Leipzig, was unveiled by Leeds.

Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic and Brenden Aaronson are all in the Premier League

Key U.S. players Adams, Pulisic and Aaronson will all feature in the Premier League this season.

The air flows quickly and sometimes unpredictably through the transfer window, and a significant array of variables and twists of fate can alter a given player’s options or career. Former Red Bull coach Jesse Marsch’s hiring by Leeds, the club’s last-gasp escape from relegation, midfielder Kalvin Phillips’ departure to Manchester City and Adams’s reduced role in Leipzig under Domenico Tedesco all factored into the recipe. But despite the tenuous nature of the process, it doesn’t sound like Adams had to labor over the decision. Not only was he reuniting with a former manager and joining U.S. teammate Brenden Aaronson, he was climbing onto soccer’s biggest stage.

“For me growing up, it was only watching the Premier League, that’s all I had on the TV,” he said after signing. “So I’d always turn that on and watch every game, whichever I could get my eyes on. So for me, coming to the Premier League was always a dream of mine.”

The Premier League is massive, home to 10 of the 18 top revenue-producing clubs on the planet. It’s a brilliantly packaged and marketed product, and on a given day it can be the least predictable of Europe’s “big five” circuits. Its historic yet modern allure to a generation of Americans raised on weekend broadcasts is obvious and unmistakeable. And for many, like Adams, it remains the dream.

“You think about over the past decade what’s been on the TV mostly in the United States, it’s the Premier League,” U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner said in Cincinnati. “You wake up Saturday and Sunday morning and you watch the Premier League and that becomes the gold standard in a lot of young Americans’ minds. You’re looking at the Premier League and you’re thinking that that’s where you want to play.”

The historic migration of U.S. players to the highest levels of the European game has reached England. This Premier League season, which kicks off Friday, will feature at least seven members of the U.S. national team pool, compared to only three in 202122: Adams and Aaronson at Leeds (along with Marsch); Turner at Arsenal; Christian Pulisic at Chelsea; Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson at Fulham; and Chris Richards at Crystal Palace. All but Pulisic played in a different league last season (Fulham was promoted from the Championship).

Fulham and USMNT defenders Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson

Ream and Robinson are back in the Premier League with Fulham.

Assuming no additional Americans arrive before the window closes Sept. 1, and assuming 18-year-old goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina isn't thrust directly into Chelsea's first team upon his January arrival from Chicago, seven will be the highest number of American men in the Premier League since there were eight in 201213. The record is 12, achieved in both ’0607 and ’0708, according to data kept by U.S. Soccer.

But seven in 2022 arguably is more significant than a dozen 15 years ago. The Premier League’s spending power, and therefore its access to the top tier of the global player pool, was more similar to its continental rivals back then. League-wide revenue was about €1 billion more than La Liga’s or the Bundesliga’s in ’0708, for example. Now the gap is around €3 billion. English clubs, even if they’re not title contenders, can outspend just about everyone else in Europe.

“The Premier League is the best league in the world, I think everybody knows it from the level of play there,” said Aaronson, who helped Red Bull Salzburg dominate in Austria before agreeing to terms with Leeds in May. “You’re playing against—I mean, Aston Villa who have just got [Philippe] Coutinho. Bought him full [for around $22 million]. And Aston Villa finished … 14th this year.

“The league is unbelievable and I know that going into it, but it’s the best way to challenge myself as a player, being in the best league in the world. And they’ve told me how hard it is week-in, week-out. You’re playing big opponents, and that’s something that I thrive on. It’s always been a dream of mine.”

No league spins a narrative like the Premier League, and each of the seven Americans will feature in a story worth following this season. While getting the chance to do some close-range scouting on World Cup rivals from England and Wales, they’ll have to prove themselves in soccer’s hottest day-to-day crucible while aiming to arrive in Qatar in good form (Ream is the only World Cup question mark). 

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The spotlight will fall the brightest on Pulisic, the only returning American. There’s no question about his talent or potential. But Pulisic’s struggle to remain fit, then his struggle to start consistently for Thomas Tuchel, have shadowed him through the past couple campaigns. Speculation about Pulisic’s future in West London only rose when Chelsea spent €56 million on Raheem Sterling last month. Pulisic has two years left on his contract and faces what looks like a make-or-break season at Stamford Bridge. His form and confidence, which have fluctuated at times, will be vital to American hopes in Qatar.

"I've seen a lot of stuff in the last couple of years and with experience, just getting all of the experiences that I have at this club and some of the biggest games and some of the biggest moments, it just prepares me for down the line,” Pulisic told Sports Illustrated during Chelsea’s recent U.S. tour. “And this season I'm hoping to go into it and have a really strong start, be myself and just have the best season that I can. 

“I try to look at everything in sort of a positive way. Even if things don't go exactly as you had planned or you're not getting all the minutes that you want, I think you're going to learn. It’s not always going to be easy. I have to continue to prove myself and constantly perform, but that’s what you sign up for when you come to a club like this, and that's what I'm just constantly ready for.”

Chelsea opens its season Saturday at Everton.

Christian Pulisic’s Chelsea and Matt Turner’s Arsenal met in the preseason in the U.S.

Pulisic’s Chelsea and Turner’s Arsenal met in the preseason in the U.S.

The stakes will be similarly high for the U.S. trio at Leeds, which is betting big on Americans to help cement its Premier League status. A fallen power of the English game, Leeds finally returned to the top flight in 2020 under iconic Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa. It then replaced him with Marsch as the wheels fell off in February. Despite the expected criticism and condescension for his background and American mannerisms, Marsch rallied his team to a 4-3-3 record across the final 10 games. They were safe by three points. That escape triggered the deal for Aaronson, who became the second most expensive American player ever (behind Pulisic) when Leeds sent $30 million to Salzburg. The Adams transfer could cost Leeds an additional $24 million. They’ll be comfortable in Marsch’s system, but they’ll have to get used to Premier League pressure.

“They see you and value you as this player and that’s why I’m grateful for Leeds, because they value me like this,” Aaronson said of his price tag. “They think that I can be a big player in the future and a big player for them now.

“Even Christian had a big transfer fee, and a lot of these guys have all over the world. Everybody has to deal with this kind of stuff. So it’s not like I can’t. I believe in myself and I believe I can be worth that and I can help Leeds.”

The resources and demands of the Premier League are evident when assessing Leeds’ summer. After sending Phillips to City and Raphinha to Barcelona, the West Yorkshire outfit has been the sixth highest spending in Europe during the current window, according to Transfermarkt. Seven of the top 10 are Premier League clubs.

Leeds hosts Wolverhampton Wanderers in its opener on Saturday.

Elsewhere, less will be expected from Turner and Richards right away. But their ability to secure meaningful minutes could have a significant impact on the national team. Turner has been locked in a battle for the No. 1 role with Zack Steffen, and that contest took an intriguing turn this summer. After two seasons as a distant No. 2 at Manchester City, Steffen has gone on loan to the Championship’s Middlesbrough in search of more action at a lower level. Turner is going the opposite route, leaving the New England Revolution to start the season as Aaron Ramsdale’s understudy at Arsenal. (A third U.S. goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath, left promoted Premier League side Nottingham Forest on loan to second-tier Luton Town.)

“Being a week-in, week-out starter in MLS didn't guarantee me to be a starter here for the national team and going to the World Cup,” Turner said in Cincinnati. “I needed to shake things up in my club career and I think this is a positive step forward for me in the long term and in the immediate future.

“I've always wanted to just get out there and see how far I can take this thing. And so I'm going to take it a step further into the Premier League and we'll see how it goes for me.”

Richards, meanwhile, could make his case for World Cup starts at center back if the next three months go well. Miles Robinson was the favorite to play alongside Walker Zimmerman until suffering an Achilles injury in May. Richards, who spent last season on loan to Hoffenheim from Bayern Munich, cost Crystal Palace around $13 million and will join a defensive corps that includes England prospect Marc Guéhi and Danish veteran Joachim Andersen. 

“[Richards is] going to give us different options at the back and competitiveness between players,” Palace manager Patrick Vieira told reporters. "I’m really pleased that an important player like that decided to come to Palace.”

Palace hosts Arsenal in the Premier League’s season opener on Friday.

Chris Richards has moved to Crystal Palace

Richards left Bayern Munich for Crystal Palace, where he’ll get his first taste of the Premier League.

Finally, there’s the Fulham pairing of Robinson, the U.S.’s starting left back, and Ream, whose most recent international action came at the start of World Cup qualifying last September. The Cottagers, renowned for their trust in American players, were humbled in their most recent Premier League campaign, winning just five matches and finishing 18th in 202021. An outstanding Championship season then sent them back to the top tier with a trophy and some added confidence. Fulham opens early Saturday against Liverpool.

“We've kept a lot of the players from two seasons ago who went down and sort of have that hurt feeling of going down and want to stay up,” Robinson said. “But also, it's the first time Fulham have actually won a title … I think it’s like 20 years or something like that—which is a big achievement and it just shows that our quality must have improved, 

“There’s players leaving, players going to come in. But there's lads who’ve got more experience. We've got the hunger of wanting to stay up. So hopefully if we get all those things right then our quality will show and we’ll manage to stay up.”

There’s no better place to show your quality than the Premier League. Increasingly, it’s what everybody’s watching. Increasingly, it’s the ultimate destination. And as interest in American players grows and as their collective reputation improves, rumors like the ones that surrounded Adams in May will could become more frequent.

“The fact that there are so many players playing in competitive leagues and really trying to show that we can be in these leagues and we belong in them, it does mean a lot,” Robinson said. “Over the years I feel like it’s just going to keep increasing. There’s so much talent coming through.”

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