These days if you glance at the 23-man roster for any United States Men’s National Team friendly or World Cup Qualifier, you’ll notice a particularly German flair. Many of the top American players began their European odyssey’s in German or are still there today. And while it seems like the hip new trend for young Americans, it’s far from novel.
American ex-pats have been trying to make the hills of Bavaria and the canals of The Rhine home for decades. These players are easiest to examine when they are broken into three groups; pre-2011, the Klinsmann era, and the present day.
Professional soccer in the United States has had a difficult and unsuccessful history. Sure, there were the glamourous NASL days when players like Pele, Beckenbauer, and Cruyff all played Stateside. All that’s left of those days are vintage jerseys on hipster Instagram accounts.
From the collapse of the NASL until 1996 there was no top-flight professional league in the United States. That meant Americans hoping to play soccer professionally were forced to go abroad.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Germany was home to players like Paul Caligiuri who played for Hamburger SV, Hansa Rostok, and FC St. Pauli among others during an eight-year stretch. Future MLS and Fulham legend Brian McBride’s first overseas stop was a season in VfL Wolfsburg the year before MLS began. Former USMNT captain Claudio Reyna also spent 6 seasons in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg in the 90s.
In Germany, perhaps the best known American-expat is Steve Cherundolo, who spent his entire career at Hannover 96. The right-back joined the club at the age of 19 and featured over 400 times over 14 years. After retiring from playing in 2014, Cherundolo began his coaching career at Hannover and has also coached at VfB Stuttgart and currently works as an assistant with the Germany U-15 team.
Even after Major League Soccer kicked off, the league lacked the stability, clout, and allure of Europe. One popular destination for Americans was Germany.
Major League Soccer’s greatest player, Landon Donovan was the first of the next generation of young Americans to try out Europe. Donovan was on the books at Bayer Leverkusen from the age of 17 until he moved back to MLS permanently. He played just 7 matches for the first team and spent the final four years of his contract in Major League Soccer. His failure in Germany was seen as a sign that American soccer was not ready to take the next step.
Other notable Americans playing in Germany during the late 90s and early 2000s included Kasey Keller at Borussia Monchengladbach, Frankie Hejduk at Leverkusen, Tony Sanneh at Hertha Berlin and FC Nurnberg, and current USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter at Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich.
A shift in American’s playing in Germany came in 2011 when Jurgen Klinsmann was named head coach of the United States Men’s National Team. As a result of American military presence in Europe and in particular, Germany, following World War II, there were professional soccer players playing in Germany and around Europe that had dual citizenship and qualified to play internationally for the United States.
Being a footballing legend in Germany gave Jurgen Klinsmann prestige in his homeland, and he made it part of his plan to recruit as many of these dual nationals as he could. These men would become branded by the American media as “Jurgen-Americans.”
Klinsmann took five of these dual nationals to the 2014 World Cup with him, and they played an integral part in the team’s success in advancing from the “Group of Death.” These men included Fabian Johnson of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, John Brooks of Hertha Berlin, Jermaine Jones who at the time was playing at Besiktas but had spent most of his career at Schalke 04, Timothy Chandler of FC Nurnberg, and Julian Green of Bayern Munich.
During the Klinsmann era, the trend was for national team level players to stay in MLS or return from Europe. Players like Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez chose to stay at home while Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey returned to MLS from England.
Despite this, American players were playing in Germany aside from the “Jurgen-Americans.” Michael Bradley played 3 seasons at Borussia Monchengladbach, Michael Parkhurst spent a season at FC Augsburg, and Bobby Wood was beginning his career at 1860 Munich.
As has been reported, Americans have a pretty solid history in the top few divisions of German football. However, things have changed in the last 5 or so years. The number of Americans playing in Germany has exploded.
The man who started this trend is Christian Pulisic, who joined Borussia Dortmund as a 16-year-old. Pulisic’s grandfather is originally from Croatia, and thus Christian was able to qualify for a European passport and make the move abroad earlier than most of his compatriots.
There is no question Pulisic benefitted from spending time in Dortmund’s heralded academy as he became a breakout star once he reached the senior team. His three seasons at Dortmund earned him a $79 million move to English Premier League club Chelsea, where he plays today.
Pulisic’s success opened the door for other young American talents to begin their European careers in Germany. Most don’t have European grandfathers and begin their careers in Major League Soccer before making the move.
Tyler Adams, who started at MLS club New York Red Bulls and now plays for RB Leipzig, and Weston McKennie, who started at FC Dallas before moving to Schalke 04, are examples of this. Some MLS clubs have even brokered youth development pathways with German clubs to make these moves easier.
Where you once saw American players trying to break through in England, you are now seeing Americans choose Germany instead.
Giovanni Reyna, son of Claudio, plays for Dortmund, Josh Sargent plays for Werder Bremen, 18-year-old Matthew Hoppe recently became the first American to score a Bundesliga hat trick when he did so for Schalke, and Chris Richards suits up for the current Champions League winners Bayern Munich. At last count, 50 Americans are playing currently in the top three German divisions.
So what is responsible for the wave of young Americans flocking to Germany? The answer is multilayered.
For years, German clubs were hesitant to invest in American talent after the public failure of Landon Donovan. But Christian Pulisic changed all that. His success helped convince German clubs that Americans were worth taking a risk on.
The cost of investment is another reason. Put simply, Americans are cheaper than Europeans. Teenaged Americans are cheaper still, so Germans are willing to take a risk because the investment is lower than it would be to sign a Dutch or English teenager.
On the player’s side, Germany has proven over the last 20 years that they are the top country in Europe for developing young talent. German clubs are particularly adept at fostering development at a healthy rate instead of throwing them to the proverbial wolves and then selling them on when the time is right. That is an attractive proposition for someone looking to have staying power in Europe.
None of that would matter, though, if the American players weren’t performing on the field. The main reason young American’s are working out so well in the Bundesliga is their mentality. German soccer is currently teaching the school of “gegenpressing”, which requires players to be abundantly fit, but also determined and motivated.
While the USMNT often cannot compete on the technical side of the game with European countries, they are never outworked. This is seen by many German academies as a huge selling point for Americans in adapting to the German way of playing. Technique can be taught; mindset is a different story.
With all of this in mind, there is a clear future for Americans in Europe, and it doesn’t begin in the shadow of Big Ben but instead underneath the Brandenburg Gate.