At first it was only Christian Pulisic flying the flag for talented young American players in the Bundesliga, but the former Borussia Dortmund star was soon joined by Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, Joe Scally and many more.
So why are the brightest USMNT hopefuls packing their bags and taking the transatlantic trip over to Germany? The resident experts at bundesliga.com have put on their star-spangled thinking caps and come up with a few ideas…
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1) Giving youth a chance
It's no secret that the Bundesliga is a fantastic place for young players to develop, whether they grew up down the road or on the other side of the planet. Germany's top-flight clubs boast some of the world's top academies, renowned for helping their charges develop both on and off the pitch. Following disappointment on the international stage in the early 2000s, the DFB invested heavily in footballing infrastructure and the results have been spectacular.
"I would say the youth systems in Germany are what have impressed me the most," Pulisic once explained to ESPN. "How they grow their youth players into full professionals. I'm right there and I see it every day, I literally went through the system. You're fighting with other players every day for a pro contract. It's something that [US Soccer] can definitely learn from."
Not every player boasts Pulisic's talent and not every player manages to break into the Bundesliga's first-team squads, but those who do are regularly given a chance to showcase their ability. A recent study showed that the average age of starting XIs in the German top flight in 2018/19 was the lowest in any of Europe's top five leagues, at a shade over 26 years. The average on Dortmund's teamsheet was under 25 as they fell just two points of champions Bayern Munich after 34 games that season, and just under 26 in 2019/20.
"If you look at the statistics, the Bundesliga is the youngest of the top five leagues in Europe," said Steve Cherundolo, who joined Hannover as a 19-year-old and played over 400 games for the club, eventually becoming captain and earning the nickname the 'Mayor of Hanover'. "Younger players get opportunities and not just 20 minutes here, 15 minutes there. They get real opportunities to start games."
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Pulisic is a perfect illustration. By no means the first American to star in the Bundesliga from a young age, the precocious former BVB attacker nevertheless became something of a standard-bearer for the current generation, given that his Croatian passport allowed him to join Dortmund at the age of 16 rather than 18. He made his top-flight debut as a 17-year-old in January 2016, then went on to make 43 appearances in all competitions in 2016/17 and 42 in 2017/18, breaking a host of records for club and country along the way.
"I spoke to Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie about the league while we were with the national team, they're both good friends of mine," explained Tyler Adams to Bild, before joining RB Leipzig from the New York Red Bulls in the 2018/19 winter break. "It won't be easy to adapt, but the Bundesliga is well known for giving young players a chance."
Bundesliga clubs are also wary of not exposing their talented youngsters to the limelight before the time is ripe. Los Angeles native Haji Wright, for example, arrived at the Schalke academy in March 2016, but it wasn't until November 2018 that he made his Bundesliga debut, after stints with second-tier Sandhausen and the club's reserves. He scored his first top-flight goal against Bayer Leverkusen in his fourth appearance.
Josh Sargent, meanwhile, only got the nod from Werder Bremen first-team coach Florian Kohfeldt in December 2018, five months after arriving in Germany. The forward showed that good things come to those who wait as he came off the bench to score 86 seconds into his Bundesliga debut, a 3-1 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf when he was just 18.
"It's great, I'm very happy for him," enthused recently retired Bremen legend Claudio Pizarro, the Bundesliga's oldest-ever goalscorer at over 40 years and seven months. "It was his first time with the squad, first time on the pitch and he scored, it's very important. I think it'll give him confidence for the next games."
The Peruvian's prediction was spot on: Sargent was back on the scoresheet a few weeks later as Bremen and Leipzig played out a five-goal thriller. That experience of top-level football stood Sargent in good stead, to the extent that he became a first-team regular in the 2019/20 campaign.
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2) A match made in heaven
There are several factors that make the Bundesliga more suitable for American players than Europe's other top leagues, and one of them is purely administrative: it is easier to get hold of a work permit in Germany than in the UK, where non-EU players are required to have featured in a certain percentage of their country's recent senior competitive matches to obtain an endorsement from the English FA.
"Work permits aren't very difficult to get in Germany, as long as you're 18," Cherundolo confirmed. "So it's more accessible for Americans, who don't have to jump through hoops to get a work permit."
Furthermore, compared to the Bundesliga, the Premier League is a championship where young players don't get so much of a look-in, which explains why a number of talented English prospects have been following in the footsteps of their American counterparts and heading to Germany. Jadon Sancho once admitted that seeing Pulisic in action helped to convince him to leave Manchester City for the promise of regular first-team football with Dortmund.
"BVB have a lot of young talented players and a lot of history, so at the time I was looking at Christian Pulisic," admitted the Englishman. "He was about 18 or 19 and I just looked up to him, and thought I could do the same thing."
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So what of Europe's other big championships – Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A or France's Ligue 1? The language barrier is one important consideration. American players are far likelier to be able to converse regularly in English in Germany, which is ranked 10th on the EF English Proficiency Index – well ahead of Spain (32nd), Italy (34th) and France (35th). Proper communication is a key part of settling into a new club, especially for teenagers who have flown halfway around the world to pursue their footballing dreams.
There is also a distinct footballing identity attached to each of the old continent's major leagues. Spain places a high emphasis on technical ability, Italy is reputed for its defensive strategies and tactical prowess, France has a physical and defensive approach, while Germany embraces the high-octane attacking game also found in England. For Bundesliga legend Lothar Matthäus, who spent his playing days with Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayern and Inter Milan before winding down his career in the United States, the full-blooded American playing style is perfectly suited to the German top flight.
"We're happy to have these young Americans in the Bundesliga because they're excellent players and they have everything we like to see in Germany," he told Bleacher Report. "They're strong in defence, rapid in attack and they can score goals. We have a similar mentality. It's not so difficult for Americans to come to Germany. It's much harder when they have to play in Spain, for example, or Italy – different soccer, different mentality."
Reyna is perhaps one of the best examples of an American youngster with Bundesliga attitude. With his energetic, cultured style, the versatile playmaker has taken to life in Germany like a duck to water and added a valuable X-factor Dortmund's team.
"Reyna has a great mentality," said USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter. "He's still young, but plays like an old hand. He has this hunger to always win everything and wants to improve in every training session.
"You could see this professional attitude in him as a teenager. What he shows in Dortmund is fantastic. He has real attacking quality. You think about the prospect of these guys getting even better, it’s really exciting."
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3) The German-American connection
Germany has been a happy hunting ground for American players for several generations, with Pulisic, Reyna and Co. following in the footsteps of Cherundolo, Tom Dooley and Berhalter. The relationship goes both ways, of course: being exposed to elite-level competitions such as the Bundesliga and the UEFA Champions League is likely to help the emerging generation improve the fortunes of the US national team after the trauma of failing to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
"I'm watching with a lot of excitement right now," explained former USA midfielder Jermaine Jones, who was born in Germany but went on to win 69 caps for the Stars and Stripes. "I see the young boys in the national team and most of them play overseas, that's how it has to be. You have to go where you have to battle every day for your spot. If you have the chance to go and play in Europe, maybe play Champions League, that helps soccer in America in general, and that helps the national team."
The now retired Jones belongs to a generation of American players with dual parentage, mostly as a result of US military servicemen being posted in Germany. Dooley, one of the first Americans to star in the Bundesliga in the 1980s and 1990s, hailed from Bavaria, while the likes of John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Julian Green, and brothers Malik and Timothy Tillman were all born and grew up on German soil before switching allegiance. The link between the two nations was further reinforced by Jürgen Klinsmann's five-year stint as head coach of the USMNT.
"If a player has a chance to go to Europe, I say, 'Yes, go, because it's three levels above,'" Klinsmann explained to Sports Illustrated. "You need a spine of seven to eight other players on the level of Pulisic, playing at high-calibre clubs in Europe."
The message about the quality of football in Europe and the opportunities for development in the Bundesliga has now filtered through to a generation of youngsters who grew up Stateside but are determined to make it on the other side of the pond. Pulisic was advised against a move to Barcelona and instead chose Dortmund, while McKennie turned down an MLS Homegrown Player contract with FC Dallas to join Schalke. Adams had to wait a few more years for his moment to come, but the midfielder believes his two full seasons with the New York Red Bulls served him well before arriving in Leipzig.
"I could've gone to Europe [at 16]," Adams admitted. "I could have waited until I was 18 to play my first game and maybe had 10 games under my belt by now, but instead I have 70 [in MLS]. I'm more established now and I'm more prepared for the next challenge."
Former Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich captain Berhalter is the man who has been tasked with getting the US men's national team back on track. As well as spending seven years playing in Germany, the 46-year-old New Jersey native holds a coaching licence from the prestigious DFB academy in Cologne, and therefore knows exactly what the Bundesliga has to offer.
"The Bundesliga is a top league in the world, so that's taken into consideration when you consider a player's performance," Berhalter told bundesliga.com. "For us to be a top team in the world we need players performing in top leagues in the world. This is a high-level programme, and if you can perform here that means you're a high-level player."
Essentially, America's most talented young players are flocking to the Bundesliga because it is their surest path to the top of the game – and the German top flight could well be powering the USMNT machine for a generation as Reyna, Adams, Pepi and pals look to star in Qatar and beyond.
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