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Americans Abroad

From Pulisic to Payne, a Preview of Yanks in Europe

ASN's Brian Sciaretta handicaps the coming European soccer season, with an emphasis on the American players who are positioned to succeed as well as a look at those who really need to step it up.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
August 07, 2017
7:00 PM

THE 2017-18 EUROPEAN SEASON has begun in the lower tiers and the top leagues are set to begin very soon. It should be a compelling season on many levels—including the fact that a variety of Americans will be trying to impress Bruce Arena ahead of the 2018 World Cup year and because several key youngsters will attempt to launch their professional careers.

And let's not forget that a trio of Americans in the Bundesliga—Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, and Bobby Wood—are in position to step into the spotlight and be the face of American soccer on the continent where the sport dominates.

Here's a look at the coming campaign through an American lens. 

High Expectations for Four Yanks

1. Christian Pulisic
2. John Brooks
3. Bobby Wood
4. DeAndre Yedlin

It has been a long time since Americans played integral roles in top European leagues. 

Christian Pulisic is on the verge of becoming one of the top five teenagers in the game right now and his goal against Bayern Munich over the weekend in the German Super Cup confirmed his potential. Last year he eclipsed 2,300 minutes for Borussia Dortmund across all competitions, with nearly 600 minutes coming in the Champions League. At times he has looked truly special but toward the end of the season he seemed worn down.

This year a measuring stick for Pulisic will be to see him eclipse 2,000 minutes in the Bundesliga and to be an impact player for a team that finishes in the top three of the league. Pulisic has the ability to hit double digits in goals, and should improve upon his five tallies from last season. He already has one in the Super Cup and with league games, the German Cup, and Champions League play, he should get the opportunity. 

For U.S. national team fans, there's no reason to resist the hype. Pulisic is the best teenager in American soccer history. Of course, what Bruce Arena will be most hoping for is that Puslic is not worn down by May from the expected increased workload he is likely going to receive from Dortmund. The national team desperately needs Pulisic fresh and ready for the World Cup.

Meanwhile, John Brooks joins a new team, Wolfsburg, which purchased him from Hertha Berlin for €17 million—the largest-ever transfer fee for an American. Brooks will leave the only club he has known and will now head to a big club where he is expected to be a big part of its attempted rebound after a terrible season. So yes—Brooks has a lot on his plate right now.

Consistency has always been an issue for him, both at the club and international level. At times he can truly look world-class but other times he can produce terrible games. Every player has bad games but Wolfsburg is betting big that Brooks can dramatically reduce his stinkers and be a force in the Bundesliga.

There's no question Brooks has what it takes to reach the top and perhaps a change of scenery will help.  

Bobby Wood returns to Hamburg with a new contract in hand that will give him reported annual salary of €3 million. Hamburg needs Wood to step up if it wants to avoid another relegation battle, and Wood showed real glimpses of being a good Bundesliga striker las year despite the fact that Hamburg’s midfield was generally outplayed most games. 

The key with Wood is health. During his teenage years he missed nearly two years with a meniscus injury that hampered his development. Last season the same knee bothered him down the stretch. But Wood’s talent, along with Hamburg’s typical underperforming nature, means that Wood could be playing his way into the shop window for a better club—which wouldn't be terrible.

Expectations are high for DeAndre Yedlin too, thanks to a strong 2016-17 campaign for Newcastle United where he was one of the better right backs in the Championship. Now he will return to the English Premier League, where he was part of a successful relegation fight for Sunderland two years ago. Newcastle shouldn’t be in a relegation fight this year but Yedlin will miss the start of the season with an injured hamstring. When he returns, he will have to seal that right back spot where he has the potential to do very well.

Young players seeking a breakthrough

1. Weston McKennie
2. Ethan Horvath
3. Cameron Carter-Vickers

Every European season begins with American fans hoping that some young players will make the transition from youth soccer to the first team. This year fans have reason to be optimistic.

Weston McKennie, 18, is the top American prospect in Europe now that Pulisic has established himself with Dortmund. McKennie made his Bundesliga debut at the end of last season after an exceptional season with Schalke’s U-19 side. Based on his preseason performances, McKennie has a good chance to be part of the club’s first team. A box-to-box midfielder, he is very comfortable on the ball, specializes in making dangerous passes, and possesses great field awareness.

McKennie might even have a shot to make the U.S. World Cup team—he's that good. The key will be getting minutes in both the German Cup and the Bundesliga. He has to avoid the typical trap for young players: making the first team bench, rarely getting on the field, and missing out on time with Schalke’s reserves. With regular playing time, however, McKennie could emerge quickly.

Ethan Horvath has built a strong early career for himself. With Molde and now Clube Brugge, he has found a way to earn a lot of minutes—which is not easy to do for a young goalkeeper. Unfortunately for Horvath, Brugge was bounced from the Champions League last week. But he needs to continue to hold the starting job the rest of this season and push for another league title with Brugge. That would be a huge accomplishment for a young American.

Finally, Cameron Carter-Vickers has reached the stage of his career at Tottenham where he will likely go out on loan. The last 12 months have seen his minutes drop sharply as he sitting on the first-team bench rather than playing with the reserves. He displayed some rust in the preseason but the U-20 World Cup in June showed that the potential is still there. A loan is likely and from there it will be up to Carter-Vickers, 19, to finally showcase himself at the club level. It’s hard not to like his chances.

National team bubble players

1. Danny Williams
2. Kenny Saief
3. Matt Miazga
4. Tim Ream
5. Eric Lichaj
6. Timothy Chandler

Arena has said he has a good sense of his depth chart for the national team. While that isn’t public, there are six Americans based in Europe who are all probably close calls at the moment. Heading into the new season, now is the chance for these players to make a case for themselves.

Danny Williams is on the top of the list of players who can make a big surge. He earned a Premier League contract with newly promoted Huddersfield and now with the team’s top central midfielder from last seasonset to miss the first month of the season, Williams has the chance to be a big part of the team in the opening weeks.

Kenny Saief, 23, will now being his first season as a U.S. player after filing for a one-time switch to leave Israel’s set-up. He is Arena’s first dual-national recruit but Saief had to withdraw from the 2017 U.S. Gold Cup team due to a hernia. If he can return quickly for KAA Gent in Beligum, Saief should get another chance and make a case for the left-midfield spot.

This news is also the same for Matt Miazga, 21, who made the smart decision to return to Vitesse for another season on loan. He is a known commodity at the club after helping it to the Dutch Cup last year. This year, he should push for 3,000 minutes which should put him in contention for the U.S. team at the right center-back position. His competition at that spot includes Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Hedges, and Walker Zimmerman. Despite not playing much at the Gold Cup, the New Jersey native has a chance to boost his stock this season.

Fulham’s Tim Ream is in a tight race for the national team's backup left central defense role with Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler. Brooks has the starting job but Ream and Besler seem to be neck and neck. Last year, Fulham was in contention for promotion back to the Premier League but the club lost out in the playoffs. If Ream can help keep Fulham near the top of the Championship table, he’ll help his chances. Besler is tough competition after spending nearly a month with the U.S. team this summer for the Gold Cup. Besler has now won two Gold Cups and has also played in a World Cup.

Eric Lichaj was Notthingham Forest’s player of the season in 2016-17 but that was overall a bad year for the club and the Illinois native did not start in the team’s opener over the weekend—although that was likely due to missing most of preseason because of the Gold Cup. Yedlin is the national team’s starting right back but Lichaj can take the backup job if he plays well.

Finally there is the mysterious Timothy Chandler who confuses national team fans with his inability to replicate his Bundesliga performances on the international stage. Chandler was brutal during his last sting with the national team in November but is yet to get a shot under Arena. Continuing to play well with Eintracht Frankfurt will probably get Chandler another shot—most likely to backup Yedlin.

Career Crossroads for many 

1. Aron Johannsson
2. Emerson Hyndman
3. Terrence Boyd
4. Alfredo Morales
5. Jerome Kiesewetter
6. Desevio Payne
7. Lynden Gooch

Taking a step away from the national team, several Americans are facing crucial stages of their professional development. Will it be a solid second division-level career? A mid-table first division career? These American players are looking to set themselves on the best-possible career trajectory.

Aron Johannsson and Terrence Boyd, both 26, have missed a lot of time with injuries. Boyd has stayed with Darmstadt after its relegation to the 2.Bundesliga and is looking to climb back into the team’s starting lineup. Over the weekend he was a second-half substitute in the club's season opener. Boyd has the talent required to make an impact in the 2.Bundesliga if he can stay healthy—but will he?

Emerson Hyndman, 21, enjoyed a successful loan to Rangers earlier in 2017 but has had awful luck with the timing of his injuries. He missed both last year’s preseason and the current preseason with Bournemouth and that has set him back in terms of breaking into the Premier League club. He is approaching full health but it would seem another loan is probably necessary. He is obviously talented but if he can't stay healthy he will continue to struggle.

As for Johannsson, there are rumors of a split with Werder Bremen and that will lead to an interesting decision for him: Will he stay in Germany or return to a lower league like the Eredivisie or the Danish Superliga, where he enjoyed success as a younger player?

Meanwhile Alfredo Morales, 27, is still with Ingolstadt after its relegation to the 2.Bundesliga. While he has been solid to start the year, Ingolstadt as a team has been poor, dropping its first two games. Since leaving Hertha Berlin for Ingolstadt in 2013, Morales has helped the Bavarian team to promotion and even a decent 11th place finish. But after relegation, it would be hard to see him sticking around through a lackluster 2.Bundesliga campaign. Can he do enough to draw interest from Bundesliga clubs?

Finally Jerome Kiesewetter, Lynden Gooch, and Desevio Payne are all players in similar circumstances. They are all in their early 20s, have dealt with injuries, and now need strong seasons to harness their potential. Payne is with Excelsior in the Eredivisie and needs to make a statement with his play. Lynden Gooch was on the verge of becoming a national team contributor but was hurt last season. After Sunderland’s relegation, he should have more opportunities than he did in the Premier League. Kiesewetter is older than the other two players but has played in the first two games of Fortuna Dusseldorf’s season in the 2.Bundesliga and that has made for a promising start.

Final Thoughts

This is going to be a very revealing season for Americans in Europe. Stoke’s Geoff Cameron and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Fabian Johnson are two veterans who deliver consistently. Beyond those two, however, just about every American player is facing a big test this year.

There are credible reports circulating that other talented young American players—like Kellyn Acosta, Erik Palmer-Brown, and Tyler Adams—are receiving interest from abroad and could join the current group.

The last few years have been disappointing for American soccer fans tracking their countrymen in Europe. Americans in top leagues, especially the Premier League, have dwindled. Now with players like Yedlin and Williams back in the top flight and younger players looking to break through, Americans should have a bigger footprint in Europe—and more soccer to enjoy on Saturday and Sunday mornings. 

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