Stuck in the Middle with John Brooks

On the U.S. men's national team, nothing's for certain...especially the World Cup. So why, from injury limbo in Germany, is Team USA's most expensive, highest rated young superstar still oozing confidence? Because his American story is just getting started.
Amos BarshadContributor IOctober 3, 2017

The last time everyone was paying attention—really paying attention—was one propitious summer evening a few years back. It was also the first time most folks got a good long look at John Brooks.

June 2014. The U.S. men's national team was in the beachside Brazilian town of Natal playing their first match of the World Cup against an African power, Ghana. Clint Dempsey scored in the first minute.

"Now that is dreamland!" commentator Ian Darke exulted on the broadcast, for the millions—long nervy, suddenly hopeful—watching at home. In the 82nd minute, the inevitable equalizer came, by way of Ghana's Andre Ayew.

"I was like, 'Shit,'" Brooks recalls as we sit in the spiffy training grounds of his new Bundesliga club, VfL Wolfsburg. "I come in? And then they score? It's not good for me!"

In the locker room at halftime, Brooks greeted the team with cheers and backslaps while still in his socks. His cleats were new, too tight and hot; besides, he wasn't really expecting to play. Then an assistant coach grabbed him. Matt Besler, one of the starting center backs, had tweaked his hamstring. You're in.

Frantic, Brooks pulled on his jersey and squeezed into those boots. He had barely two minutes to warm up before the second half started. No time to think. No time to panic.

The corner kick came in the 86th minute. A small scrum of Americans and Ghanaians leaped together—too early. Behind them, Brooks found himself, at his apex, gifted with a rare commodity: a clear line of sight. He headed the ball down with power and intent; it bounced hard off the grass and then sweetly into the back of the net.

Dempsey and Ayew's celebrations had been furious, mature, unapologetic displays: flying fist pumps, joyful chest slaps. Brooks' celebration was pure, totally pure. And so it's one of the best you'll ever see.

He ran forward slightly dazed, toward nowhere. Everything about him was saying That…that did not just happen. Then he dropped to his knees, with his forehead to the ground. Everything about him was saying I…I need a minute.

Instead, he was instantly swarmed by his teammates, who got down to scream in his ears. A din of nonsense. The only words he could actually make out came from one of the forwards, Aron Johannsson. "He was saying, 'Believe it! Believe it!,'" Brooks recalls, with the slightest upturn at the corners of his lips. "Yeah. That's the only thing I heard."

This summer, once again, everyone paid attention to John Brooks. It wasn't a game that got us all riled up. Just a small bit of news: Wolfsburg had signed Brooks from Hertha Berlin for a transfer fee of €20 million.

Compared to the nearly unfathomable sums the sport's new earth gods go for, it was a hiccup. But for U.S. soccer, it was a historic landmark. That €20 million made Brooks the most expensive American soccer player ever. For a country forever struggling with a soccer-based inferiority complex, well, that was pretty rad.

OK, so, about that word: American. Watching him play, or hearing his name, there is no way to guess that Brooks was born and raised in Germany, that he's never lived in the U.S., that he speaks English with the slight but distinct accent of his clipped Teutonic mother tongue.

Brooks' U.S. citizenship comes through his father, a former serviceman from Chicago who was stationed in Berlin. (Brooks says "Cheecago," like "chia.") He's one of a handful of dual-national German-American players recruited by Jurgen Klinsmann, who coached the USMNT until being fired last November.

John Brooks (right) is one of several German-Americans who play for the U.S. team.
John Brooks (right) is one of several German-Americans who play for the U.S. team.(Getty Images)

Klinsmann, an unblinking optimist from California via Baden-Wurttemberg, embraced an internationalist vision of the U.S. team. His successor, Bruce Arena—from Long Island, New York, although, yeah, now that you mention it, he does kind of look like a critically acclaimed Russian poet in the middle of a three-day vodka stupor—represents something like the exact opposite.

"Players on the national team," Arena said a few years back, as the backlash to Klinsmann's approach brewed, "should be Americans. If they're all born in other countries, I don't think we can say we are making progress."

"I read that after Klinsmann got fired," Brooks says of the Arena quote. "My first reaction, of course, was, 'Is he still calling us up?'"

It wasn't long after that flash of beauty in the World Cup that Brooks became a first-choice center back for the U.S. and one of the team's bright young stars. But this is the grand, burbling project of U.S. soccer dominance: Nothing's ever for sure.

As the U.S. limps toward qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the program is being redefined on the fly. The Klinsmann-to-Arena switch complicates things for Brooks. So does the serious thigh injury he suffered just 37 minutes into his first Bundesliga game with Wolfsburg, which had him missing all remaining World Cup qualifiers.

And then there are the bigger questions Brooks has been caught in ever since he slipped on a USA jersey. Who gets to represent the country, anyway? Who gets to call themselves an American?

Wolfsburg, a quaint town plopped in the center of north Germany, is known for being the headquarters of Volkswagen and the home of VfL Wolfsburg and just about nothing else. There are modest green spaces and a humdrum commercial strip featuring both an Al Bundy Schuh Outlet and a Lupus: Bier & Cocktails. On the afternoon I arrive, there's a note on my hotel room desk apologizing for the inconvenience of nearby construction noises and a pair of earplugs "for the emergency that you need them."

Walking over to the team's grounds, I'm greeted by a man atop a tall construction lift who's finishing applying a massive image of a stoic John Brooks to the front of the Volkswagen Arena. Nearby there's a small hill bordering a training pitch where spectators line up to watch practices, like a scene out of Saxonian Friday Night Lights.

I walk down to the team offices to chat with Olaf Rebbe, Wolfsburg's sporting director. A boyish 40-something in tight jeans and a creamy sweater, he's the man responsible for paying all that money to sign Brooks away from Hertha Berlin.

"We hated him when he was there," Rebbe says. "Now we love him. I think he can be one of the top defenders in Germany, but his way is not ending in Germany. Maybe the next step must be the Premier League. And this amount"—Brooks' next theoretical transfer fee—"it will be much, much higher than we pay now. But I don't want to speak about it. Because first of all, I need him in Wolfsburg!"

Oh, yeah. The money. "Transfer amounts are sometimes, like, a little bit stupid," Rebbe says coyly. "A little bit crazy."

He means the way the press obsessed over them, the way huge numbers are thrown out without ever being fully confirmed; he says selling teams always lie and say the number is bigger than it really was, and that buying teams always do the exact opposite.

Nevertheless, he admits Wolfsburg—who were almost relegated last year—are betting big on Brooks to shore up a shaky foundation. And they're sure he has the gall to handle it. "It's a big decision for him, to go to a stressful situation, to show people he can be a top man. It's a serious decision to go away from home."

Brooks has an individual player rating of 80 in the FIFA 18 video game, the highest for an American player.
Brooks has an individual player rating of 80 in the FIFA 18 video game, the highest for an American player.(AP Images)

A lot has changed for Brooks since that night in Natal. His once close-cropped hair is now shaved to the skin. He's grown real facial hair. Most notably, he's gotten bigger, broader, bulkier; the kid once invariably referred to as "lanky" now easily fills out his 6'4" frame. On defense, whether with the U.S. or in the Bundesliga, he's stout, strong, oak-like. A presence. He seems older than his years.

Off the field, though, there are still reminders that, for all his experiences, he's only 24. A few seasons ago, he had to miss a game after having an adverse reaction to...a back tattoo. "Ughhhh, fuck off," he says, laughing, when I bring it up. "That was years ago! Old stuff!" What was the tattoo? "A wing." Pause. "A small wing!" As we talk, he wears a dad hat. It's got an adorable teddy bear on it. And that adorable teddy bear is dabbing.

Brooks grew up in Berlin, just over 200 kilometers east of Wolfsburg, the child of an American serviceman father and a German paralegal mother. His parents split up when he was young, and it was his mom tirelessly driving him to games and practices. She didn't much care about the sport one way or the other, but she'd do whatever she could, Brooks says, pouring out his gratitude, to give him every possible opportunity.

Whatever actual family soccer tutelage he got came from her father. "I [used to] head it like BOOOOOONGGG," Brooks recalls, waving a hand off his forehead to simulate the caroming. "Everywhere. My grandpa always always told me, 'Head it on the ground, on the ground, on the ground.'"

He attended the John F. Kennedy School, an elite bilingual institution full of children from military or embassy or some-other-way split backgrounds. In the neighborhood streets with the Germans, the game was soccer. At school with the fellow part-time Americans, it was always basketball. The soft power of American culture found him constantly: Brooks remembers watching The Lion King "like, four times a week." And all around him were the vestiges of hard power.

After World War II, the USSR and the victorious Western powers split Berlin into respective zones of occupation. Brooks grew up in a leafy southwestern neighborhood called Tempelhof, right within the borders of the city's old American sector. The U.S. Army's Berlin Brigade was first stationed there in 1961, when the USSR-controlled East Germany built the Berlin Wall.

Army presence brought with it U.S. culture: American Forces Network radio would play the hits from back home; Army cinemas would show the same movies they were watching in Texas or Nebraska; the Army's proprietary PX stores would stock Converse and Nike basketball sneakers.

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, as the Soviet Union was collapsing. By 1994—the year after Brooks was born—the last of the troops came home. But the decades of military presence birthed countless German-American families. That's the singular history that created the German-American talent pool Klinsmann would dip into again and again, from Jermaine Jones to Fabian Johnson to Brooks himself.

Growing up, Brooks' favorite player was the transcendent Arsenal striker Thierry Henry, and he dreamt of Henry's silky attacking moves. But as he got taller and taller, "always, it was one step back," Brooks says sheepishly. "Striker, to midfield, then back."

He'd join Hertha's youth system at 14, then go on to star for the first team playing Bundesliga games at the massive Olympiastadion (originally built for the 1936 Nazi-hosted Olympics). Hertha youth coach Frank Vogel remembers Brooks, in slightly broken English, as "a very fast player with a big jumping for the headers."

Jerome Kiesewetter (left) plays alongside John Brooks (second, right). Both come from U.S. military families.
Jerome Kiesewetter (left) plays alongside John Brooks (second, right). Both come from U.S. military families.(Getty Images)

Brooks' childhood best friend was a fellow Tempelhof kid named Jerome Kiesewetter, who now plays professionally at Dusseldorf. "I remember, like, the coaches complaining," Kiesewetter tells me. "They say we only pass the ball to each other." The two are still best friends. Like everyone who's close to Brooks, Kiesewetter calls him Jay.

Kiesewetter is also from a U.S. military family: His father was an African-American tank operator. "People would ask me where I'm from," he says. "I would say, "Germany.' And people would say, 'OK, but where is your real background?' I would ask my mom, 'Why is everyone saying that?'" Tersely, she would provide the ache-inducing explanation: "It was from my skin color."

That dejection forced him to seek some hook to his father's faraway USA, to make that place feel like home too. Both he and Brooks found that, in part, by dreaming of playing not for Die Mannschaft but for the Stars and Stripes. "'Maybe one day we would play together for the [U.S.] national team," Kiesewetter has recalled of their long-ago daydreams. "That would be so sick.'"

Early in his development, Brooks did attend camps with the German national team. He could have well pursued that route. But as he puts it, choosing between Germany and America wasn't all that tough: Brooks made up his mind, he says, when he was seven years old.

And despite the odds of such a thing, it would pan out for them both. During an under-20 tournament in Peru in 2010, the childhood friends debuted together for the U.S. The team got destroyed by Paraguay that night. But for once, a loss didn't much affect Jerome and Jay's moods.

Kiesewetter tells me of their conversation afterward: "We said, 'Now we're not just American because of a passport—we're national players.'"

In 2014, the New York Times Magazine profiled Klinsmann smack in the midst of his project to refashion American soccer in a global image. The reporter attended a Hertha game with Klinsmann and caught him practically salivating as Brooks, um, walked past him: "Klinsmann was most excited that day … [when] a 21-year-old defender named John Anthony Brooks loped by." The Times added, "Klinsmann … played a significant role in persuading Brooks to pledge his loyalty to the United States team."

Klinsmann did not respond to requests for comment. However, Berlin-based soccer journalist Erik Kirschbaum told me he'd recently visited a friend at the U.S. Embassy with Klinsmann, who happened to be in town, and that Klinsmann had chatted with staff members about Brooks.

"Klinsmann told them [Brooks would] use the chance at Wolfsburg to take his game to the next level," Kirschbaum recalls. "He said he's got a lot of talent, but he needs to keep pushing himself, and that he hoped a change of scenery would be good for him."

(Kirschbaum, who is an avowed partisan for the Klinsmann vision, also added that as Klinsmann entered the U.S. Embassy offices, "the whole staff just started applauding him like crazy.")

Jurgen Klinsmann encouraged Brooks to join the U.S. team after seeing his potential on the field.
Jurgen Klinsmann encouraged Brooks to join the U.S. team after seeing his potential on the field.(Getty Images)

Brooks recalls the enthusiasm with which Klinsmann recruited him and the joys he's had playing for the U.S. since. There's the goal against Ghana, of course, and the other highlights fans love to tick off ("Did you see that three-on-one break he stopped in the Copa America against Paraguay?!")

And there's the lifelong pals he's made, like Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin. "We call ourselves the Three Muskees," he says, laughing. He admits the coaching upheaval is scary. "I knew [Klinsmann] liked me. The new coach—new coaches always do something new!"

Arena has since assured Brooks his place is secure. "I've gotten the chance to visit him in Germany several times. We've gotten to know each other away from the field," Arena tells me. "He's young with great potential. He's got great size, good in the air, good in the tackle, a very good passer. We're hopeful he emerges both as a player and a personality. I think he just needs a little bit more experience to help him cut down on some mental lapses."

Brooks and Arena have not discussed Arena's previously expressed sentiments. When I ask Brooks if Arena's stated preference for native-born American players feels like a slight, he says: "No, no. It's the decision from the coach. You have to accept it, whatever it is."

That said, he did entertain the possibility that Arena would stop calling "us" up to the national team.


"Us—the German-Americans."

Brooks was initially worried he would no longer be able to participate with Bruce Arena as head coach of the U.S. team.
Brooks was initially worried he would no longer be able to participate with Bruce Arena as head coach of the U.S. team.(Getty Images)

Over the last year since Klinsmann's sacking, other prominent voices have piped up to echo the anti-international point of view. "What I think [Arena] will add is this ability to truly believe in the shirt …" goalkeeper Tim Howard said a few months after Klinsmann's firing. "Jurgen Klinsmann had a project to unearth talent around the world that had American roots. But having American roots doesn't mean you are passionate about playing for that country."

Brooks was 11 when he first traveled to the U.S. and can barely remember the visit. He tries to stay in touch with family in Chicago with phone calls, but he admits it's tough. He says he feels pulled between his two countries.

"When I'm here, I think I'm more American," he says. "When I'm in the U.S., compared to the 'real' Americans, I'm German." Reflecting that pull, he has a line tattoo of the state of Illinois on one elbow and one of his Berlin neighborhood on the other.

But to think any of that means he won't play as hard for "the shirt" just seems, well, dumb. Ask your first-generation immigrant pals: No one buys all that cliched, heart-swelling, American Dream stuff more than immigrants. For all of Klinsmann's foibles as a salesman or tactician, at least he saw the future of the team as a lot of us would still like to see the country: a place where anyone gets a chance to earn their spot.

The strange turns of the post-World War II American empire led to a generation of Germans with U.S. passports who love The Lion King. One of them even grew up dreaming of playing for the U.S. And then—as unlikely as it sounded when he was out on the Tempelhof streets—he actually made it happen. "Every time, when we talk about the U.S.," says Rebbe, the Wolfsburg sporting director, "his eyes are shining."

Brooks made history by becoming the most expensive American player when he was signed by Wolfsburg for €20 million.
Brooks made history by becoming the most expensive American player when he was signed by Wolfsburg for €20 million.(Getty Images)

And now he's even got himself an American record. The €20 million is more than Howard was ever bought for. It doubles the previous record, set when Jozy Altidore signed with Sunderland in 2013. When I bring it up, Brooks indicates he was unaware of the mark.

"I don't know. What happened there?"

Your transfer fee—it makes you the most expensive American ever!

"Oh. Who had it before?"

Jozy, I start to explain, at…

Brooks finishes the thought. "What'd Jozy have? Ten, yeah?" He stops, pops into a little smile, then tamps it down.

I confirm. Ten.

"OK, yeah. What should I say? I'm here to play soccer. The numbers, it's not my problem."

We're still a few days away from the official start of the season, and Wolfsburg's tuning up with a preseason match against the Premier League club Newcastle, from Northern England, and their supporters are all over town. In the kebab shops, the distinctive Geordie accent rings out. "I thought you were fooookin' sensible," a big bald man bellows with delight as his 11-year-old recounts an insane story about nearly accidentally offing himself.

Out in front of the stadium, a proper little street party pops off with pop-up biergartens and creepy stilt-walkers and everything. A Wolfsburg supporter stand sells shirts featuring, for some reason, a hooded skull-death-man grinning while playing the violin. There aren't too many Brooks jerseys, but I do see a supporter in a customized number reading "Party People" across the back. The number, ja, is 69.

There are kiosks for pizza and sausage but also for Handbrot and Quarkballchen and Backfisch and Fischbroten and Fisch fur Fans. Over the speakers you hear "Thunderstruck" and a bleep-bloop remake of "Fast Car," but the best jam is "Immer Nur Du," or "Always Just You." It's the official Wolfsburg anthem, an unapologetic '80s hair-metal ballad, and it truly, truly rules.

John Brooks with his former team, Hertha Berlin.
John Brooks with his former team, Hertha Berlin.(Getty Images)

Later, in lighthearted game action, you can see what's so appealing about having Brooks in your back line. He plays big, for sure, heading crosses out of the air and toward safety, sowing fear on corners at the other end. He delivers crisp long passes to forwards' feet; he dramatically outmuscles opposing players. They have no chance going chest-to-chest. Overall, though, it's his calm that emanates. He has a natural touch and an unbothered stride. He's solid, always. He helps you breathe.

Chances are pretty good that Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old American wonderboy, will demolish Brooks' transfer record when and if he sees fit to leave his club, Borussia Dortmund. That's only right. Pulisic embodies the American myth of total individual singularity. Brooks, though, is a defender. He's here to reflect a different part of our shared identity. He's here for the Protestant work ethic. The day-in, day-out stuff.

And it's in his absence that you can see how much you really need him. Playing in World Cup qualifiers without Brooks against Costa Rica and Honduras in early September, the U.S. back line was a wreck. Again and again, center backs—from Geoff Cameron to Tim Ream to Omar Gonzalez—were embarrassed and exposed. The results, a loss and a draw, left the U.S. in a precarious position on that road to Russia in 2018.

Post-match, the analysts pined for Brooks and wondered what he could have done. Brooks was at home, wondering the same thing.

With Wolfsburg's approval, Brooks did his rehab in Berlin. I catch up with him again at the end of September, as he's back in Wolfsburg, and days away from getting back on the grass. "I feel good," he says. "I don't have any pain. I started two weeks ago with the bike, then I started running. So now the next step is on the pitch, with the ball. I can't wait for it."

Due to a serious thigh injury in his first Bundesliga game with Wolfsburg, Brooks has missed all remaining U.S. World Cup qualifiers.
Due to a serious thigh injury in his first Bundesliga game with Wolfsburg, Brooks has missed all remaining U.S. World Cup qualifiers.(Getty Images)

He's been in touch with his USMNT pals, but he hasn't offered critiques. "I think they know what they have to do," he says, as the team heads to its last two qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. "I don't have to say anything. It's do or die, right?"

Was it tough seeing the team struggle? I ask. Was it tough thinking about what you could have offered?

"To be honest, I didn't watch the games against Honduras and Costa Rica. But I saw the result. It was enough," he says, meaning enough points for the team to stay in contention. I prod. Did Bruce Arena mention how much he could have used you?! "No, no, no," he says, amused. "I'm pretty sure he thinks it, but, no, he didn't say it."

We chat for a bit more, and I bring up one last pressing item: the newly released, highly anticipated video game FIFA 18. At an individual player rating of 80, Brooks—not Pulisic (79) or Dempsey (78) or anyone else—is the highest ranked American in the game. "That's good," he laughs, as I break the news. "I didn't expect anything else!"

Another metric of propitiousness. Another reminder that, for now, Brooks' American story is made up of one moment of glory, and all that potential everyone keeps talking about.

But what glory. Minutes after Brooks' goal against Ghana, some anonymous merrymaker was moved enough to alter his Wikipedia page to call him "the greatest American since Abraham Lincoln." (Later, "Since Evel Knievel" was added.)

Afterward, Brooks didn't get to scream with the team. He was arbitrarily plucked for a FIFA doping test. He had to go fill a cup. "Everybody was celebrating and I had to take a pee," he says. "Yeah, that's bad timing."

In the hours after, the joy settling, he made his celebratory phone calls. He spoke with his old friend Kiesewetter first, who was back in Germany, ecstatic at what he was seeing unfold. Then he spoke with his family.

"He always told me 'Head it on the ground,'" Brooks recalls, still giddy at the memory of speaking with his grandfather that night from Brazil. "And I headed it on the ground and the ball went in! I called him. It was late in Germany, right? I called him and I said, 'Grandpa! You saw? I headed it on the ground! I headed it on the ground!'" 

Amos Barshad is a writer living in New York. He's written for The FADER, Grantland, New York Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, GQ, XXL and the Arkansas Times. He last wrote for B/R Mag about David Blatt.


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