Over the last few years, the flowing current for Americans abroad has shifted noticeably toward U.S. shores. The influx of full national team players like Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan, and Mix Diskerud swelled MLS’s ranks but left Europe virtually devoid of Americans in the top flight. Unless you catch the small handful of first team games featuring Americans, you’re out of luck.
Time was, players would grow up Stateside and sign first team deals somewhere in Europe. But there’s been a subtle shift in the undercurrent, and McKinze Gaines wanted to be a part of it.
On March 11, nine days after his 18th birthday, Gaines signed his first professional contract with German Bundesliga club Wolfsburg. The speedy winger from Austin, Texas signed a one-year deal with Wolfsburg, which plans to use that time initially to test Gaines on the club’s U19 and U23 teams. If that pans out, Gaines’s pathway to the Saxon club’s first team will be wide open.
Gaines spent much of the 2013-15 U.S. U17 cycle as one of the team’s most dangerous threats off the wing, but he was inexplicably left off coach Richie Williams’ final U17 World Cup roster last fall. Luckily for Gaines, he’d already made quite the impression on Wolfsburg through a productive trial a year ago. He was invited back for a second two-week trial in January, and by then Gaines more or less know Wolfsburg liked him enough that an offer was coming once he turned 18. Since he doesn’t have an EU passport, it couldn’t come any earlier.
Now, he’s joining the likes of Caleb Stanko, Julian Green and Christian Pulisic as young Americans scrambling through the youth ranks of some of Germany’s most prestigious clubs.
“It was amazing,” Gaines says. “It was an amazing feeling for them to finally offer and finally get to see the contract. It was a dream come true. Just hoping everything works out.”
In a physical sense, Gaines is a unique beast. The U.S. has traditionally strugged to develop and produce wingers, and Gaines represents one of the most promising wide players in the American youth system today. Further, he's comfortable attacking defenders in space one-on-one, and that kind of confidence is hard to embed into a player's psyche through coaching. Players often have that instinct or they don't. Gaines is a terror out wide, burning a trench along the touchline and forcing fullbacks into split-second decisions. At his best, Gaines is one of the most uncommon players in the American pool.
To hedge his bets, Gaines committed to UCLA earlier this year and was on the team’s Signing Day announcement in early February. But like New York Red Bulls fullback and Duke commit Matthew Olosunde, who recently signed a contract with Manchester United, he won’t make it to campus this fall. He has work to do in Europe.
Wolfsburg is nothing to trifle with on the youth development front. They finished No. 2 in the Bundesliga in 2015, but the undercurrent pushing them forward flowed through their prodigious youth ranks. Wolfsburg has won the German U19 championship twice in the last five years, and their U17 team is frequently toward the top of their division. The club is also no stranger to Americans. Five U.S. internationals have played for the first team over the last 20 years, including Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and current USMNT first teamer Fabian Johnson.
Gaines has work to do before he ascends to those lofty heights, but he’s got his foot in the door.
Gaines spent three consecutive semesters in the U17 residency program in Florida through last year, and his breakout performance at the 2013 Development Academy showcase paved his way into those national team opportunities. It was through that visibility that Wolfsburg first discovered Gaines. He trained with their U17 and U19 teams in Germany in March 2015, and when he returned for a second trial in January, the U.S. U18 national team player was playing up with U23s. He impressed to such a degree that Wolfsburg basically tendered an offer right there.
He had to wait two months to sign it, but the message was clear.
“It wan’t a surprise (when they offered),” says Gaines, who was told he'll be playing either at left or right midfield. “We were expecting it, so when my birthday came around they offered.”
His time in Germany should also help his budding national team status. Gaines says Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer played no role in his move, which was helped along primarily by his agent Jacob Thomas. The former Columbus Crew midfielder spent six years playing in Germany split between Eintracht Braunschweig and VfB Lübeck before finishing his career with a productive two-season stint in MLS.
Even without U.S. Soccer intervention, it's no secret the federation puts weight behind players who've made a mark in Europe. And it certainly wasn't a bad sign that Gaines was in the picture anyway. He was part of Brad Friedel's first ever U19 MNT roster in January for the Copa del Atlantico.
Gaines’ contract with Wolfsburg starts July 1, so he has some time to prepare. In the meantime, he can finish out his final season with Austin-based Development Academy side Lonestar SC where he was developed, and notch his mark next to the growing list of academy standouts who’ve moved abroad directly out of a DA team. The difference from some, though, is that Gaines isn’t emerging from an MLS academy. Like former U17 MNT teammates Daniel Barbir, Joshua Perez and Pulisic, Gaines made his mark entirely outside MLS’s reach. In fact, FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo never approached Gaines about joining their respective academies.
Even as many of the established American first teamers flock back to the States, a steady stream of youth players are still trekking across the pond. As Gaines seeks to make his mark in a German youth system that produced the last World Cup champion, he can’t help but see the benefits.
“I do think it’s good, definitely,” Gaines says of the recent U.S. youth push into Europe. “The mindset that a lot of the Europeans have over there is phenomenal. So for all of us Americans headed over there, it’s a chance to get better and train with great players.”