On the opening weekend of the 2021-21 Bundesliga season, there were six Americans in action. Gio Reyna scored his first Bundesliga goal for Borussia Dortmund, Tyler Adams helped RB Leipzig to an opening-round win, John Brooks was on duty for Wolfsburg, Timothy Chandler was a late sub for Eintracht Frankfurt, Josh Sargent started for Werder Bremen, and Chris Richards got 17 minutes as Bayern Munich brushed aside Schalke.
Cast your eye over the squad lists and academies up and down the Bundesliga, and there are Americans breaking through in 16 of the 18 top-flight teams; there are, at last count, 50 U.S.-qualified players in the top three German divisions.
In recent years, German clubs in particular have made a mad scramble to sign the best, young U.S. soccer talent. Speak to players, coaches and agents, and each has a slightly different take on why there are so many Americans in the Bundesliga. You have the ease of work permits, the American mentality, the growing talent pool, the Jurgen Klinsmann effect of the early 2010s, legacies of the U.S. Army presence during the Cold War, the lack of transfer fees, the appeal of the U.S. market from a brand-advancement point of view and, of course, the Christian Pulisic factor.
Ultimately, every club in the Bundesliga wants to find their own Captain America.
The story and legacy of U.S. players in the Bundesliga
There is no exact science to how the past and present USMNT players in Germany ended up there. The German top flight has been a place where Americans have found a home in the past: Eric Wynalda, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, Jovan Kirovski and Brian McBride all played in Germany at the start of their careers. Steve Cherundolo, who won 87 caps for the USMNT, played for Hannover 96 his entire career and is nicknamed "Mayor of Hannover."
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the U.S. side in 2011, he encouraged young players to look abroad, while also targeting dual-nationality players ("Deutschamerikaners") in the Bundesliga like John Brooks, Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and Timothy Chandler (all of whom had fathers in the military and stationed in Germany).
But the flashpoint, or "eureka" moment, came in the form of Pulisic. He arrived on a free transfer at Borussia Dortmund aged 15 thanks to a Croatian passport, which allowed him to circumnavigate the FIFA regulations prohibiting non-EU players under the age of 18 moving abroad. By the time he turned 18, he'd made 11 top-flight appearances. By the age of 20, he had secured a £58m move to Chelsea as one of the best young players in the world. Dortmund had unearthed a gem, and it didn't take long for other clubs to explore the same talent pool.
Weston McKennie was the next to break through, his form for Schalke since leaving FC Dallas in 2017 earning him a move to Juventus. Elsewhere, Adams joined RB Leipzig from sister club New York Red Bulls, Sargent signed for Werder Bremen having earned trials in Europe after standing out at the now-defunct U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Richards was signed by Bayern Munich from FC Dallas -- the two have established a youth development pathway, with Hoffenheim and FC Cincinnati announcing a similar relationship last Friday.
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"The reason why it's so good now for American players is that Germany is probably the best league in the world at investing in young talent, believing in young talent and using young talent," RB Salzburg boss Jesse Marsch told ESPN. "That's really good for young players coming over here. And I think that's why they are willing to make the leap to come to this league specifically. I also think the mentality of young American players is [a] really good [fit]."
There are the next crop of American youngsters knocking on the door, like 18-year-old forward Matthew Hoppe at Schalke, dreaming of their opportunity in the Bundesliga. "You have to sacrifice a lot to play out here -- there's a learning curve, but you just have to keep going and keep working hard for your goals and dreams," Hoppe told ESPN. "I think there are a lot of talented players in the USA. They just need to take the jump to Europe, and they need to keep developing their game and take the risk."
An alignment in mentality
One Bundesliga academy head told ESPN young American players have a lot of "discipline and self-motivation" and come with a "certain mentality -- they know how to progress and prevail." An agent told ESPN the mindset and athleticism seen in young U.S. players is a "pull for German clubs." As one player told ESPN: "We just get our heads down and do it."
Academy heads see this mentality as one that works well in tandem with German players of a similar age, while traditional German "gegenpressing" style, founded on hard running and an emphasis on fitness, suits young players too.
Pablo Thiam, head of Wolfsburg's academy, told ESPN: "The [young U.S. players] are athletically trained when they come here [to Germany]. This plays a bigger role stateside and we school them in tactics; they usually lack one, maybe two components and that's what we work on."
Marsch knows both sides of the coin well having been assistant at Leipzig, and also having worked in MLS. "When a lot of the young German youth coaches or coaches in general see the young Americans come over here, they see this confidence, they see this will to win and they see this mentality to do whatever it takes," Marsch told ESPN. "That fits well with the German mentality of wanting to be the best and wanting to be the most professional and wanting to make sure they are the most prepared and organized.
"The combination of the two means that you get some fearless players to put into a good environment and give them a chance to grow and get better and these American players are willing to adapt and learn and grow and do whatever it takes. The combination of the two cultures has led to this being a positive trend, and a trend that I hope continues."
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When talking to young Americans in Germany, you are struck by their maturity. In our interview Hoppe spoke succinctly but with direction, with his comments anchored on doing everything possible -- like spending lockdown focusing on building muscle -- to achieve personal success.
"I was able to learn a lot here, improve my technique, improve my tactical awareness, mental strength, physique... it was a no-brainer to come to Schalke and play here," Hoppe said. "In America I was lacking in intensity to get better -- I was working hard, training a lot and doing everything. But there's a difference now in the intensity and the will as to how bad I want it."
Balancing risk and reward
This is a two-way beneficial relationship: German clubs all want to find the next Pulisic, while so many young American players want to follow in his footsteps. Pulisic proved the talent is there -- it needs to be nurtured.
Another boon for German sides searching for talent in the U.S. involves economics. The bizarre, antiquated arrangement, whereby American clubs were prohibited from chasing training compensation or payments for any player in their system who was yet to sign a pro contract, has allowed a lot of young U.S.-based players to move abroad for free or, at best, a nominal fee. Major League Soccer has since changed its stance this April, bringing their clubs and new academies in line with FIFA protocol, but we are yet to see this have a real impact on the transfer market.
One prominent agent told ESPN MLS academies may dangle a transfer fee or compensation as a "threat," but no club has yet filed a claim. "I still think you're going to have American kids going to Germany because they're cheap and quality, but we've yet to see, outside of [Bayern Munich's] Alphonso Davies, teams paying big money for MLS players -- that's the next litmus test."
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For the wealthier German clubs, the risk is low: sign a promising player, develop them and you might end up with a superstar (Reyna, Pulisic, Sargent and McKennie were all signed on free transfers). If not, there'll be plenty of teams back in the U.S. who will be willing to sign the player back.
"If a player is interesting, you will always look for a solution with the current club," Thiam, who played for 24 years in Germany with Cologne, Stuttgart, Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg, told ESPN. "And we always find a solution."
Even if a player does get signed to an MLS contract, they're still relatively cheap for interested teams. Borussia Monchengladbach signed American right-back Joe Scally this summer -- signed to NYCFC -- for £1.3m, while Philadelphia Union midfielder Brandon Aaronson is also on a number of teams' radars in Germany and elsewhere on the continent, sources told ESPN.
While there are lots of other pathways for U.S. talent taking the transatlantic leap to Europe -- Reggie Cannon is in Portugal with Boavista, Antonee Robinson is at Fulham and Sergino Dest is about to complete a move from Ajax to Barcelona -- the majority end up in Germany. Working to German football's advantage is the ease young American players have getting a work permit in the Bundesliga compared with the other big European leagues.
The rules for non-EU citizens to get a work permit in the Premier League are dependent on big transfer fees or wages, or international experience, while non-EU places in Serie A and La Liga squads are at a premium. In Germany a young, promising American player of 16 years old (provided they have dual European nationality; if not, it's 18 years old, per FIFA regulations) can get the required work permit if they have proof they're joining on a salary and are confirmed as a decent athletic prospect. (Schalke's Evan Rotundo, who has dual nationality with France, is one such America-qualified 16-year-old playing in Germany, having signed from San Diego Surf this summer.)
Pulisic's success saw more German teams investing in scouting in America, one source told ESPN. This also coincided with Bundesliga teams looking to foreign markets for commercial benefits -- Bayern Munich opened a New York office in 2014, and the Bundesliga opened theirs next to Munich's Grand Central station in 2018. Another source told ESPN we can expect to see more club partnerships, like Bayern-FC Dallas and Hoffenheim-FC Cincinnati that sees footballing knowledge, expertise and insight increasingly being transferred across the Atlantic.
Then there are connections at the personnel level. MLS expansion team St. Louis City SC, who begin play in 2023, appointed ex-German goalkeeper Lutz Pfannenstiel as their sporting director, while Claudio Reyna at Austin FC knows the Bundesliga first-hand. Across the sea back in Germany, you have New Jersey-born Pellegrino Matarazzo serving as head coach for VfB Stuttgart, while Marsch was an assistant coach at Leizpig in 2018-19 and is now leading RB Salzburg in Austria, winning everything in sight.
For the players themselves, the success of Pulisic and McKennie offers a proven track record of clubs backing youth and developing them. The Bundesliga -- with the likes of Jadon Sancho, Davies, Erling Haaland, Gio Reyna and Jude Bellingham -- has always been a place where youth is backed and talent is king.
This ethos caught the imagination of Hoppe at Schalke. Originally from California, he joined the Arizona branch of the Barca Residency Academy before scouts from Europe started taking an interest in the promising young forward.
"When I came here [Schalke] on trial, I was able to see first-hand the training, and meet all the coaches and see the holistic approach, how they develop players and how they turn people into world-class players and take me to the next level," Hoppe told ESPN. "The U23s and the first team have a very good relationship. They often bring up players to train with the first team regularly."
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Already at Schalke were fellow Americans Nick Taitague (promoted to the first team over the summer) and McKennie. "I think he [Weston] was an influence," Hoppe told ESPN. "He was a big star here at Schalke, and he was willing to show that Schalke were willing to play young players and young Americans. I spoke to him a few times and he gave me some encouragement and advice. It was a good conversation."
As one Bundesliga academy head told ESPN, "there is huge potential for extraordinary footballers [in Germany]. There is a huge growing rate, a huge pool of players who are all well-trained." The U.S. 2019 Under-20 World Cup team had six players contracted to German clubs, while the last Under-17 team had Pablo Soares from Borussia Monchengladbach and Noah Jones from RB Leipzig.
With the top Bundesliga clubs aware of promising American talent as young as 12 years old, the pathway is established. And with the Bundesliga's brand as a place that trusts in youth (Borussia Dortmund's opener against Gladbach was created by Reyna and Bellingham, who are both 17), it's seen as a place where age is irrelevant if you're good enough.
"There's not much politics involved," Klinsmann told ESPN. "The coaches are usually very straightforward. If the kid understands that it's all down to performance and they'll get the chance, the Bundesliga's the place to be."
Said Hoppe: "All the young players have an extreme talent and the Bundesliga's able to offer these players an opportunity to use their talent, to tweak it, improve all the things they need to work on. It's so wholesome [in Germany] -- they need to work on their strength, their technique, their tactical ability, their mental strength -- the league helps make them more a complete player."
The migration shows no signs of slowing. This summer gone, Arminia Bielefeld signed 16-year-old goalkeeper Carver Miller from DC United, while Joel Imasuen arrived at Hertha Berlin. Then Bayern and Barcelona were involved in a scramble for Dest. While some move on -- like Sebastian Soto, who joined Norwich City before going out on loan to SC Telstar in the Netherlands, or Blaine Ferri, who swapped Greuther Furth for Fort Lauderdale CF in the USL -- the machine keeps going.
"I think there are a lot of talented players in the USA," Hoppe says. "They just need to take the jump to Europe, they need to keep developing their game and take the risk."