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USMNT players featuring in Europe

Americans in Europe: From England to Turkey, USMNT players are having an impact

October 5, 2020 By Michelle Bonsu
More and more Americans have been opting to ply their trades in Europe's biggest leagues over the years, and this season is no exception. Here's an analysis of how this trend has developed over the past few decades.

Although football continues to adapt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes either no fans or limited numbers of supporters in stadiums, there are some positive things regarding the 2020/2021 season - especially if one supports the USMNT.

Over the past decades, more and more American players have decided to either totally eschew playing in MLS or have decided to add a bit of international experience to their footballing CVs. Not only has the number of Americans featuring in foreign countries increased overall, but the diversity of what leagues and tiers they are playing in has grown tenfold.

This term has several Americans making history and being pioneers at several notable clubs around Europe, and this trend is sure to continue in upcoming seasons. And as more Yanks play abroad, the more the quality of football in the USA will improve as the players are getting the opportunity to pit themselves against tougher opposition than they may find back in their native country.

What's especially fascinating is that this migration across the pond didn't just start in the late 80's and early 90's. Although that's when things started to pick up, especially throughout the tail end of the 90's and into the 00's, Americans have actually been playing in Europe for over 70 years. In fact, the first ever players to participate in a match abroad were the members of Pennsylvania-based team Bethlehem Steel, who featured in a series of games across Sweden in 1919.

Amazingly, exactly a century later, a young, rising USMNT star would add himself to the annals of American football history with his massive signing for Chelsea.

Premier League

In 2019, Christian Pulisic secured a $70-plus million (over £57 million) move to Chelsea. That pales in comparison, of course to the amounts of money cash-rich PSG splashed on Neymar and Kylian Mbappe in 2017 and 2018, but Pulisic's arrival in London is nonetheless noteworthy as he's currently the most expensive North American signing of all time.

At just 20, Pulisic became the most expensive American signing in history when he secured a massive deal with Chelsea in January 2019

Pulisic has only been with Chelsea for a little over a year, but he's already made history: In August 2019, he scored for the Blues in the FA Cup final, making him the first American to do so. Unfortunately, his goal wasn't enough to secure a first-ever trophy for Frank Lampard, as Arsenal came from behind to win the game 2-1.

But before Pulisic began establishing himself at Stamford Bridge, there have been quite a few players who have paved the way for the former Borussia Dortmund star. The first-ever American player to head across the pond to the English top flight was John Harkes, who signed for Sheffield Wednesday in 1990. And in 1991, Harkes became the first American to feature in the final of an English tournament when he was part of the starting XI for the Owls during the that year's Football League Cup final (the predecessor to the current Carabao Cup).

The Premier League has since seen numerous USMNT stars grace its shores, with familiar names like Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Landon Donovan (Everton), Tim Howard (Manchester United and Everton), Brad Friedel (Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa, and Tottenham Hotspur), Brian McBride (Everton and Fulham), and Claudio Reyna (Sunderland and Manchester City) all having one or more English teams on their CVs. Although Harkes became the first to win a medal in the top flight, as Sheffield United beat Manchester United 1-0 in the 1991 League Cup final, to date, no American player has ever won a Premier League title, but that's highly likely to change in the not too distant future.

Meanwhile, Jovan Kirovski became the first American to sign with Manchester United (in 1992). Unfortunately for the then-teenage striker, he was unable to break into the first team due to issues with his working visa, but did well enough to secure a move to Borussia Dortmund, where he remained from 1996 to 2000.

Bundesliga

Kirovski's time in the Bundesliga saw him set a couple of records at Signal Iduna Park. The first is becoming the first American to score in the Champions League, and the second is being, to date, the only USMNT international to have won the coveted title when die Schwarzgelben lifted the trophy during the 1996/1997 season.

Although his name is now in the history books, Kirovski was far from the first American to play in Germany. Despite German not being the easiest language to learn for English-speakers (unless if you're already used to languages which have cases such as Russian), Americans have also opted to ply their trades in Germany for years.

Many, of course, are in the Bundesliga, but there are quite a few who feature in the 2.Bundesliga and even the 3.Liga. Some may wonder why any player would opt to play in the lower tiers of German football rather than in MLS, but the answer is pretty obvious: until recently,  MLS wasn't a well-organized entity, and many players likely felt they could better hone their skills abroad in a league that has been around for nearly 60 years.

America's first ever Bundesliga player was Andy Mate, who was born in Hungary, but became a naturalized US citizen. Mate made only one appearance for the Stars and Stripes during a rather unfortunate 10-0 humiliation at the hands of England on May 27, 1964, but on a positive note, he was the trailblazer for dozens of American players after playing for Hamburg during the 1964/1965 term.

Indeed, the list of Americans who have or are currently playing in the Bundesliga is quite extensive, and quite a few of them are promising youngsters. Examples as of late include Bortmund's Giovanni Reyna (who's part of an interesting group of fellow young stars), RB Leipzig's Tyler Adams, Bayern Munich's Chris Richards, and Werder Bremen's Josh Sargent. Chelsea star Pulisic also started his professional career with Dortmund, where he set numerous records at Signal Iduna Park during a four year spell from 2015 to 2019. 

Serie A

Despite Serie A being among the world's top leagues, it's interesting to note that not many Americans have not chosen to test their mettle in Italy's top flight. In fact, the number of players who can state they have done a tour of duty in the country known as the bel paese is surprisingly low. However, there only a few teams who have played in Serie A who have never had an American on their rosters, but many haven't brought in Americans until recently.

One prime example is none other than Juventus. The record Scudetto winners had never signed an American player until this past summer, when they opted to bring in Schalke's Weston McKennie on loan.

McKennie is the first American ever to play for La Vecchia Signora in the club's 120-plus year history

Still, America's link with Serie A go back more than a few decades. In fact, it goes back nearly 90 years.

In the 1930's, Alfonso Negro and Armando Frigo both played for Fiorentina; Negro featured for the Viola from 1934 to 1938 while Frigo was part of the team from 1939 to 1941.

But given this duo, who were both born in the USA to Italian immigrants, opted to play their international football for the Azzurri as opposed to the Stars and Stripes, some people opt to select retired shot-stopper and current sports analyst Alexi Lalas, who played for Padova from 1994 to 1996, as the first ever American representative in Serie A.

Regardless of whatever method once uses to decide who was the "true first" American player in Italy, one thing is not subject to debate: Lalas was the first American player to play in Italy's upper echelon in over 50 years.

It wasn't until a over a decade later that another USMNT international played for a Serie A side. After three years with Borussia Moenchengladbach, including a brief loan stint at Aston Villa, veteran midfielder Michael Bradley signed for Chievo Verona in 2011. Although he was only there for a season, he was given the nickname "The General" by fans due to his commanding performances in the middle of the park. Following this, Bradley moved to Roma in 2012, where he won a Coppa Italia runners-up medal before being sold to Toronto FC in 2014.

Meanwhile, McKennie has made two appearances so far for Juventus under Andrea Pirlo's tenure, and he will certainly be sure to feature more for the Bianconeri as they seek to be a competitive force across multiple fronts.

On the flip side, however, there have been American players who didn't have the best experience playing calcio. Remember Oguchi Onyewu? The powerful defender became the first American to sign a contract with AC Milan when he inked a three-year deal in 2009. Unfortunately, he's more well known for his training ground brawl with Swedish superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic than having much of an impact for the Rossoneri. During a frustrating 18 months at the Stadio San Siro, he never played a single Serie A game, and saw his time there cut short as he was shipped out on loan to Dutch side Twente in January 2011.

Young striker Josh Perez also struggled to find his footing at Fiorentina during his two-year spell with the senior squad and ended up being sent out on loan to Serie C side Livorno during the 2017/2018 campaign. There, however, he saw his game-time improve significantly, making over 20 appearances for Le Triglie before heading back to his native Los Angeles.

Ligue 1

Ligue 1 has also had a small handful of USMNT internationals feature for its various teams. The first was Joe Gaetjens, who played for RCF Paris during the 1951/1952 season. Gaetjens's claim to fame, however, was scoring the only goal against England during the 1950 World Cup, which to date, is still ranked among the biggest upsets in World Cup history.

Gaetjens's goal that helped the USA beat England is viewed as one of the greatest World Cup goals in history. However, he didn't get to enjoy his achievement for long as he was tragically murdered in 1964 during a return to Haiti at the age of 40.

It would be several decades before any other reps of America's national team played in France; David Regis is one of the most noteworthy during the 90's and early 00's as he played for five different clubs (Valenciennes, Strasbourg, Lens, Metz, Troyes) over an approximately 11 year spell. Currently, there's only American playing in Ligue 1: Tim Weah, son of Liberian legend and current president George Weah. The 20 year old, who was born in Brooklyn, previously was part of the PSG set-up before moving to Lille last season.

Others who have some French experience on their CVs include former USMNT skipper Carlos Bocanegra (Rennes and Saint-Étienne), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), and Freddy Adu (Monaco). Many will be familiar with Adu's brief stint with Monaco, which took place during a rather chaotic period where he played for a whopping 14 teams in eight different countries - including less-traveled places like Greece, Finland, and Serbia.

Primeira Liga

Portugal's Primeira Liga has also seen a small group of Americans feature for their teams. At the present, Boavista's Reggie Cannon is the only American international plying his trade in the Primeira Liga, but before Cannon, players like Kirovski (2000-2001) and Onyewu (2011-2013) both were on Sporting CP's roster. In addition, the aforementioned Adu also had a short stint with two Portuguese clubs: Benfica (from 2007 to 2008) and Belenses (from 2008 to 2009).

La Liga

Over in La Liga, 19-year-old Sergino Dest made history as the first ever American to sign for Barcelona earlier this month, and made his debut on October 4th. Prior to Dest's arrival, Shaquell "Shaq" Moore was the most recent USMNT international in Spain's top flight (he played for Levante for just under one season between 2017 and 2018).

Dest is the first ever American to play for Barcelona, and just one of five to have ever featured in La Liga

The first American to play in La Liga is Kasey Keller, who signed for Rayo Vallecano in 1999 and spent two years there before moving on to Tottenham in 2001 on a free transfer. Now retired, the veteran shot-stopper also played for Borussia Moenchengladbach and his 47 clean sheets for the Stars and Stripes place him at no. 1 in national records.

In total, only five American players, including Dest, have played for a Spanish side.

Super Lig

Before he was setting records in the Premier League, such as the most consecutive appearances (310), Friedel was honing his skills with Galatasaray, where he made 37 appearances during the 1995/1996 season. The now retired shot-stopper is also the first American to ever play in the Turkish Super Lig.

Like Serie A, Ligue 1, and the Primeira Liga the Turkish Super Lig hasn't seen a lot of Americans as part of their team's rosters. After Friedel, the next USA international to venture to Turkey is striker Jozy Altidore, who spent six months on loan at Bursaspor in 2011. Retired player Jermaine Jones also had a brief stint with Beşiktaş in 2014, and as of now, the only American playing in Turkey is Tyler Boyd, who signed a four-year contract with Ankaragücü in 2019.

Eredivisie

Finally, just like the Bundesliga and the Premier League, the Eredivisie has been a favored destination for American players for over four decades. Although the numbers are not as high as the numbers who head to England and Germany, the Netherlands has still seen its fair share of Americans since defender Alex Skotarek played one season for MVV Maastricht between 1971 and 1972. Currently, there are two USA internationals on the books for Dutch sides: Ulysses Llanez, who's on loan at SC Heerenveen from Wolfsburg, and Luca de la Torre, who plays his club football at Heracles Almelo.

So there we have it: as one can see, Americans are making strides in a diverse range of leagues from England to Turkey, and it will be interesting to see where all of these players find themselves at the end of the 2020/2021 campaign. Will there be some first-time league winners among them? And will we see another American finally win the Champions League after 20-plus years? It's highly likely, given some of the clubs these players presently feature for.

*A caveat - this piece didn't include every single league who has had or currently has at least one American in the squad - as the focus was on the "top-tier" leagues in Europe.*


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