In Ulysses Llanez, Michael Edwards, Bryang Kayo and Kobe Hernandez-Foster, no fewer than four USA-born youngsters are currently on the books at Wolfsburg, hoping to one day join USMNT defender John Brooks in the first team.
But why and how has that happened? bundesliga.com delves into the reasons…
That has sparked a wave of gifted greenhorns eager to follow suit in Germany, from Weston McKennie to Josh Sargent and Gio Reyna. Bayern Munich’s Canada international Alphonso Davies recently confirmed the impact the former BVB star has had on up-and-coming young players across the Atlantic, saying “Seeing all these guys on this side is eye-opening for North American players."
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Yet that only explains why they are arriving in Germany – but not Wolfsburg specifically. No other top-flight club has as many Americans under contract as the Wolves: Llanez (19) was promoted to the senior squad last season and was an unused substitute on Matchdays 28 and 34; Edwards (19) stepped up from the U19s to the reserves in 2019/20, and he will now be joined there by Kayo (18), who arrived from Orange County SC this summer. Hernandez-Foster (18), who likewise signed on recently, has been earmarked for the U19s.
So what do Wolfsburg have that others don’t? For starters, Marcel Schäfer. The former left-back won the Bundesliga title with the Wolves in 2009 and left in 2017 to join American second-division outfit Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2017 in what he dubbed an “educational trip”.
At 32, he was still fit and good enough to ply his trade in the Bundesliga or the MLS, but Schäfer made the conscious decision to move to Florida with an eye on his career after hanging up his boots, having agreed to return to Wolfsburg as part of the management team.
“Tampa made me an offer in which I would be able to do internships with the club’s management and at the clubs in the surrounding area – in American football, ice hockey and baseball at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lightning and the Rays,” Schäfer told transfermarkt.de.
“I was able to gain experience in every different area and I had a lot of interesting conversations with decision makers, like the general managers, the head coaches and in the scouting department. Obviously you can’t directly compare those sports to football, but I was still able to learn an unbelievable amount from it.
“In football, it’s always about the philosophy and values you have as a club, about how you put a team together and what aspects are important when you make a signing. Americans are very willing to experiment in those areas, they try out a lot of things. It was very interesting for me to see that.”
Armed with the first-hand knowledge of how clubs and players operate in the US, Schäfer returned to Wolfsburg as sporting director, a role he has held since summer 2019.
That obviously puts Wolfsburg at an advantage over other teams, from the Bundesliga and elsewhere, when it comes to making moves stateside. But if Schäfer is part of the how, what about the why?
This is where Pablo Thiam comes in. “We scout players all over the place and then analyse what makes sense for us,” said the former Bayern and Wolfsburg defender, who now heads up the Wolves’ youth academy.
“The US market isn’t yet as crowded in terms of scouts, which is down to the distance involved, but also the fact the game is structured differently.”
Schäfer’s input and database of contacts is no doubt invaluable in this regard.
Yet Wolfsburg’s interest goes further than that; after all, there is no point going to all that effort if the players don’t have the right quality. “The Americans have caught up in youth development in terms of training players and their physical conditioning,” said Thiam. “There’s a lot of potential.”
Wolfsburg’s willingness to go that extra mile – or the extra few thousand miles across the Atlantic as the case may be – is vital. “When you’re signing an American youngster, having a personal connection is enormously important,” Thiam continued. “We get to know their families and explain to them how things work at Wolfsburg and how football is structured with us.”
That is no mere rhetoric. When Llanez was called up to the senior US team for the first time in early 2020, Thiam flew out to Los Angeles to watch and support the attacking midfielder score the only goal of the game in a friendly win over Costa Rica.
Wolfsburg’s framework, then, is ideally structured to identify and harness young American players. And the players themselves also benefit greatly from a move to the Volkswagen Arena.
Not only is Brooks’ presence in the first team a very real and tangible reminder of what is possible for club and country, Thiam underlined that “the players all finish their high school diplomas over here,” and that “it’s good for the boys to learn another culture”.
A rounded education away from the pitch will certainly have been attractive for Llanez and Co., but, as Thiam pointed out, it is the opportunities they could get on it that are arguably the biggest draw: “Young players can begin a career with us that perhaps wouldn’t be possible for them in the USA.”