Analysis: Sands to Rangers, Carnell to St. Louis, Reyna returns & more
January 06, 2022
THE MIDWEEK CONTINUED to bring a lot of news in American soccer with more player movement, coaching vacancies being filled, and friendlies. There is a lot to dig into as this busy January is still in its early stages.
These types of updates likely to continue in a steady wave as there are a bunch of players who could be on the move during this window. Plus, with the European season in full swing and MLS preseason approaching, we will start to get an idea of how teams look, who is breaking through, and which players look ready to take the next step.
But for now, here are some thoughts on the news.
Sands to Rangers
As expected following reports out of Scotland, James Sands is joining Rangers on a loan from NYCFC. The loan is for 18 months, and it includes an option to buy. Sands turned down offers from clubs in Germany, among others, to join Rangers.
Sands, 21, is making this move on the heels of a great 2021 where he accomplished a lot. He developed into a starter at NYCFC the past two seasons. In 2021, he played 2644 minutes and helped the club to win MLS Cup. He also shared time with the U.S. national team over the summer and emerged as a starter at the Gold Cup after Walker Zimmerman’s injury. He ended up starting clean sheet wins over Canada, Jamaica, Qatar, and Mexico en route to the title.
After winning two pieces of silverware this year, it seemed like the right time to do something different. He accomplished what he wanted and needed out of a domestic start. He did well for NYCFC and NYCFC did right by him. He earned minutes, improved as a player, became a champion, and is in the extended player pool of the national team.
Is Rangers the right move for him? The Scottish Premiership isn’t what it used to be and MLS is far more improved. Outside of the Old Firm, the Premiership isn’t a step up. But he’s going to the best team in the league – and with a lot of European leagues outside of the “big 5” like the Austrian Bundesliga, and the Scottish Premiership, the top is solid and there is a big drop off soon afterward.
Regardless of the rest of the Premiership, Rangers is still a very good springboard within Europe and it is full of pressure. The supporters are exceptionally passionate, Ibrox is a great venue, and culturally it is not difficult for Americans to adapt.
Americans have historically done well at Rangers with Carlos Bocanegra and Claudio Reyna the best examples. There is also Maurice Edu, DaMarcus Beasley and Alejandro Bedoya who all called the club their home and did well. Most recently, Matt Polster struggled to make an impact. Emerson Hyndman did well there on a loan from Southampton while Gedion Zelalem struggled on his loan there from Arsenal (when Rangers were in the second tier after a financial scandal).
Currently in Scotland, several Americans are thriving. Christian Ramirez wasn’t getting serious minutes for Houston but moved to Aberdeen and he’s been among the best Premiership center forwards this season. Ian Harkes was the league’s player of the month for September and has done well for Dundee United. Cameron Carter-Vickers has been a regular starter for Celtic on loan from Tottenham and the club has stated it hopes to bring him in on a full-time basis. Chris Mueller just joined Hibernian after his contract with Orlando expired.
But Sands is the only American player currently in Scotland who has played meaningful minutes with the U.S. national team in recent competitive games. American fans will certainly be following his progress with heightened interest as a result.
Sands has the tools to do well, and he will arrive in Scotland with a ton of momentum at his back. He has some challenges too on a number of different levels.
First, will he be better than the club’s existing options? In central defense, the top Rangers tandem is Calvin Bassey and Connor Goldson. Goldson's contract is up this summer and Rangers could be looking to move on from him soon. That could be one opening for Sands. In central midfield, there is more turnover but also tough competition for Sands.
On the level of using the Rangers to propel a European career, it is certainly possible although it’s been tough for Americans to springboard out of Scotland (not including those who were in Scotland on loan from within Europe). Maurice Edu’s move to Stoke didn’t work out. Alejandro Bedoya only made it to Ligue 1 after going back to Sweden.
Regarding the national team, Sands is in the picture and his versatility to play several positions helps. But cracking the central defense logjam is key for him and currently he is behind Miles Robinson, Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman, John Brooks, and Tim Ream. With Tim Ream aging and John Brooks in a rough patch, there might be a path forward for him. Still, he would have to compete with others – such as Aaron Long returning from injury.
But Sands as a future that extends beyond the current 2022 cycle. Ream, Long, Brooks, and Zimmerman are several years older than Sands. Even if Sands doesn’t crack into the team in 2022, he’s got a great chance of being part of the team the following cycle at some point. But first, it will require him doing well at Rangers.
Carnell to head up St. Louis
St. Louis SC won’t begin playing in MLS until 2023, but the team has a head coach when on Tuesday, it hired Bradley Carnell away from the New York Red Bulls. Carnell, 44, has been an assistant in New York since 2017 but also served as the interim head coach in 2021 after Chris Armas was fired. He then returned to the assistant job under Gerhard Struber.
As a player Carnell has a long career in the Bundesliga and was capped 42 times by South Africa.
This is a practical hire that is becoming more coming in MLS. Despite a foreign manager winning MLS Cup in 2021 with Ronny Deila at NYCFC, the trend now is hire either American or Canadian managers, or foreign managers like Carnell with multiple years of MLS experience.
Carnell was popular among the players with the Red Bulls where he got them to play hard and respond well. His interim head coaching run at New York likely put him on the short list for head coaching gigs.
A lot of MLS expansion teams like to make big splashes with expensive and big name hires, but this was a pragmatic hire by St. Louis.
As for the Red Bulls, it could be a big loss after Struber’s team needed to rally to make the playoffs in 2021. The loss of Carnell, Red Bull 2 head coach John Wolyniec, and captain Sean Davis has seen a lot of the organization’s “heart” depart.
Owen Otasowie, 20, has had a brutal time since making a big transfer from Wolves to Club Brugge. He has yet to appear in a meaningful game with the Belgian champs, was once pulled in the first half from a reserve game, and was given time to return to England to refocus in November.
On Wednesday, Brugge faced Karlsruher SC of the 2.Bundesliga in a friendly and Otasowie played the second half of a 0-0 draw. Brugge changed the entire lineup at halftime.
Aside from a few nice moments, it was a fairly lethargic performance from the American. He wasn’t poor, but didn’t seem to make a case beyond the team’s existing options. It’s hard to know what he is playing for right now. Is he trying to break into Brugge’s team this season? Is he trying to build a case for a loan? Quite possibly, no one is really sure yet.
After paying a large transfer fee of $4 million, Brugge is probably going to give Otasowie a lot of chances to impress. If he was there on a flyer, he would have probably been gone. But Brugge is heavily incentivized to make this work. Otasowie has already been labeled a disappointment at best, a bust at worst in Belgian media. It’s tough to shed that reputation and he has his work cut out for him. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t look ready to help this team.
Reyna returns for BVB
Gio Reyna, 19, is one of the top American players and this weekend could mark his return to Borussia Dortmund as local reports suggest that he will be on the bench this weekend away at Eintracht Frankfurt when the Bundesliga returns to action following the winter break.
It’s been a subpar season for most of the top American players abroad, but Reyna’s return is a huge boost for Dortmund and the U.S. national team ahead of the January qualifiers.
Stanko returns to Europe
Caleb Stanko, 28, started his career in Europe. He made a few Bundesliga appearances with Freiburg and performed decently in the Swiss Super League with Lichtenstein-based FC Vaduz. In 2019, he returned to the United States and played three seasons for FC Cincinnati, which finished with the worst record in MLS each year. Last month, Cincinnati declined its option for Stanko.
On Wednesday, PAS Giannina of the Greek Super League announced it has signed Stanko. The club’s interest stems from its head coach Iraklis Metaxas who used to be youth and assistant coach at Freiburg when Stanko was there.
PAS Giannina currently sits in fourth place in Greece and was looking for reinforcements. The Greek Super League has fallen on tough times financially in recent years but this option will keep Stanko playing at a decent level as he approaches 30. Stanko was once a U.S. youth international and was on the 2013 U.S. U-20 World Cup team. He made one appearance for the full national team during a World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago in September 2016.
Stanko almost certainly won’t return to the national team but it is good to see more American players have options in Europe – even for players that struggle in MLS. For Stanko, he’s played in some of the most beautiful settings the game has to offer.
I will say this about Caleb Stanko heading back to Europe after FC Cincinnati. This will be his 3rd Euro team: Freiburg, Vaduz, and now PAS Giannina. In terms of stadium scenery, he's made absolutely remarkable choices with all 3. Wow pic.twitter.com/YZJAhbmXJr— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) January 5, 2022
Cuevas to Brugge reserves
Staying with Americans making moves, U.S. U-20 right back hopeful Mauricio Cuevas has joined Club Brugge’s reserve team after previously playing for the reserve team at the LA Galaxy. He reportedly turned down a homegrown deal from the Galaxy to make this move.
He is a potential right back option for the U.S. U-20 job but it remains to be seen how effective he will be after a long layoff where he has barely played competitive games this year.
Next to move
We’ve seen a lot moves already for prominent American players: Ricardo Pepi, Daryl Dike, James Sands.
Who is next? Some players to keep an eye on would be John Brooks, Austin Trusty, and Walker Zimmerman. Trusty has reportedly inked a deal with Arsenal but will likely immediately go out on loan (which could be announced at the same time).
There are also loan possibilities for Bryan Reynolds, Matthew Hoppe, and Konrad de la Fuente. Reynolds is the most obvious at this point as he is not playing despite being healthy.
U.S. U-20's return to action
The U.S U-20 team is set to return to action later this month. ASN understands that the camp will open on January 24th at IMG in Florida. It should be a big roster with a lot of players as head coach Mikey Varas looks to evaluate the pool so he can assemble his team for this summer’s big tournament that will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.
With the camp taking place in the January window, it is possible that more European teams will be willing to release players. While teams are never required to release players for youth national teams (even during FIFA windows), they are typically more willing to release voluntarily during the windows.
Still, most of the top players from this cycle are based domestically with Cade Cowell, Caden Clark, Kevin Paredes, Gaga Slonina, Quinn Sullivan, Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, Justin Che, and Dan Edelman are among the MLS-based players expected to be key contributors.