For most young players around the world, the Premier League remains the pinnacle. It’s the world’s most watched-league for a reason, with some of the biggest teams and best players plying their trade at the highest level. Because of this, many grow up with dreams of being the next Premier League star.
That idea is similar in America. The Premier League, thanks to its morning-time slot on TV, has rapidly become a staple of American sports.
Saturday and Sunday morning games have become rituals and, with the aid of NBC Sports’ promotional machine, the league has never been more popular and more relevant in America than it is right now. For years, Liga MX was the only league to truly capture America financially, but the Premier League is rapidly gaining ground.
However, just three Americans – Christian Pulisic, DeAndre Yedlin and Indiana Vassilev – have played in England’s top flight this season. Just 10 players at English clubs have represented the U.S. at youth level from the Under-17s upwards over the last year.
For all of the similarities in culture, language and mentality between the two nations, America’s top stars aren’t making waves in England anymore.
Instead, those players are flocking to Germany, a country that has become the top destination for America’s top stars. The likes of Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent, Tyler Adams and, now, Gio Reyna, have emerged in the Bundesliga after making the move to Germany at a young age.
The rise of those players has come as the result of a major shift, one that has connected Americans with the Bundesliga like never before.
In many ways, the shift began with Jurgen Klinsmann. During the legendary German striker’s time in charge of the USMNT, he frequently demanded that players be pushed out of their comfort zone. Klinsmann told players that playing in Europe was vital to their development as players and that anyone who wasn’t uncomfortable, wasn’t truly growing.
There had been Americans in Germany before that, with Eric Wynalda, Steve Cherundolo, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley among those to feature in the Bundesliga, but it was during Klinsmann’s time that the USMNT and German soccer became intertwined.
Dual nationals like John Brooks, Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Julian Green and Timothy Chandler became USMNT regulars, while up-and-comers like Bobby Wood and Aron Johannsson moved into the team after breaking through in the Bundesliga.
“I think it’s a league that has traditionally always given a chance to young players coming through the ranks,” Klinsmann told ESPN. “It’s always based on performance, so when an American player comes over and performs, then he gets a chance to play.
“There’s not much politics involved. The coaches are usually very straightforward. If the kid understands that it’s all down to performance and that they’ll get a chance, then the Bundesliga’s the place to be.”
However, the connection hasn’t severed in the three years since Klinsmann was dismissed as USMNT manager. Over the last decade or so, Americans have fallen in love with German soccer and, for a variety of reasons, German soccer loves them back.
The two sides have similar footballing mentalities. Both place a great emphasis on the team and working within a group, with the USMNT’s effort and desire long being hailed as an integral part of the program’s identity. Both countries are defined by physical, fast-paced, hard-nosed soccer and, because of that, American players have tended to blend in well with German culture.
Yet that’s far from the biggest reason for all of this and, as usual, that biggest reason is money.
Because American soccer doesn’t require solidarity payments or training compensation – and because many players don’t turn professional until later in their teenage years – there’s virtually no fee required to sign an American player.
Top young players are cheap, available and, most times, determined to prove that they can make it in Europe and overcome the stigmas thrust upon them for hailing from the U.S. and not some European powerhouse.
For those players, there are few better places to develop than Germany. More so than leagues in England or Spain, German soccer is built to develop youth. There’s a track record of success when it comes to identifying, developing and, when the time comes, selling young players.
Over the past 20-25 years, no country has been better at working with young players than Germany, and it has a World Cup to show for it.
That’s vastly different from England, a country that makes it much tougher for non-European players. For many, acquiring a work permit to play for an English club will be difficult, as approval is generally based around how many senior caps a player has earned to that point.
That rules out a number of young Americans, who would struggle to acquire the paperwork needed to jump into a top academy or club. Such was the case for Juan Agudelo, who signed for Stoke City in 2013 but never played for the club due to permit issues.
German rules are much more relaxed and don’t have salary minimums for foreigners like clubs in the Netherlands or Belgium. When it comes to money, style and fit, the Bundesliga makes most sense for many young American stars.
“I think young Americans will continue to come to the Bundesliga,” McBride, the USMNT’s all-time leading scorer and current general manager, told Bundesliga.com.
“I think there’s a few factors to explain it. If you look at the amount of scouts that Bundesliga teams put in the United States, so that they can see players at younger ages, I think that is a huge factor. Also, if you look at England, there’s a work permit issue.
“So, that part is a little bit of the reason why there not so many in the youth side of it, but I think it’s more down to the fact that Americans have done well in the Bundesliga. The Bundesliga understand that there’s is a wealth of talent that they can find at a younger age and bring in, which is beneficial to everybody.”
Of all of the Bundesliga clubs to have mined the American market in recent years, Borussia Dortmund have benefited most, with Pulisic the crown jewel of this whole process.
However, Dortmund stumbled into Pulisic by accident, according to Sports Illustrated. Sporting director Michael Zorc had travelled to Turkey to take a closer look at Haji Wright in action for the U.S. U17 team.
The forward, who went on to sign with Schalke and is now with Dutch side VVV Venlo, impressed, but not as much as Pulisic, who ended up joining Dortmund in 2015.
The whole deal worked out perfectly for everyone involved, as Pulisic was able to sign for Dortmund before turning 18 thanks to his Croatian passport and he could sign for free since he wasn’t already a professional. Four years later, he was sold to Chelsea for £57.6 million ($73m), becoming the most expensive American player of all time and Dortmund’s second-highest transfer fee in club history, behind Ousmane Dembele.
Aside from Bayern Munich, German clubs don’t have the financial resources of clubs in England and they can’t compete with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona for South America’s top young talent. As a result, they had to get creative and, in that process, they found a pool of American players that can be signed for virtually nothing in most cases.
“Our ambition is to compete for the Bundesliga and regularly make the latter stages of the Champions League. If you look at the big boys we’re up against – Bayern, the top teams in England and Spain, Paris Saint-Germain – they each start the season roughly a quarter of a billion Euros ahead of us,” Zorc told ESPN. “We need to have a different approach.
“It would be naive to think that finances don’t have any influence on what happens on the pitch. That’s why we like working with young players who are at a level we can afford and generate money that we can use to close the gap somehow.”
Dortmund are far from the only side taking advantage of this idea. Schalke have brought in several Americans over the years, including Wright, McKennie and Nick Taitague. Ulysses Llanez is on the precipice of Wolfsburg’s first team, while Borussia Monchengladbach have a deal in place to bring in New York City FC youngster Joe Scally in 2021.
Even Bayern have got in on the action with the signing of Chris Richards from FC Dallas in 2019. Richards, one of the brightest prospects in the American youth pool, cost Bayern $1.5m (£1.2m) with the potential for that fee to rise, but they would have paid far more money for a player of the same quality from any other major soccer-playing nation.
“I want to start getting some minutes on the field with the first team next year,” Richards told the Underdog Soccer Podcast. “There are still center-backs here who are world-class. I’m not taking anything away from them, but I think it’s time for me to start getting my shot at showing people what I have and hopefully one day becoming a Bayern legend.”
As long as Americans are a financially strong investment, this process will continue. In the coming years, other clubs will certainly discover what the Bundesliga already knows follow a similar path.
What that means for MLS, the USMNT and American soccer as a whole remains to be seen but, even if there’s never another Pulisic-like sale, signing young Americans is a tactic that has proven very rewarding for many clubs and players.
With the U.S. gearing up towards the 2022 World Cup and, perhaps more importantly, the 2026 tournament on home soil, these coming years will be vital. The program is still in rebuild mode following the 2018 disaster and, in the coming years, a number of these Bundesliga-based stars are expected to become key fixtures in the national team.
However, those players aren’t the first and they won’t be the last, as the relationship between the Bundesliga and Americans top stars isn’t going to end anytime soon.
“The Bundesliga is a top league in the world, so that’s taken into consideration when you consider a player’s performance,” USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter said.
“For us to be a top team in the world, we need players performing in top leagues in the world, so that’s one of the issues we’re faced with. This is a high-level program and if you can perform here, that means you’re a high-level player.”