Made in Germany: Why the Bundesliga Became a Breeding Ground for American Soccer

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportNovember 14, 2018

B/R

On the modern-day map of the United States men's national team, German cities such as Dortmund, Bremen and Hannover are featured every bit as prominently as New York, Dallas and Los Angeles.

The U.S. squad that will face England and Italy over the next week contains six Germany-based players—John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Julian Green (Greuther Furth), Bobby Wood (Hannover, on loan from Hamburg) and Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen)—and there is plenty more where they came from. 

Senior internationals Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Dusseldorf) and Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt) also play in the Bundesliga, while highly regarded New York Red Bulls prospect Tyler Adams has been strongly linked with a move to RB Leipzig.

Several U.S. youth internationals are also on the books at German clubs. At the 2018 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, which is taking place in Florida, a quarter of the players in head coach Tab Ramos' 20-man squad ply their trade in Germany.

Some of the expatriates, such as Brooks, were born in Germany to American parents (in Brooks' case, an American father and German mother). Others, such as McKennie and Green, were born in the U.S. and moved to Germany at a young age. For Wood, 18-year-old Sargent and the gifted Pulisic, it was football that took them across the Atlantic in the first place.

All have become central figures in interim head coach Dave Sarachan's drive to refresh and reshape the national team following the crushing disappointment of the country's failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

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So, why Germany?

One explanation is that the two nations' playing cultures are a good fit, with both countries placing an emphasis on hard running and quick, attacking football.

Young American soccer players are typically thought of as being strong and athletic and possessing a keen winning mentality. Germany acts as a kind of football finishing school, furnishing them with the off-pitch discipline and tactical know-how required to succeed at the highest level.

Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic have both impressed in the Bundesliga.
Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic have both impressed in the Bundesliga.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

"We are happy we have these young American players in the Bundesliga because they're excellent players and they have everything that we like to see in Germany," former Germany captain Lothar Matthaus told Bleacher Report. "They're good in defence, they have speed in the offence, and they can score goals."

Matthaus, one of Germany's greatest footballers, believes the similarities between the ways football is played in the USA and Germany make the Bundesliga an easier championship for young American players to adapt to than some of Europe's other top leagues.

"We have a similar mentality," said Matthaus, who wound down his sparkling playing career with New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now known as the New York Red Bulls) in Major League Soccer.

"It's not so difficult for Americans to come to Germany. It's much more difficult when they have to play in Spain, for example, or in Italy—different soccer and a different mentality. Because we are very close to each other, it makes sense for American players to come to Germany to make their first step in a strong soccer competition."

McKennie, the 20-year-old Schalke midfielder, told USSoccer.com earlier this year that he "didn't know soccer was a sport" when his serviceman father moved the family from the U.S. to Germany when he was five years old.

The ex-FC Dallas youth player has caught the eye with Schalke this season, scoring his first goal for the club against Lokomotiv Moscow in the UEFA Champions League in October.

Former USA defender Steve Cherundolo feels he is the perfect example of an American player whose style of play is well-suited to the Bundesliga.

"If you look at a player like Weston McKennie, who's come on strong of late, they've labelled him a 'mentality monster,'" Cherundolo said.

"It's not because he's fantastic on the ball or technically perfect. He's very gifted in those areas, but his real strength comes from his mentality: He covers a lot of ground, he defends, he goes box-to-box. He's a little loose on some ends tactically, but Schalke has very much profited from that mentality that Weston brings. And that's one of the attributes that a lot of American players can bring to Bundesliga clubs."

Cherundolo is better placed than anyone to talk about what it is like for an American to play football in Germany, having spent his entire 15-year club career at Hannover, where he became captain, learned to speak fluent German and earned the nickname "The Mayor of Hannover."

Steve Cherundolo was nicknamed "The Mayor of Hannover" such was his popularity at the club
Steve Cherundolo was nicknamed "The Mayor of Hannover" such was his popularity at the clubCHRISTOF STACHE/Getty Images

The 39-year-old, who has joined the U.S. coaching staff for the current international break, believes Bundesliga clubs are an attractive proposition for young American players because the path to the first team is likely to be shorter than in the other major European leagues.

According to statistics from Opta, the average age of Bundesliga starting XIs this season has been 26 years and 49 days, which is younger than in the top divisions in Spain (27 years and 124 days), Italy (27 years and 117 days), England (27 years and 37 days) and France (26 years and 119 days).

"If you look at the statistics, the Bundesliga is the youngest league out of the top five leagues in Europe," said Cherundolo, who first moved to Germany in 1999. "Younger players get opportunities and not just 20 minutes here, 15 minutes there—they get real opportunities to start games."

Another important factor is the way Germany handles footballers who hail from outside the European Union. Whereas the Premier League, for example, requires non-EU players to have played in a certain proportion of their country's recent senior international matches to qualify for a work permit, there are no such barriers in the Bundesliga.

"The obvious reason [why so many Americans are playing in Germany] is it's accessible for them, without having to jump through hoops for the FA to get a work permit," Cherundolo said. "Work permits are not very difficult to get there, as long as you're 18 years of age."

The presence of so many talented young American players in Germany is a gift for the Bundesliga's marketers, for whom the USA is a key battleground in the scrap for global marketing space with Europe's other major leagues.

Bundesliga clubs have toured the USA regularly in recent years, and many now boast English-language social media accounts to cater to American fans. Bayern Munich have had an office in New York since 2014, and the Bundesliga opened a regional office in the city in October.

Jermaine Jones has a foot in each camp. He's played club football in Germany and the United States and has represented both countries at international level, switching allegiances from Germany to the USA in 2009 and going on to win 69 caps.

Born in Frankfurt to an American father and German mother, he came through the ranks at Eintracht Frankfurt and says that the football education he received was second-to-none.

"Day in and day out, you are training with the best," he told Bleacher Report.

"If you see the teams, the training facilities, it's the No. 1 sport. It's like if you make it out of college in America and start playing [American] football in the NFL. It's the same in Germany if you play in the Bundesliga."

In the aftermath of the USA's failure to qualify for the World Cup, Jones hit out in an Instagram video in which he accused young American players of being too reluctant to take their chances overseas. (Of the 14 players who played in the USA's fateful World Cup qualifying defeat by Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017, only three—Wood, Pulisic and Newcastle United's DeAndre Yedlin—were attached to European clubs.)

Dave Sarachan has brought in a number of new players in the last year.
Dave Sarachan has brought in a number of new players in the last year.Omar Vega/Getty Images

A year on, and with Sarachan having awarded new caps to no fewer than 22 players since succeeding Bruce Arena as interim coach, Jones is optimistic that a corner has been turned.

"I'm watching with a lot of excitement right now," said Jones, who ended his playing career in September. "I see the young boys in the national team and most of them play overseas. That's how it has to be.

"It's nothing against MLS. You have to go where you have to battle every day for your spot, and the kids are doing that right now: They're in Paris; they're at Schalke; they're at Dortmund; they're at Wolfsburg; they're at Bremen. 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 U.S. men's national team has played 10 friendly matches since missing out on a World Cup place, with standout results including draws against European champions Portugal and future world champions France and a 1-0 win over regional rivals Mexico.

Thursday's match against 2018 World Cup semi-finalists England represents an opportunity for the U.S. to test itself against another youthful side who are on an upward curve.

America's players, like their opponents, will communicate with each other on the Wembley Stadium pitch in English. But listen closely and you might just detect the faintest hint of a German accent.