Christian Pulisic among young U.S. players seizing opportunity in Germany
For the better part of three decades, U.S. soccer players have headed to Europe in a bid to further their careers. England has been a popular port of call at times, as have the Scandinavian countries. Yet these days, Germany seems to be an attractive destination, especially for younger American players.
This is a phenomenon that goes beyond the exploits of Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic. Weston McKennie is breaking through at Schalke while his club teammate, Haji Wright, is on loan at second-tier side Sandhausen. Nick Taitague is in the youth ranks at Schalke, McKinze Gaines is at Darmstadt and Shaft Brewer is in the system at RB Leipzig.
To be clear, the pipeline to German clubs has existed for a while. You had Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri and Claudio Reyna breaking in during the 1990s. That was followed by players such as Tony Sanneh, Michael Bradley and Steve Cherundolo in the 2000s. Bobby Wood has followed that path in this decade.
But recently there seems to have been an uptick in the flow of U.S. players. So what is it that has made the path so well trodden? And what is attracting young players to Germany at this stage? Some reasons have been in existence for a while, one being that American players have attributes that German soccer values. In particular, the American work ethic, one that reveals itself in a willingness to be involved off the ball, is prized.
"Even when I was there, the Germans loved that American, workmanlike attitude," said current LA Galaxy technical director Jovan Kirovski, who played for Borussia Dortmund in the late 1990s. "If you look at a guy like Pulisic, obviously he's super talented, he has that technique that those flair players have. But what makes him another level is he does the work on the other side that those flair players don't have. So they love the American mentality, the fighter."
There are other factors that make U.S. players desirable. American footballers are viewed as adaptable. Even with a language barrier, the cultures have some similarities. Germany is a country where English is taught in schools, making the transition a little easier.
"The lifestyle, to live there, is very comfortable for an American player," Kirovski said. "The language is tough, but when you go to Munich or Dortmund, you have everything that you have in the States. It's not like going to Spain or France. For me, it was easier in Germany."
American players also are relatively cheap, making their acquisition a low-risk proposition. Scouting in the internet age also is much more efficient, allowing for a broader spectrum of players to be observed.
"In order to be seen back in the day, you had to come over here and play," said Joe Enochs, who played and coached in the German second and third tiers with Osnabruck for more than two decades. "Now you have all these organizations that come to Germany, travel around Germany, you have all these big-time youth tournaments where all the big German clubs are there as well. They're looking for the next Pulisic, the next guy that is most likely inexpensive, that hasn't been discovered yet."
Looking at it from the player's perspective, there is one overriding reason why Germany is an attractive destination.
"It's simple, Germany is one of the bigger leagues with no barriers to entry," said Rob Moore, whose company, On Target Football Consultants, was responsible for scouting and introducing the likes of Pulisic, Wright and Taitague to their respective German clubs. "In England, it's impossible as a young player with just a U.S. passport. Italy, likewise, exceptionally difficult if you're on a non-E.U. passport and you want to sign for an Italian club.
"In Spain, it's tough because the level is very high. I don't think there are many Americans who can come into the Spanish academy system and add value compared to what they've got. France is pretty physical, and the American players aren't as physically developed by that age. And the French clubs prefer to play their own or players from former French colonies."
Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, have minimum salaries for foreign players that some clubs are reluctant to pay.
But what's striking about much of the current crop is that they've gone over as teenagers, and are now starting to break into the first team. Which leads to the other attraction, namely the way the German youth system develops players. The Youth Bundesliga has been lauded as providing excellent competition at a critical age between 16 and 18 when the paths of those who make it and those who don't often diverge. In cases like Pulisic, through his Croatian passport, that process can start earlier. For someone like McKennie, who doesn't, FIFA regulations stipulate that a move can't happen until his 18th birthday. The impact still can be significant however.
"The Germans are very, very structured," Enochs said. "They've formed a Youth Bundesliga, with the U19 teams. The best players in the country are playing each other. This structure allows really good development and allows young players to get playing time at high levels. There's just this huge desire to have these youth programs. Each club is willing to put some money into the youth program, and that's where the structure comes from."
There also seems a greater willingness to give younger players a chance, as opposed to the Premier League, which is heavy on established players.
"It comes from these clubs being in three different competitions, you have the size of the team getting larger," Enochs said. "Then you have these young coaches who are willing to experiment, who are willing to give young players a chance, and who also may see it as a business model. When I was at Osnabruck, we sold two players for €600,000 to €800,000. From our view, that's really, really good money."
There are some aspects of the game, however, that could see the flow of U.S. players to Germany lessen. Some Bundesliga clubs such as Bayer Leverkusen, Eintracht Frankfurt and RB Leipzig have done away with their reserve teams, reducing playing time for younger players. That can be especially daunting for an 18-year-old American getting their first taste of club football abroad.
The cost for American players also could be set to go up. The debate over training compensation and solidarity payments continues to rage in the U.S. As of now, the USSF stipulates that such payments can neither be collected nor paid. Moore is all for youth clubs getting compensated on the solidarity payments, but he worries that tacking on training compensation to an American player's first professional contract could have the effect of killing potential deals.
"People think, 'What's €300,000 in training and development compensation to these European clubs?' But it's a hell of a lot for an 18-year-old who is completely unproven," he said. "They can go down the road and sign another German player who has been in the system for his whole life. And amongst German clubs, the training and development costs are a fraction of what it is to acquire an international player."
But for now, the attraction to Germany remains in effect. And in the wake of the recent failed World Cup qualification effort by the U.S. men's national team, American soccer fans will be hoping that the likes of McKennie and Wright will make the grade.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.