Three years ago, Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic announced himself in the Bundesliga as a 17-year-old. Having entered the club’s youth system in 2015, the four years since have seen many young Americans follow in the future Chelsea winger’s footsteps.
Some have taken the highway to success and others, like Hannover’s Sebastian Soto, refined their talent in the many academies in the Bundesliga before debuting in one of world football’s most exciting leagues.
Banking on mentality and talent, Soto, an 18-year-old attacker at Hannover, already has three Bundesliga matches to his name and on Saturday could meet one of his role-models at the Allianz Arena in Munich.
Watch: Bayern came out 4-0 winners vs. Hannover earlier in 2018/19!
The Bundesliga has become the hotspot for those setting out for a European career. In the 2018/2019 season, 11 players with U.S. citizenship have featured in Germany’s top flight.
There are stars like Pulisic, Schalke all-rounder Weston McKennie or RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, and there are those working themselves through the academies, pursuing their dream, banking on their mentality and talent.
“Since I was little, I wanted to go to Europe,” Soto tells bundesliga.com. The latest to win minutes in Bundesliga when debuting for Hannover against Wolfsburg in early April. The attacker joined the club from Real Salt Lake’s academy last summer, taking the hard route instead of settling for an MLS contract. It was always his plan.
“When I made the decision to sign for Salt Lake, it wasn’t because I wanted to sign professionally for them. It would have been great too,” Soto explained. “But it was the next step for me to go to Europe. I couldn’t go there from San Diego.”
Growing up in San Diego, Soto left his family to head to Utah at the age of 15 with a clear plan sketched out for his career. Play for one of the best academies in the country, make it into the United States youth teams and then head to Europe to play in one of the big leagues.
San Diego had hoped to keep him. But there was nothing they could do. “They understood. They tried to get me to stay. But at the end of the day, Germany was the move for me.”
Hannover, Lower Saxony to be exact. Alongside fellow American Chris Gloster, who had joined from New York Red Bulls earlier in the summer, he made his first steps in the club’s U19 team, banging in the goals, with his current rate standing at one every 135 minutes.
Knowing that language is the key to settling-in, the pair took advice from Hannover legend Steve Cherundolo, whom they ran into at the training ground. “The first question was: How long did it take to learn German?”
The former USMNT international, who also came to Hannover from San Diego, told him to go into the city and order food and practice his German wherever and whenever he can.
In the winter, he was called up to the senior squad’s training camp. It was what he had hoped for when coming to the Bundesliga, the league which turned so many youngsters into professionals in recent seasons.
“The Bundesliga is such a big league and it’s a good league for young players,” says Soto. “Where do they trust young players? It’s here. You can get an opportunity. Once you get one, it’s all in your hands. The competition is amazing. The lifestyle is great. It’s better than any other country.”
A couple of months later, Soto found himself in the senior squad for the first time and has since featured in three games for Hannover. The club, battling against relegation from the top tier with just three games to play, might have gone through a difficult spell, but the young attacker could now be part of a fresh start in Bundesliga 2 in the coming season, bar an incredible comeback.
On Saturday, Soto could fulfil himself another dream. Switching the number 10 position for the number 9 when arriving at Real Salt Lake as a 15-year-old, he modelled his game after Robert Lewandowski.
“I am hoping to play him in Bundesliga one day,” he says. “Maybe swap jerseys after the match.” Saturday could be that day. Having achieved a lot in his first year abroad, Soto will not wane and rather keep pursuing his dream.
“One of the foundations of America is that you work hard for something that you want,” he says. “I didn’t realise I had that mentality. But then I came here, and I realised I had it.”