In the opening weeks of this most unusual of seasons, there have been frequent reminders of the ever-growing influence of American players and coaches within European football.
The infiltration into the Premier League in particular began with an influx of American investors and owners, but the number of on-pitch U.S. stars has since spread across the continent. Now, with the 2026 World Cup (to be joint hosted by the USA, Mexico and Canada) on the distant horizon, there are more rising U.S. players and coaches competing at the highest level on European shores than ever, reaching a historic highpoint.
In the past there have been strong generations of American stars, but there has arguably never been as much excitement about the depth of promising young talent as the current crop. What were once seeds of hope have now grown into well-rooted trees of established American presence on the continent. Whether it be the national side’s leading players establishing themselves at Europe’s elite sides or promising coaches defying the stigma, the exponential rise of the American contingent in Europe is undeniable.
When it comes to those plying their trade in Europe, Christian Pulisic is the natural figurehead. The breakthrough of the man known as ‘Captain America’ certainly came at a crucial time four years ago, when a soccer-interested nation was in need of a superstar encouraging fantasies. When he eventually made his debut at Chelsea in the summer of 2019 (having spent the rest of the 2018-19 campaign back on loan at Borussia Dortmund), Roger Bennett, co-host of NBC show The Men in Blazers, said of the move that “the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Bennett expanded that if he succeeded in making the move over to Europe — to Die Borussen in 2016, aged just 17 — Pulisic “would become the first American to succeed at a true European superpower of a club, and his success would legitimize the tactical ability of the American player at the elite level.”
Pulisic’s move did just that. The Hershey, PA-born winger became the frontrunner for a second wave of US infiltration into the bright lights of the Premier League since the turn of the century.
With the third international break of the season kicking in after this weekend’s round of fixtures, Thursday saw the upcoming squad announcement by the USMNT’s manager, Gregg Berhalter. Wales and Panama — the latter qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia at the expense of the USA after a disastrous campaign — are the upcoming opponents for Berhalter’s squad. It is a collection of young starlets seemingly on the rise as part of a breakthrough generation for their nation; of aspiring American players breaking down barriers in the football world’s hotspot.
Pulisic, the Clint Dempsey of his generation, will be there; despite picking up a freak hamstring injury during the warmup prior to Saturday’s 3-0 win at Burnley. But the more unknown quantities to some can be found elsewhere in the youthful squad — which is one with an average age of 21 years, 300 days and made up entirely of players who compete abroad at club level.
Among the other call-ups are a record nine players participating in the UEFA Champions League, including Weston McKennie at Juventus and Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund. Reyna, the youngest member of the squad, is striking up an intimidating looking relationship with other key performers at Dortmund, while Tyler Adams may yet rival Pulisic for USMNT captaincy on the back of consistent progress at RB Leipzig.
The early stages of the new Champions League campaign have been somewhat of a melting pot of the most promising recent American exports. During gameweek one of Europe’s premier competition last month, five players from the USMNT appeared on the same day for the first time ever. As matchday three rolled around this midweek, an array of young American talent featured heavily once more.
Looking forward, there are a number of exciting problems for manager Berhalter to solve as the USMNT play their first matches since Feb. 1. Particularly intriguing is the midfield, built around the combined characteristics of Adams’ combativeness and McKennie’s box-to-box qualities. The pair have both impressed at club level and started together for the USMNT alongside Pulisic just once.
Another interesting discussion point, aside from the obvious youth throughout the squad’s ranks is the lack of an established central forward. Josh Sargent pulled out as his club were not prepared to take COVID-associated risks by releasing their player, but the striker has had a positive start to the campaign, having last week scored his first Bundesliga goal of the season.
Whatever way you look at it, there are reasons for optimism among American soccer fans, with the possibility of promise turning into some much-needed success on the international stage to carry momentum into the rest of the decade. Their next hallmark for tangible process and shot at silverware will arrive at the rescheduled final-four style CONCACAF Nations League Finals in June 2021.
The influence of US players across the Atlantic is growing and is only going to strengthen with youth development now a long-term priority in numerous cities across the U.S. As well as the aforementioned, there are other notable trailblazers in Chris Richards at Bayern Munich, goalkeeper Ethan Horvath at Club Brugge and Sergiño Dest, who became the first American player to represent Barcelona when he signed for the club in October.
Elsewhere, Yunus Musah — who is eligible to represent the U.S., England and Ghana — has been making waves in La Liga. The former Arsenal academy prospect, who captained England at under-18 level, has already started six of Valencia’s seven La Liga games this season and scored his first goal for the club on Sunday against Getafe.
These players are simultaneously furthering their careers and the strength and reputation of the USMNT. It is time — putting discussions of equal pay to one side for a moment — for the men to take substantial steps on a journey to having a comparative impact on the international stage.
The women’s side have long dominated the international scene and have had players playing in Europe for much longer; despite the fact that the corresponding difference in strength of the leagues is not so pronounced, with stars such as Crystal Dunn following in Megan Rapinoe’s footsteps having spent the majority of her career on American shores.
The reverse American Dream — of those taking a leap of faith in coming to Europe to further their careers — is not limited to players, either. Jesse Marsch has earned himself a reputation as one of a generation of excellent future coaches performing well today. His Salzburg side went toe to toe with Bayern on Tuesday before the European Champions shifted into cruise control, eventually winning 6-2 against the Austrians.
The state of play in European football is now such that there is a burgeoning, talented core of American players developing at a similar age, in the same competitions. Above anything else, this can only be beneficial for the development of the game in the U.S.
It seems inevitable now that with a stronghold of talented players succeeding at Europe’s best teams, the USMNT will eventually have improved its reputation as a lower-tier player on the international stage. Its collective peak may well come in time for World Cup 2026, which could become a seminal moment in the arc of the life of the game stateside.