Lutz Pfannenstiel: Bundesliga Meets MLS

Lutz Pfannenstiel turned down Bayern Munich as a teenager before embarking on a globe-trotting career unique in world football. Now, the former Hoffenheim and Fortuna Düsseldorf official is sporting director at St. Louis City, giving him a unique perspective on the links between German and US soccer.

Pfannenstiel made back-page headlines in 2008 when he signed for Brazilian side Atletico Ibirama, making him the first and to date only person ever to have played professionally in all six FIFA confederations.

Now 47, the former goalkeeper, who earned five caps for Germany at U17 level, is continuing his journey following a period of relative quiet – by his standards – in which he spent nine consecutive years in his homeland: first as Hoffenheim’s head of international relations and scouting (2011-2018) before a year as sporting director at Düsseldorf.

Pfannenstiel in 2006 making a catch for New Zealand outfit Otago United, one of the 27 clubs he represented professionally across the globe. - Sandra Mu/Getty Images

He moved to the US last summer following Fortuna’s relegation to Bundesliga 2., and is now charged with helping build a St. Louis team from the ground up in preparation for the side joining the MLS in 2023.

“Pfannenstiel will serve as the first member of our technical staff ahead of our inaugural MLS season,” read a club statement announcing his arrival.

“He will be responsible for all on-field operations for St. Louis City SC, which includes recruiting coaches, hiring staff, identifying and signing players, and creating and developing a youth academy.”

That might sound like a daunting task to most people, but Pfannenstiel is relishing the challenge and tackling it head on. “For me personally it’s the most exciting project [there is] internationally at the moment,” he told bundesliga.com.

Watch: From the archives: Pfannenstiel in 2015

Pfannenstiel and top-level soccer may be new to St. Louis, but there are already Bundesliga ties to the city in eastern Missouri; it is the hometown of Werder Bremen forward Josh Sargent.

And the 13-time USA international was quick to praise the club, founded in August 2019, after they confirmed their newest arrival. “Congratulations St. Louis for landing Lutz Pfannestiel as sporting director,” he said in a video message to the club.

“I know him a little bit from my time in the Bundesliga. He was at Fortuna Düsseldorf as sporting director and I’ve only heard very good things about him. I think it’s very exciting and a very good opportunity for him going to St. Louis and the MLS. I think he’ll be a big success and I want to wish him the best of luck.”

Not that Pfannenstiel will need it. Sharp, quick-witted and with a keen eye for a player, he is credited with ‘discovering’ former Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and has kept a close eye on the Bundesliga as a co-commentator for the world feed.

“It helps me a lot in evaluating players,” he said. “It helps me a lot in looking at players from different perspectives, and from a scouting approach, because I have a lot of different visions immediately.”

As such, he has witnessed first-hand - and been an agent of - the increasing numbers of gifted American players making their way to Germany. “For me to see the growth of soccer in the United States, having worked myself to take Zack Steffen from Manchester City to Dusseldorf last year, it showed me how much potential there is also in young players,” he told Grant Wahl’s Futbol podcast.

Steffen himself also congratulated St. Louis on “getting a very experienced ex-player, an experienced businessman who knows the game and who knows his way around players.”

There is no denying that. And he knows his way around all other aspects of the game, too: “The league [MLS] is getting better. The teams are moving away from just bringing older big names and bringing in younger, hungry guys. That's also a route I am completely convinced we will go for as well. So seeing that the league is just simply getting better, more competitive, is a great thing.”

Watch: Steffen making waves, and saves, in the Bundesliga in 2019/20

Pfannenstiel cites Bayern left-back Alphonso Davies as an example of that, the Canadian having successfully made the switch from the MLS to the Bundesliga. “There’s a big growth of talent here in the States,” he said. “Davies is probably the fairytale story of MLS players entering the German market.”

RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams is another example of a young player establishing themselves in the MLS before crossing the Atlantic, but the path taken by Chris Richards, a primary beneficiary of the partnership agreement between Bayern and FC Dallas, is evidence that other routes are possible, while benefitting clubs in the US and in Germany.

“If you’re a great player in the MLS, it must be your drive and your ambition to play in the European Champions League,” Pfannenstiel said.

It is still early days for Pfannestiel’s project in St. Louis, of course, but for a man bold and self-assured enough to turn down a contract offer from Bayern at the age of 18, there seems little doubt he will succeed: “Looking back, I think I must have done something right!”