Top 5 Foreign Prospects for the USMNT
If you can’t beat 'em… get them to join you.
International recruits have been integral to the United States men’s national team since Jurgen Klinsmann took over in 2011. Indeed, foreign imports comprised almost a third of the 2014 World Cup roster: Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Julian Green and Timmy Chandler constituted the German-American bloc in Brazil, while Mix Diskerud (Norway) and Aron Johannsson (Iceland) rounded out the dual-national contingent.
Some, including Jorge Arangure Jr. of VICE Sports, have criticized Klinsmann for focusing too much on poaching foreign talent instead of revamping the development academies. But grass roots changes take time to bear fruit, as was the case when Germany won the 2014 World Cup ten years after then-manager Jurgen Klinsmann overhauled the German development system.
In the interim, it makes sense to recruit American talent—no matter how tenuous the connection—wherever it can be found. If their bona fides are good enough for the United States government, they’re good enough for the national team.
Accordingly, these rankings only consider dual-nationals who (a) are eligible for citizenship but have not yet become naturalized, or (b) are immediately eligible to play for the United States but could still cap-tie themselves to other soccer federations.
Players with a clear path to citizenship (as opposed to those who must undergo a lengthy rigmarole of bureaucracy) are rated higher for the purposes of these rankings, as are players less likely to be tempted by competing loyalties to other nations.
Obviously, raw potential is paramount. Form (taking into account the relative strength of their club) and age (anyone older than 25 stretches the definition of “prospect” and is therefore excluded from consideration) are the principal barometers here.
Lastly, because the United States is desperate for young talent up front, forwards are valued at a premium.
Enough with the transparency. On to the rankings.
*Individual player stats via MLSsoccer.com and Bundesliga.com/en/.
Honorable Mention: Tesho Akindele, Darlington Nagbe, Juan Pablo Ocegueda
Although they didn’t crack the top five, Tesho Akindele, Darlington Nagbe and Juan Pablo Ocegueda could find themselves wearing red, white and blue in the near future.
Akindele is the most intriguing prospect of the three. In his first year in MLS, the 22 year-old Akindele has scored seven goals in 21 appearances for FC Dallas, putting the forward in the discussion for MLS Rookie of the Year.
Born in Canada, Akindele moved to Colorado as a child and is immediately eligible to represent Canada (he’s played for Canada’s U17 team) and Nigeria (through his father).
According to Brooke Tunstall at American Soccer Now, Akindele has applied for citizenship and expects to become naturalized by the end of the year. After turning down a call-up to Canadian camp for a September 9 friendly against Jamaica, Akindele appears poised to commit to America.
Darlington Nagbe could be another dual-national target. The 24 year-old midfielder scored nine goals for the Portland Timbers in 2013 and ranked No. 1 on the MLS "24 under 24" list that year. Unfortunately, Nagbe has yet to score a goal in 2014.
If Nagbe regains his form he could become a hot recruit. Although he was born in Liberia, Nagbe has lived in the U.S. almost his entire life, and, according to Dan Itel at mlssoccer.com, is on track to become a citizen by 2015.
Juan Pablo Ocegueda is another name mentioned in U.S. recruiting circles, but unlike Nagbe and Akindele, Ocegueda does not need to go through any naturalization process (he was born in California).
The issue with Ocegueda has been competition from Mexico. But the left back has represented the United States at the U18, U20, and U23 levels, making it more likely that the Ocegueda will choose the U.S. over Mexico.
5. Diego Fagundez, 19 (Attacking Midfielder, New England Revolution)
Uruguayan native Diego Fagundez made his professional debut for the New England Revolution as a sixteen year-old in 2011, scoring two goals in six games. After a solid second year, the attacking midfielder exploded for 13 goals in 31 games during the 2013 season and continues to be productive with five goals during the current MLS campaign.
Not bad for a teenager.
Unfortunately, Fagundez faces a byzantine route to citizenship. Even though he has lived in the U.S. since he was a child, Fagundez didn’t obtain a Green card until October 2013, according to Ryan Rosenblatt of starsandstripesfc.com, which means that unless he marries an American soon (he’s an eligible bachelor, ladies) he cannot be naturalized until after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
To make matters worse, Fagundez’s path to naturalization involves strict residency requirements, creating something of a Catch-22: If Fagundez develops into a premier talent, he will likely play abroad, making it difficult to spend the requisite time in the U.S. to obtain citizenship.
In the end, Fagundez may decide it isn’t worth the bureaucratic headaches and commit to Uruguay. He has been playing for the Uruguay U20 team since 2012, and it may prove difficult to turn down his homeland if they come calling.
Still, at just 19 years old, Fagundez is too talented to omit from the top five.
4. Kekuta Manneh, 19 (Forward, Vancouver Whitecaps)
Diego Fagundez isn’t the only 19-year-old MLS standout on the national team’s radar.
Gambian-born Kekuta Manneh debuted for the Vancouver Whitecaps as an 18-year-old in 2013, scoring six goals in 20 appearances during his rookie season. The speedy winger has followed up on his debut campaign with three goals in 24 games during the 2014 MLS season.
Manneh was adopted by American parents after moving to the States as a 15 year-old, and, according to Farhan Devji of whitecapsfc.com, could become a citizen by 2016 through a naturalization process far less complicated than Fagundez.
Still, as with all dual-nationals, there is the lure of playing for the home country. Manneh was called up to the Gambia U20 team in March 2014, but was unable to participate due to injury.
Manneh hasn’t indicated whether he prefers Gambia or the United States, but given that Gambia has never qualified for the World Cup (or even the African Cup of Nations, for that matter) it’s hard to envision Manneh choosing Gambia over his adoptive home country in the United States.
3. Dom Dwyer, 24 (Forward, Sporting KC)
At 24, Dom Dwyer is the oldest player in the top five. He's also the most accomplished. Earlier this month Dwyer broke MLS legend Preki’s club record for goals in a season with 19 for Sporting KC.
It's been a long, strange trip for the Englishman. When he was 17, Dwyer broke his foot three times in one year, and doctors told him that he would never play soccer again.
Fortunately, he got a second opinion.
Bent on overcoming his foot injuries, Dwyer left England to attend Tyler Junior College in Texas—where he won two junior college championships and scored 37 goals as a sophomore—before completing his college career at the University of South Florida.
Now, the boy who was told he would never play again is a bona fide star in the MLS (you may recognize him from his notorious selfie goal celebration).
Dwyer has embarked upon the path to citizenship and, according to Brian Sciaretta at American Soccer Now, is on schedule to become naturalized by February 2017, which would give him a year of training with the U.S. national team before the next World Cup.
Still, Dwyer admitted in an interview with mlssoccer.com that it would be difficult to turn down an invitation to play for England:
If the offer ever came to me, I think it would be a difficult one to say no to. I'm from England, born and raised there, but I've been in the U.S. for quite a few years and have a lot of love for this country and enjoy being here.
But I don't know where I'll be in 2017. You don't know where you'll be tomorrow. So you have to just kind of take it as it comes, and if the opportunity comes—I'm not sure if [England manager] Roy Hodgson's going to be calling me any time soon, so we'll just have to wait and see.
If England doesn't come calling, Dwyer would be a valuable asset to the USMNT.
2. Shawn Parker, 21 (Forward, FC Augsburg)
You didn’t think there could be a list of top foreign prospects without a German-American, did you?
Not to be confused with the Napster founder, Shawn Parker was born in Wiesbaden to an American serviceman father and German mother. Parker only lived in the United States for a few months—he spent less than a year in Virginia as a 12 year-old before the family moved back to Germany—but because his father is an American citizen, Parker is immediately eligible for the U.S. national team.
Parker’s work-rate is excellent, and he has proven he can play at the highest level of German football. He made his Bundesliga debut as a 19-year-old for FSV Mainz 05, and scored four goals in 27 appearances in two seasons for the German side before transferring within the Bundesliga to FC Augsburg in July 2014.
Jurgen Klinsmann has reached out to Parker about switching allegiances to the United States, but it will be difficult to pry Parker away from the German federation. Parker has represented Germany at the U15, U16, U17, U18, U19, U20 and U21 levels, and Parker himself indicated in an interview with Brian Sciaretta at The New York Times that he would choose Germany over the United States if given a choice:
It is a hard decision to make of course. One should be very proud to play for the country your father is from. I am playing for Germany now and this is my home base. Both sides are very interesting. I like Germany now, but I won’t rule out that I will play for the United States in the future.
If Klinsmann strikes out on Parker, he can shift his focus to Parker’s younger brothers—Devante and Jermaine—who are part of the Mainz youth teams.
1. Gedion Zelalem, 17 (Midfielder, Arsenal)
The crown jewel of foreign prospects, 17-year-old Gedion Zelalem is the youngest player in the top five and already plays with a Champions League side in England.
The phenom debuted for Arsenal at just 16 years old earlier this year in an FA Cup match against Coventry City, and signed an extension to remain with the club in March 2014.
In an interview with Avi Creditor of Sports Illustrated, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger sang Zelalem’s praises:
He is a player with a good eye and good technique and is very agile. He has the ambition to find the ball on the field. So he's the kind of player who could be of use to the United States. He's in some ways the type of player the U.S. was missing in the World Cup.
He is potentially an international player, for sure. But the next two or three years he will have to show he has the mental qualities to fill that potential. That's what's at stake for him now. If he grows physically, since he's slim, and continues to develop his mentality, the potential is there for him to be a top professional player.
Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents but raised in the United States, Zelalem is eligible to become an American citizen under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, provided his father becomes a citizen by Gedion’s 18th birthday (January 26, 2015).
The Washington Post's Steven Goff reported in May 2014 that Zelalem was close to obtaining citizenship, but nothing came of it. The clock is ticking: If Zelalem does not become a citizen by January 2015 he will all but lose his eligibility to become naturalized and play for the U.S. national team.
Germany, for one, wouldn’t mind if the clock runs out. Zelalem has represented Die Mannschaft at the U15, U16 and U17 levels. But Zelalem kept American hopes alive when he turned down a call-up to the Germany roster for the U17 European qualifiers in March 2014.
It would be a coup for Klinsmann to snatch another rising star out of the German ranks less than a year after poaching Julian Green. But, as is the case with all foreign prospects, it all depends on government forms and Zelalem's desire to wear the American shirt.
The short-term future of U.S. Soccer may depend on it.