Links between the United States and Germany run deep; deeper than most seem to remember. Dating as early as the 1670s, German immigrants – either seeking religious or social freedoms – began to settle on American shores. It should come as no surprise that many of the known footballing hot-beds in the states boast substantial populations of German ancestry. But the connections go even further.
Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a native of Magdeburg and former officer in the Prussian army of Frederick the Great, played a vital role in the very founding of this country. Volunteering his service, he would serve under George Washington in the Continental Army and is credited with being responsible for turning the army into a disciplined fighting force in the field.
Germans would again play a crucial role in defending the country during the Civil War. Over 175,000 Union soldiers were German-born – none more famous than Major General Franz Sigel – and would constitute the largest immigrant population to take part in the conflict.
Influences stretch far into American societal norms as well. Though I am not a fan of it, Budweiser owes its success to its founders Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch. Yuengling was founded by an immigrant from Aldingen. The city of Milwaukee, home to a large German population, was once home to four of the world’s biggest breweries.
There are pretzels, frankfurters, hamburgers, strudel, and Christmas trees. There was the Apollo space program and our landing on the moon, which would not have been possible without Wernher von Braun. So many things that we Americans hold dear have direct links to Germany. Our quest for greatness in the beautiful game is no different.
The World Cup ’94 Coming Out Party
So many often forget that the US has been apart of the footballing landscape for nearly ninety years. A participant in the inaugural World Cup in 1930, the Americans finished third, beating out eventual powerhouses France, Brazil, and Belgium in the process. But the real coming out party for the United States would not take place till World Cup ’94, as the host nation.
Coming off a woeful performance at Italia ’90 – their first appearance in forty years – the stars and stripes put on a memorable group stage performance. A 1-1 draw with Switzerland in the opening match was followed up with a historic 2-1 win against Colombia at the Rose Bowl. Despite the 1-0 loss against group favorites Romania on the final day, the US progressed to the knockout stage as one of the best third-place teams.
If the Romania result turned heads, surely the 1-0 loss to eventual winners Brazil – thanks to a Bebeto strike in the 72nd minute – gave credence to the notion that the sport was on the rise. The attendance turnout during the tournament (68,991 per match) did not disappoint, either. The American population would get its first look up close to stars such as Roberto Baggio, Gheorghe Hagi, Tomas Brolin, Hristo Stoichkov, Gabriel Batistuta, Jürgen Klinsmann, and Dennis Bergkamp; genuine giants of the game. More importantly, were the connections that the US squad had to Germany.
Out of the 22-man roster, Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri, and Thomas Dooley (German-born) already tasted life in the country. In the wake of the tournament, Claudio Reyna, Joe-Max Moore, and Mike Lapper would join them via moves to Bayer Leverkusen, 1.FC Saarbrücken, and VfL Wolfsburg respectively. This was only the beginning.
The France ’98 squad under coach Steve Sampson, most famously known for their unfortunate displays that summer, again boasted German influence. David Regis, Chad Deering, Jeff Agoos, and Brian McBride added to national team veterans Reyna, Dooley, Wynalda, and Max-Moore constituted thirty-three percent of the US roster. All of them remain household names in the American footballing scene.
Since 1986, Germany has been a European haven for American footballers. In the decades since, there have been fifty-five players – many of them full internationals – that have featured in the Bundesliga. Only Brazil (158) can claim a larger contingent of players in Bundesliga history from a nation outside of Europe’s borders. If German clubs have anything to say about it – and they do – it is a trend that will only continue.
Landon Donovan; Trailblazer
It is perhaps a little ironic that the player who is arguably the greatest in United States history failed to make the grade across the pond. Landon Donovan is the personification of what football in the United States can become. Having been a graduate in the inaugural class of the US Soccer Youth Residency Program, his brilliant performances at the U-17 World Cup – where he was named the player of the tournament – netted him a move to, you guessed it, Germany.
After spending a year with Bayer Leverkusen II, Donovan would see out his time at the Bay Arena outfit on-loan in MLS with San Jose Earthquakes. Though a brief loan spell back in Germany with Bayern Munich would eventually materialize, the California-native would go on to become the greatest player in MLS history. To date, Donovan’s six MLS Cups, 145 goals, and 136 assists stand as league records. In honor of his achievements, the league named its MVP award after him.
His achievements would take hold on the international stage as well. By the time of his retirement from international play, he became the all-time leader in assists and joint all-time leader in goals for the US national team. He remains the only American international to score 50 goals and register 50 assists for the stars and stripes.
Donovan is invariably woven into the fabric of American footballing history, and his best young player performance at the 2002 World Cup, along with becoming the highest-scoring American in World Cup history, stands a testament to what has unfolded over the last few years. Without knowing it at the time, Donovan blazed a trail that is increasingly traveled by young American players currently.
Klinsmann’s Foreshadowing and Brazil 2014
In 2011 the United States sacked Bob Bradley after losing 3-2 to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup finals. But one icon would be replaced with another one, a bigger one. Former German international stalwart Jürgen Klinsmann, scorer of five goals at World Cup ’94 in the US, and veteran of prominent clubs in Europe over the course of his career took up the vacancy left in Bradley’s wake. His management pedigree was not too shabby either, having taken up his sideline post in charge of the German national team from 2004-06, before managing Bayern Munich. Much of the framework Klinsmann championed in the national team setup was expounded upon by his assistant coach, Joachim Löw.
Klinsmann’s footballing pedigree was what the US national team needed. His views on the state of the game in the country, however, did not sit well with many. These feelings were exacerbated two-fold. Bringing in four German-born American players into the national set-up, over time, was taken as an admission by him that some of the players in the US set-up were not good enough, or worse, that he had a German bias.
Despite prizing Julian Green away from the German youth set-up and including him in his squad for the 2014 World Cup, many felt Klinsmann was tampering with American footballing identity. It would be a sentiment that would follow his career with the US, regardless of results. Ironically, those same players – John Anthony Brooks, Jermaine Jones, Timothy Chandler, and Fabian Johnson – all of whom were Bundesliga-based, played vital roles during the summer of 2014.
If threatening the American footballing identity (a ridiculous argument within itself) was bad enough in the eyes of many, then cutting Landon Donovan from the final roster was viewed as sacrilegious. A World Cup campaign without Mr. United States himself was labeled in most sections as inexcusable. Though the roster still boasted key assets in Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey, Klinsmann’s argument that he saw other players slightly ahead of Donovan was dubbed as farcical. Remarks stating it was the most difficult decision of his coaching career did little to quell frustration.
Vitriol aside, the US put on one of its best-ever displays at a World Cup. A win against Ghana and a last-minute Portugal equalizer saw the US on four points from six in its opening two matches. A loss to none other than Germany was not enough to keep them out of the knockout stages, having successfully navigated what was unanimously dubbed the group of death. Tim Howard’s record-breaking saves in a World Cup match, in conjunction with a Julian Green in extra-time, still was not enough as they fell to a talented Belgian side 2-1.
Brazil 2014 was a summer showcase that many would not have predicted, but in the end, it would not be enough for Klinsmann to see another World Cup on the American touchline. His influence, however, was and is still being felt. Klinsmann was right about one thing more than anything else; Americans needed to be better.
To reach greater heights, Europe needed to be the goal for every player with aspirations of playing at international level. This was reflected in the squad selected in 2014; thirteen of the twenty-three were based abroad, twelve of them in Europe. Given that fact, the teams’ performances should come as no surprise, and in the wake of that, Germany yet again would play a crucial role, as it did that very summer.
Christian Pulisic and The New Generation
The framework we see more and more for American player development owes a lot to the path Landon Donovan took. Training at a high level in the United States, and by the age of seventeen or eighteen, moving on to a European-based club to continue the process. Where Donovan failed was making the grade in Europe past youth level, but it is where Christian Pulisic – and others – have found success.
Pulisic’s path closely mirrored Donovan’s. He spent the lions share of his youth development in the United States. For the Hershey-native, it would be with PA Classics, a US Soccer Development Academy in his home state of Pennsylvania. His record at US youth international level (49 goals in 62 appearances) was sublime, and it would eventually lead to Borussia Dortmund gaining his signature in February of 2015. Such was his development at U17 and then U19 level, that it took him just fifteen youth appearances before he earned a call-up to the first-team during the Winterpause.
Under Thomas Tuchel, Pulisic developed to a level that exceeded Donovan. As it stands, he is unquestionably one of the hottest youth properties in Europe, and for many, predicted to develop into the best player this country has ever fielded. And he is not the only American garnering a reputation on the biggest stages.
Roughly twenty miles down the A42 in Gelsenkirchen, Texas-native Weston McKennie is on the same path. Though born in the states, the three years McKennie spent in Kaiserslautern ages 6-9 would be the origins of his footballing education. He shone in the vaunted FC Dallas youth set-up, earning him substantial collegiate interest, most notably from the University of Virginia.
Opting to go pro rather than heading down the NCAA path, he would rebuff the opportunity to sign a letter of intent with the Cavaliers. The US youth international midfielder would then reject a contract with FC Dallas in favor of joining Schalke in the summer of 2016. Much like Pulisic, he rose rapidly through one of the best youth systems in Europe, becoming a first-team regular the following season.
Pulisic and McKennie, now full internationals and key players at club level, are indeed a new breed; a new model of American footballer. American by birth, European in their footballing ability and mentality.
As football in the United States grows exponentially, in all corners of the country, player development at youth level has developed with it, and in a big way. There are now hundreds of high-level youth clubs across the country, many of whom feature in prominent international tournaments against some of the best youth clubs in the world. Many of those tournaments are held right here. Though there are still issues to navigate, such as pay-to-play, the way the game has grown and begun to be taken seriously on a level only seen outside of American borders, is precisely the route that needs to be taken. The results are clear to see.
Perhaps it is a bit ironic that, as I put fingers to keyboard, Josh Sargent scored on his Bundesliga debut for Werder Bremen with his first touch at senior level. Sargent, still just eighteen, is another prominent young American talent cut from the same development cloth as Pulisic and McKennie. And yet there are others still.
Haji Wright (20) is another on the books at Schalke, while Jonathan Klinsmann (21) is at Hertha Berlin. Timothy Weah (18), son of George Weah, is at PSG. Tyler Adams (19), a gifted young midfielder who came through the NY Red Bulls academy, just made the switch to RB Leipzig. Eleven out of the twenty-three called up for the recent US friendly against Italy are European-based, many of them young players.
The list keeps on, right through all levels of the US youth international set-up, and not just featuring players based in Germany. Clubs in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, France, England, Mexico, Portugal, and Holland are all home to young American players.
MLS and Youth Development At Home
Europe cannot take all the credit, however. Much like Pulisic, McKennie, Sargent, and so many others, their development track began on home soil and got them to a level where they were deemed good enough for the European youth factory. The growing quality of youth set-ups in MLS has played an ever-increasing role in the overall process. NY Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, Real Salt Lake, and FC Dallas are the standard bearers in the MLS youth pipeline; something that the American footballing scene once lacked in a major way.
It is possible, and plausible, that the way forward in the coming years for MLS is that of a similar structure of European leagues such as the Eredivisie and Jupiler Pro League. As youth development improves and wandering eyes from clubs too good to pass up increase, what if the footballing niche for MLS is that of a pipeline to Europe. This would not only benefit and continuously improve the art of youth development in the United States but the end-game goal of consistently pushing the national team forward. Two nations that serve as a prime example of this are Serbia and Croatia.
The pair of Balkan countries pride themselves on youth development and have given us players who have shone at the pinnacle of club football. But once prominent clubs like Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb can no longer compete with the biggest and best on the continent. Once their brightest youth players leave to greater pastures, their enrichment at a higher level then translates to success for the national team. Croatia’s jaunt to the finals in the World Cup this past summer stands as a testament to this cyclical system and can serve as a blueprint for future American success.
If you are not in the MLS youth scene, the level of coaching at youth clubs around the country remains high quality; European clubs play a major role on that front. Barcelona, Arsenal, PSG, Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Eintracht Frankfurt, Chelsea, and Atletico Madrid are just some of the clubs that have formed partnerships at youth level in the United States. While some of these links are only tertiary and focus solely on image and marketing rights, expansion into youth development will be sure to follow.
Such academies and links do not benefit just the players in terms of exposure, but coaches as well. Dortmund established partnerships with Cincinnati United and La Roca Futbol Club, and through that, gained access to training philosophies of one of Germany’s best. Annual training camps in conjunction with the coaching staff at Dortmund are also accessible.
Frankfurt is another example, with plans well in the works to open a football academy in Michigan with the aim of bringing the “German engineering of football” to the United States. Touting world-class education and a high level of training, those who make the grade through this avenue will see doors fly open for them.
What has transpired in the United States is a footballing landscape that is lightyears ahead of where it was twenty years ago. Though Germany is no longer the only European nation to nurture their connections with the US, so much can be traced back to them. Such influence is reflected in so many of the best and brightest this country has had past, present, and future.
So, to Germany, and the Bundesliga, I say thank you. Without you, this country would not be as close as it has ever been to realizing its potential.