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The Great German Migration

Written by Will Parchman

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Emerson Hyndman arrived at Fulham in 2011 riding the great crest of the American-English soccer wave. To say nothing of the American youth boots already on the ground in Albion, the seismic NBC Premier League deal was only a year off, an agreement that gave Americans readier access to every one of the league’s games than even the average Englishman.

Hyndman’s signing was quiet, far more so than the relative trumpets that heralded Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey’s signatures for the Cottager senior team. It was a speculative deal in more than a few ways, Hyndman latching on with Fulham’s youth apparatus to see if he had the stern stuff required for the Premier League’s rocky paces.

At the time, five years ago, the English youth ladder still looked like the grand final destination for America’s best and brightest bristling to test themselves abroad. It was England, after all. The culture, the language, the prestige-limned clubs — that particular transition made more sense than anything. If you had a choice, or even if you were actively attempting to direct your steps abroad, you went to England.

A lot can happen in five years.

In the shadow of those seemingly long-ago days, the waves have shifted. Germany, and not England, is the new frontier for America’s most enterprising young internationals. And there are multiple reasons for that.

Five years ago, as Jurgen Klinsmann ascended the steps to take the USMNT throne vacated by Bob Bradley, there were more American youth players in English academies than in any other country abroad. That’s not to say there were all that many (let it be said that the path abroad is rockier than most acknowledge), but in addition to the Premier League’s outsize reputation, the relatively negligible culture shift between England and the U.S. largely contributed to the connection. If you had an EU passport, England was typically the first stop on your club shopping journey.

When I sat down with recently minted U.S. U19 coach Brad Friedel at the NSCAA Convention in January, he was asked why the U.S. cribs so much of its soccer culture from England, a country that has not won anything of note in decades. Having spent years in the country, I thought his answer was on target.

“I would assume culture and language barrier for a lot of it. That would be an assumption. But I also know, now within the United States we’ve done a lot of studying in Belgium, in Holland and in Germany. A lot, recently. And the Pro license being taught by a Dutch group that’s taught Pro license in Europe. So maybe a lot more going on than you think.

“But I would have to say, culturally speaking, it’s easier for an English person to come over and live in the United States.”

Friedel, who is now a U.S. Soccer coaching insider, revealed two things in this. Yes, it is easier for a cultural exchange between England and the U.S. And, tellingly, he mentioned three specific countries of American interest: Belgium, Holland and, importantly, Germany.

The Germerican senior contingent is one thing. Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler and those players who were already internationals were folded into Klinsmann’s warm national team embrace well after the conclusion of their youth careers. But as Klinsmann slowly began asserting his influence, first as a coach and then as a coach and technical director, Germany became U.S. Soccer’s de facto European base of operations. Since 2015, U.S. Soccer has employed Berti Vogts to oversee the development of American players in Europe – all of them – alongside Austrian Andi Herzog and fellow German Matthias Hamman. In addition to scouting, they also oversee how those already in the system are doing.

All of this coincided with the rise of interest in German professional soccer in the U.S. It has only been in the last few years that the Bundesliga’s sheen of shielded hipsterism has worn off, replaced instead by a genuine admiration born out of the country’s supporters-first culture. There is no longer a theoretical wall separating Americans from German soccer. If it is still more inaccessible than the Premier League in the U.S. – and make no mistake, even MLS is more inaccessible than the Premier League in the U.S. – then the gap has closed rapidly over the past few years. More so than any other country in the world. It is no longer hipster chic to talk about the Bundesliga. It’s simply another day.

A small part of that was fueled by Klinsmann, ever the evangelist for soccer in his homeland and soccer in Europe as a general premise. But a far larger share of the credit for Germany’s rise in America goes to the game’s late-arriving globalization in the U.S. We got to the Bundesliga late, but we got there.

That has naturally seeped down to the youth level, and the admiration goes both ways. When Christian Pulisic was first identified by Borussia Dortmund as a serious target at the 2013 Nike International Friendlies, there were four other German clubs scouting the event. BVB has since set up a partnership with Midwest power producer Cincinnati United. Since 2014, Bayern Munich has been joined with Northeast academy conglomerate GPS, which opens them up to 55,000 American youth players. Schalke, Wolfsburg, Freiburg and more could not have been bothered with American youth development five years ago. Today, each has an American in their youth teams, some more than one.

In fact, the rudder has shifted to the point that there are more American youth national team players in German academies than in any other country in Europe. Of current USYNT eligible players who’ve been called into U.S. camps, there are 13 Americans currently flowing through the internal pipework of German clubs, the vast majority of them in the Bundesliga.

In England, once the golden shore, there are nine.

BVB is of course the most visible example, especially over the last year. They not only have thrown first team minutes at Christian Pulisic, but they recently wooed Will, his cousin and the starting keeper for the U.S. at last year’s U17 World Cup, away from a Duke pledge and into their youth setup. And that’s not even mentioning Joe Gyau and Junior Flores, both of whom are still 23 and under.

Schalke is rapidly emerging as the new vogue buyer on the U.S. youth scene. They pounced on Haji Wright earlier this year, and there’s a reasonable chance they’ll attract Haji’s brother Hanif when he turns 18. Both trained with Schalke in 2014 before being sent away due to the lack of an EU passport, and Hanif too has been promising in USYNT appearances (some suggest he’s even better than his brother). Further, Schalke has been openly courting FC Dallas academy stud and 2017 U20 World Cup possible Weston McKennie, who is apparently still deciding between his home club and Germany.

Freiburg announced earlier this summer it is bringing hot American keeper prospect Zack Steffen with its first team, as the No. 3 keeper for now, on its promotion journey back up to the Bundesliga this season, all while Caleb Stanko continues his work in their youth setup. Hoffenheim is overseeing the development of USYNT defensive midfielder Russell Canouse. There are more besides.

Klinsmann’s greatest influence in this isn’t in unearthing Germericans as much as it has been making the pathway to Germany more enticing. The only players in this grouping who spent their childhoods in Germany are Julian Green and Jerome Kiesewetter. The rest moved there later. And we know that in at least a few cases, Klinsmann or his staff offered input in the form of encouragement. Jordan Morris is clearly the most visible, his training stint with Werder Bremen earlier this year explicitly set up via Herzog’s German connections.

But it isn’t all Klinsmann’s German staff. The Bundesliga’s growing American cachet and reputation as a haven for young players seeking first team minutes is slowly becoming irresistible. An average cross-section of a match weekend in April 2016 revealed 16 players 23 and under starting matches in MLS. In the Bundesliga that same weekend, there were 33.

Not long after his move to Wolfsburg was completed earlier this year, I spoke with U.S. youth international and Austin, Texas native McKinze Gaines about his decision. Gaines, who was barred from joining until his 18th birthday for lack of an EU passport, was officially pulled into the Wolfsburg U19 team at the start of July and scored a goal in his first match.

It’s worth noting that Gaines told me Klinsmann hadn’t played an active role in his decision to go to Germany. Through Gaines’ international experience, time at U17 residency and quality performances during trials in Germany, Wolfsburg was simply impressed enough to tender an offer. Sometimes a country’s development apparatus sells itself.

Promising American players will still, in numbers, go to England (like Brooks Lennon), and Spain (like Mukwelle Akale), and Mexico (like Paul Arriola), and wherever else opportunity arises. Development is cyclical, and as certain countries figure out ways to crack the modern system of the day, others fall by the wayside. And then, maybe five or 10 or 15 or 30 years later, it flips and we do it all over again.

For now, Germany has replaced every other foreign destination as the most gilded of the American youth roads to stardom abroad. How long it stays that way is anyone’s guess.

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