Americans in the Premier League -- why have numbers dropped recently?
There was a time when an American soccer fan tuning into the English Premier League on a Saturday morning didn't have to look very hard to find a U.S. national team player.
On March 16, 2008, for example, Fulham's game vs. Everton at Craven Cottage featured six: Brian McBride -- scorer of the game's only goal -- as well as Kasey Keller, Carlos Bocanegra, Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey were playing for the hosts, while Tim Howard was in goal for Everton.
This example is not to say American players were ever a dominant force in England's top flight, but they have been a steady presence over the years. Brad Friedel, currently with Tottenham, has been in the league since 1997, and the likes of John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley, Stuart Holden and others have also flown the American flag.
The reverse migration of U.S. players back to North America that has taken place over the past two years has reduced numbers, and the struggles and recent departures of Jozy Altidore at Sunderland and Brek Shea at Stoke City have left only Howard, Aston Villa's Brad Guzan and Geoff Cameron of Stoke seeing the field in the Premier League with any regularity.
Americans have not disappeared from Europe entirely, and there are dozens of players performing for clubs across the continent at a variety of levels. However, when it comes to the top flight in England, the number of American players seeing the field is at a low ebb, certainly compared to the heady days of 2008.
The foreign perception of U.S.-developed players
Keller, who also played in the Premier League for Leicester, Tottenham and Southampton, is of the belief that the success or failure of players from a particular league or country does create a kind of momentum, for better or worse.
He recalls hearing how, when he was playing in Germany, players from certain South American countries were avoided because they had a reputation for not adapting well. He says a similar calculus is applied to U.S.-developed players.
"Every time something doesn't work out, it's that much more difficult for an American player to be taken seriously," Keller said. "I think the success that Brian McBride had at Fulham, there's a reason why they felt comfortable taking American players. Eddie Johnson didn't work out at Fulham but Clint Dempsey, Brian, Carlos Bocanegra, you can bring those guys in."
Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a former executive with AS Monaco who has also served as a scout with teams such as Hannover and Bayer Leverkusen, has a different view.
"An unconvincing spell by someone signed directly from MLS could possibly generate some skepticism around that particular league, but I certainly haven't come across many scouts, coaches or executives who discard one league or nationality on the basis of one or two players failing to impress," he said. "It'll take many more failures to draw up a real trend.
"North American players are still seen as first-class professionals," Karlsen continued. "I can remember several coaches pointing out the impact American players often make in the dressing room. Even when arriving in a European league, without knowing the language, they more than often have a positive impact on the atmosphere around the place."
Reasons for the decline
So why is the presence of U.S.-developed players in the Premier League on the wane? It's a development with quite a few moving parts.
For one, rules regarding the acquisition of a work permit for those without a European Union passport are an important factor. New England Revolution forward Juan Agudelo, who was turned down twice after signing with Stoke City, knows how difficult the process can be.
His lack of an EU passport meant he had to appear in 75 percent of competitive U.S. games over the two years before his applications, a number he didn't come close to reaching. A subsequent appeal was rejected by the Home Office, and the English FA is poised to further tighten restrictions.
The immense amount of money that continues to flow into Premier League coffers is also a factor. A recent announcement that the league will pull in $7.9 billion over three years just for domestic television rights will continue a trend that increases the amount teams are willing to spend on players.
NOTABLE PREMIER LEAGUE AMERICANS
Clint Dempsey: Leading U.S. scorer (57 goals; Fulham & Spurs).
Brad Friedel: 450 games in 18-year career for three clubs.
Brad Guzan: 112 games played for Aston Villa since 2008.
Tim Howard: 365 games for Man Utd and Everton since 2003.
John Harkes: Played for Sheff Wed, West Ham, N Forest.
Kasey Keller: Leicester, Tottenham, Southampton & Fulham.
Brian McBride: 36 goals for Everton and Fulham (2002-08).
"There's a lot more competition to get into England than there was," said Keller, who added that in other major leagues it might be easier to find a home.
"You had situations where clubs in Spain, aside from the top ones, aren't necessarily paying what they used to because they got themselves in some financial troubles," he continues. "Italy is always a difficult place to go to. Germany I think is always an option for guys, but once again, if you're looking at players, England has their pick of the world, more or less.
"Mid-table, lower-table teams are picking players where they would have been competing against so many other teams, and that's not the case anymore."
Clubs around the world are also keenly aware of where the money is. With the competition to get into the top European leagues as intense as ever, the race to develop players to fill those spots provides a critical source of revenue.
"The real powerhouses of world football -- Spain, Germany, France, Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil plus a few other nations -- are producing such high volumes of excellent footballers these days that players from the next level down find it hard to make the immediate impact that is required to be an attractive signing for the extremely affluent Premier League clubs," says Karlsen.
There is also the relative demand for American players -- at least those developed stateside -- to consider. The Football Observatory is a research group within the International Centre for Sports Studies (CIES), a private foundation affiliated with the University of Neuchatel, in Switzerland.
In a recent study that determined by country where World Cup players were developed, the U.S. ranked 25th, behind countries including as Costa Rica, Honduras, Iran and Ecuador.
"It's [incredible] in many ways, but it's the reality that European clubs don't look to the U.S. as a place where players are being trained and developed," said Jerome de Bontin, who has worked as an executive with the likes of AS Monaco as well as the New York Red Bulls.
"If you are the head of scouting, if you are a head coach and you're looking at beefing up your roster, you're more likely to go to Ecuador, Costa Rica and Honduras and not the U.S," he continues. "That's an unfortunate reality. The American player is not one that is highly prized, or for which there is an underlying demand in Europe."
Former Manchester United assistant manager Rene Meulensteen, who now serves as a consultant to the Philadelphia Union, admits that the perception of American players, while generally positive, hasn't moved much beyond the stereotype of being hardworking, competitive and athletic.
"Once America starts to produce young players that on top of being competitive and athletic and energetic are making a difference from a tactical and technical point of view, then the perception will change," he said.
That doesn't mean that North American players are complete unknowns. Danny Karbassiyoon, who worked as a scout for Arsenal for several years and uncovered the likes of Costa Rica international Joel Campbell and U.S. target Gedion Zelalem, counters that the advent of online scouting tools allows clubs to see players from all over the world. This enables European clubs to keep an eye on MLS players.
"Over the past couple of years buzz around MLS has grown so much that I think it's just hard to ignore," said Karbassiyoon. "There are companies that clubs will hire to give them an overview of the top five left-backs. They may not have ties here directly, but they are keeping tabs on what's happening."
That said, the result is that players such as Alejandro Bedoya, who plays for Nantes in France, must prove themselves in lesser European leagues like Scotland and Sweden before wrangling a move to a bigger league. A direct move like the ones made by Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin, who recently signed for Tottenham but has yet to play a first-team game, remains a rarity.
MLS offers lucrative options
Another major factor, which has become increasingly relevant in recent years, is that market forces have conspired to create a kind of tractor beam that has drawn U.S. players back to North America. Simply put, the financial opportunities being offered by MLS weren't available even three years ago.
The salaries earned by Dempsey ($6.695 million per year), Michael Bradley ($6.5 million) and Altidore ($4.5 million) are significantly greater than what they commanded in Europe, and these rewards have served to radically change the attractiveness of playing overseas, at least for those U.S. players in the national team pool.
It makes for a stark difference from Keller's day, when the financial penalty for failing to make it in Europe was more severe.
"For a lot of us, there was no other option, and if there was an option, it was one that didn't make sense financially," he said. "You went and did whatever it took to get to places, you kept fighting, and you kept making it work."
Now the presence of the MLS safety net has proved seductive. Why stay and fight for a place in a team overseas when you can be paid just as well, or better, to stay home? Indeed, some, such as Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, have turned down European offers to sign lucrative new deals in the domestic league.
"It's just a different mentality," said Keller of how things used to be. "You're like, 'Wow, I'm done if I don't make this work.' When you look at pro sports, and how cutthroat and how difficult it is, if you lose that edge because this [situation] will be easier, that's tough to recover from.
"If you're at a club, you're fighting every day to get on the field, or if you're at a big club, you're fighting every day to stay at the club, because at any time this club can spend $50 million and buy somebody to replace you. It's that competition that continues to push you to different levels. It's tough; it's very tough."
It is also the kind of scenario that U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann wishes were still the case, though there is little he can do to stop players from returning to MLS, and even Keller is quick to admit he understands why so many U.S. internationals have returned.
"There's no blame game," he said. "That's the way it was. If you had told me [MLS] was going to double my wages from what I was making at Tottenham, I would have come home. Of course I would have."
An argument can be made that the number of players occupying roster spots in Europe is irrelevant, especially when it is considered that a squad featuring nine MLS players helped the national team qualify from a difficult group to reach the World Cup round of 16 in 2014.
That achievement certainly speaks well of the strides that the league and the U.S. have made in developing players, but breaking into the elite levels of the international game requires the higher-caliber performers, and that raises some interesting -- and at times uncomfortable -- questions.
What of the next generation?
While there is a general consensus that U.S. Soccer is producing more good players thanks to the advent of its development academy, the production rate of exceptional players seems to be lessening.
The first batch of players produced in the late 1990s by the U17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida -- a group that included Beasley, Landon Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu, among others -- has never really been duplicated. Meanwhile, other countries with much smaller populations, such as Germany and the Netherlands, seem to have mastered the process of developing players and churn out top performers more easily.
"On a sporting level the range of quality players of the late 1990s and early 2000s might not be there just now, but the impression is that it's just a matter of time before the U.S. will come up with a world class talent," said Karlsen. "Soccer is on the rise in the U.S., the structures and coaching are improving -- inevitably the country will sooner rather than later start producing top players."
Indeed, while established senior internationals may be less of an attraction, the appetite for U.S. youth products certainly remains intact. Eighteen-year-old Emerson Hyndman, Rubio Rubin (19), Junior Flores (18) and Christian Pulisic (16), for example, have latched on with European clubs.
Of those, Hyndman and Rubin, both of whom recently made their debuts with the full U.S. team, have seen first-team action with Fulham and FC Utrecht respectively, while Flores and Pulisic have both signed with Borussia Dortmund.
But these examples of teenagers who are finding their way in Europe also serve to highlight a weakness in the domestic development pipeline, which is that the late teenage years have long been a period when the career of many a U.S. product has lost its way.
"The mentality that our youth have, the competitiveness that they demonstrate, and the willingness to invest seriously into becoming a professional -- up to a certain age -- make them an attractive proposal," said de Bontin. "Unfortunately, we don't have a proper program to address the 17-21 age group."
AMERICANS WITH FIRST-TEAM MINUTES IN 2014-15
PREMIER LEAGUE: Geoff Cameron* (Stoke), Tim Howard* (Everton), Brad Guzan* (Aston Villa), Gedion Zelalem* (Arsenal)
BUNDESLIGA: John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Timmy Chandler (E Frankfurt), Julian Green (Hamburg), Joe Gyau* (Dortmund), Fabian Johnson (Monchengladbach), Jerome Kiesewetter (Stuttgart)
EREDIVISIE: Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Rubio Rubin* (FC Utrecht), Desevio Payne (FC Groningen)
LIGUE 1: Alejandro Bedoya* (Nantes)
SERIE A: None
LA LIGA: None
*Developed in the United States
De Bontin, who counts himself an admirer of MLS, feels the North American system in too many cases pushes prospects -- most famously a 14-year-old Freddy Adu -- into a professional environment before they are ready. It is also incredibly fragmented, with academies, colleges and professional clubs trying to bridge the gap between the late teenage years and the early 20s.
To this end, MLS teams are fielding reserve teams in the third-tier United Soccer League with more frequency, and Meulensteen contends that this is "creating a far better pathway for those younger players." De Bontin feels more can be done, however.
"The more teams [fielding teams in the USL], the better off we all are," he said. "But is this really an environment where kids will be cared for all year round and brought up to be professional players? It's not the case, at least in the form that's being presented today.
"What we need to get to is what we see all around Europe from England to Italy; academies where we have residential programs where top players are housed for several years until that time in their career where they are mature enough to join the pro ranks."
To be fair, clubs such as Real Salt Lake, the Philadelphia Union, and most recently D.C. United have made investments in full-time residency programs, but progress, as well as the ultimate payoff, is down the road.
How many other MLS clubs will go that same route is still to be determined. For that reason, it could be a long wait until we see a repeat of that memorable Fulham vs. Everton fixture.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.