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USMNT and the Bundesliga: Why so many top young Americans choose Germany on career path

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On the opening weekend of the 2021-21 Bundesliga season, there were six Americans in action. Gio Reyna scored his first Bundesliga goal for Borussia Dortmund, Tyler Adams helped RB Leipzig to an opening round win, John Brooks was on duty for Wolfsburg, Timothy Chandler was a late sub for Eintracht Frankfurt, Josh Sargent started for Werder Bremen and Chris Richards got 17 minutes as Bayern Munich brushed aside Schalke.

Cast your eye over the squad lists and academies up and down the Bundesliga, and there are Americans breaking through in 16 of the 18 top-flight teams; there are, at the last count, 50 US-qualified players in the top three German divisions.

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In recent years, German clubs in particular have made a mad scramble to sign the best, young U.S. soccer talent. Speak to players, coaches and agents, and each has a slightly different take on why there are so many Americans in the Bundesliga. You have the ease of work permits, the American mentality, the growing talent pool, the Jurgen Klinsmann effect of the early 2010s, legacies of the U.S. Army presence during the Cold War, the lack of transfer fees, the appeal of the U.S. market from a brand-advancement point of view and, of course, the Christian Pulisic factor.

Ultimately, every club in the Bundesliga wants to find their own Captain America.

The story and legacy of U.S. players in the Bundesliga

There is no exact science to how the past and present USMNT players in Germany ended up there. The German top flight has been a place where Americans have found a home in the past: Eric Wynalda, Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan, Jovan Kirovski and Brian McBride all played in Germany at the start of their careers. Steve Cherundolo, who won 87 caps for the USMNT, played for Hannover 96 his entire career and is nicknamed “Mayor of Hannover.”

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the U.S. side in 2011, he encouraged young players to look abroad, while also targeting dual-nationality players (“Deutschamerikaners“) in the Bundesliga like John Brooks, Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and Timothy Chandler (all of whom had fathers in the military and stationed in Germany).

But the flashpoint, or “eureka” moment, came in the form of Pulisic. He arrived on a free transfer at Borussia Dortmund aged 15 thanks to a Croatian passport, which allowed him to circumnavigate the FIFA regulations prohibiting non-EU players under the age of 18 moving abroad. By the time he turned 18, he’d made 11 top-flight appearances. By the age of 20, he had secured a £58m move to Chelsea as one of the best young players in the world. Dortmund had unearthed a gem, and it didn’t take long for other clubs to explore the same talent pool.

Weston McKennie was the next to break through, his form for Schalke since leaving FC Dallas in 2017 earning him a move to Juventus. Elsewhere, Adams joined RB Leipzig from sister club New York Red Bulls, Sargent signed for Werder Bremen having earned trials in Europe after standing out at the now-defunct U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Richards was signed by Bayern Munich from FC Dallas — the two have established a youth development pathway, with Hoffenheim and FC Cincinnati announcing a similar relationship last Friday.

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“The reason why it’s so good now for American players is that Germany is probably the best league in the world at investing in young talent, believing in young talent and using young talent,” RB Salzburg boss Jesse Marsch told ESPN. “That’s really good for young players coming over here. And I think that’s why they are willing to make the leap to come to this league specifically. I also think the mentality of young American players is [a] really good [fit].”

There are the next crop of American youngsters knocking on the door, like 18-year-old forward Matthew Hoppe at Schalke, dreaming of their opportunity in the Bundesliga. “You have to sacrifice a lot to play out here — there’s a learning curve, but you just have to keep going and keep working hard for your goals and dreams,” Hoppe told ESPN. “I think there are a lot of talented players in the USA. They just need to take the jump to Europe, and they need to keep developing their game and take the risk.”

An alignment in mentality

One Bundesliga academy head told ESPN young American players have a lot of “discipline and self-motivation” and come with a “certain mentality — they know how to progress and prevail.” An agent told ESPN the mindset and athleticism seen in young U.S. players is a “pull for German clubs.” As one player told ESPN: “We just get our heads down and do it.”

Academy heads see this mentality as one that works well in tandem with German players of a similar age, while traditional German “gegenpressing” style, founded on hard running and an emphasis on fitness, suits young players too.

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Pablo Thiam, head of Wolfsburg’s academy, told ESPN: “The [young U.S. players] are athletically trained when they come here [to Germany]. This plays a bigger role stateside and we school them in tactics; they usually lack one, maybe two components and that’s what we work on.”

Marsch knows both sides of the coin well having been assistant at Leipzig, and also having worked in MLS. “When a lot of the young German youth coaches or coaches in general see the young Americans come over here, they see this confidence, they see this will to win and they see this mentality to do whatever it takes,” Marsch told ESPN. “That fits well with the German mentality of wanting to be the best and wanting to be the most professional and wanting to make sure they are the most prepared and organized.

“The combination of the two means that you get some fearless players to put into a good environment and give them a chance to grow and get better and these American players are willing to adapt and learn and grow and do whatever it takes. The combination of the two cultures has led to this being a positive trend, and a trend that I hope continues.”

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When talking to young Americans in Germany, you are struck by their maturity. In our interview Hoppe spoke succinctly but with direction, with his comments anchored on doing everything possible — like spending lockdown focusing on building muscle — to achieve personal success.

“I was able to learn a lot here, improve my technique, improve my tactical awareness, mental strength, physique… it was a no-brainer to come to Schalke and play here,” Hoppe said. “In America I was lacking in intensity to get better — I was working hard, training a lot and doing everything. But there’s a difference now in the intensity and the will as to how bad I want it.”

Balancing risk and reward

This is a two-way beneficial relationship: German clubs all want to find the next Pulisic, while so many young American players want to follow in his footsteps. Pulisic proved the talent is there — it needs to be nurtured.

Another boon for German sides searching for talent in the USA involves economics. The bizarre, antiquated arrangement, whereby American clubs were prohibited from chasing training compensation or payments for any player in their system who was yet to sign a pro contract, has allowed a lot of young U.S.-based players to move abroad for free or, at best, a nominal fee. Major League Soccer has since changed its stance this April, bringing their clubs and new academies in line with FIFA protocol, but we are yet to see this have a real impact on the transfer market.

One prominent agent told ESPN MLS academies may dangle a transfer fee or compensation as a “threat,” but no club has yet filed a claim. “I still think you’re going to have American kids going to Germany because they’re cheap and quality, but we’ve yet to see, outside of [Bayern Munich’s] Alphonso Davies, teams paying big money for MLS players — that’s the next litmus test.”

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For the wealthier German clubs, the risk is low: sign a promising player, develop them and you might end up with a superstar (Reyna, Pulisic, Sargent and McKennie were all signed on free transfers). If not, there’ll be plenty of teams back in the U.S. who will be willing to sign the player back.

“If a player is interesting, you will always look for a solution with the current club,” Thiam, who played for 24 years in Germany with Cologne, Stuttgart, Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg, told ESPN. “And we always find a solution.”

Even if a player does get signed to an MLS contract, they’re still relatively cheap for interested teams. Borussia Monchengladbach signed American right-back Joe Scally this summer — signed to NYCFC — for £1.3m, while Philadelphia Union midfielder Brandon Aaronson is also on a number of teams’ radars in Germany and elsewhere on the continent, sources told ESPN.

While there are lots of other pathways for U.S. talent taking the transatlantic leap to Europe — Reggie Cannon is in Portugal with Boavista, Antonee Robinson is at Fulham and Sergino Dest is about to complete a move from Ajax to Barcelona — the majority end up in Germany. Working to German football’s advantage is the ease young American players have getting a work permit in the Bundesliga compared with the other big European leagues.

The rules for non-EU to get a work permit in the Premier League are dependent on big transfer fees or wages, or international experience, while non-EU places in Serie A and La Liga squads are at a premium. In Germany a young, promising American player aged 16 years old — provided they have dual European nationality; if not it’s 18 years old, per FIFA regulations — can get the required work permit if they have proof they’re joining on a salary and are confirmed as a decent athletic prospect. (Schalke’s Evan Rotundo, who has dual nationality with France is one such America-qualified 16-year-old playing in Germany, having signed from San Diego Surf this summer.)

Pulisic’s success saw more German teams investing in scouting in America, one source told ESPN. This also coincided with Bundesliga teams looking to foreign markets for commercial benefits — Bayern Munich opened a New York office in 2014, and the Bundesliga opened theirs next to the city’s Grand Central station in 2018. Another source told ESPN we can expect to see more club partnerships, like Bayern-FC Dallas and Hoffenheim-FC Cincinnati that sees footballing knowledge, expertise and insight increasingly being transferred across the Atlantic.

Then there are connections at the personnel level. MLS expansion team St. Louis City SC, who begin play in 2023, appointed ex-German goalkeeper Lutz Pfannenstiel as their sporting director, while Claudio Reyna at Austin FC knows the Bundesliga first-hand. Across the sea back in Germany, you have New Jersey-born Pellegrino Matarazzo serving as head coach for VfB Stuttgart, while Marsch was an assistant coach at Leizpig in 2018-19 and is now leading RB Salzburg in Austria, winning everything in sight.

For the players themselves, the success of Pulisic and McKennie offers a proven track record of clubs backing youth and developing them. The Bundesliga — with the likes of Jadon Sancho, Davies, Erling Haaland, Gio Reyna and Jude Bellingham — has always been a place where youth is backed and talent is king.

This ethos caught the imagination of Hoppe at Schalke. Originally from California, he joined the Arizona branch of the Barca Residency Academy before scouts from Europe started taking an interest in the promising young forward.

“When I came here [Schalke] on trial, I was able to see first-hand the training, and meet all the coaches and see the holistic approach, how they develop players and how they turn people into world-class players and take me to the next level,” Hoppe told ESPN. “The U23’s and the first team have a very good relationship. They often bring up players to train with the first team regularly.”

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Already at Schalke were fellow Americans Nick Taitague (promoted to the first team over the summer) and McKennie. “I think he [Weston] was an influence,” Hoppe told ESPN. “He was a big star here at Schalke, and he was willing to show that Schalke were willing to play young players and young Americans. I spoke to him a few times and he gave me some encouragement and advice. It was a good conversation.”

The Future

As one Bundesliga academy head told ESPN, “there is huge potential for extraordinary footballers [in Germany]. There is a huge growing rate, a huge pool of players who are all well-trained.” The U.S. 2019 Under-20 World Cup team had six players contracted to German clubs while the last Under-17 team had Pablo Soares from Borussia Monchengladbach and Noah Jones from RB Leipzig.

With the top Bundesliga clubs aware of promising American talent as young as 12 years old, the pathway is established. And with the Bundesliga’s brand as a place that trusts in youth (Borussia Dortmund’s opener against Gladbach was created by Reyna and Bellingham, who are both 17), it’s seen as a place where age is irrelevant if you’re good enough.

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“There’s not much politics involved,” Klinsmann told ESPN. “The coaches are usually very straightforward. If the kid understands that it’s all down to performance and they’ll get the chance, the Bundesliga’s the place to be.”

“All the young players have an extreme talent and the Bundesliga’s able to offer these players an opportunity to use their talent, to tweak it, improve all the things they need to work on,” Hoppe tells ESPN. “It’s so wholesome [in Germany] — they need to work on their strength, their technique, their tactical ability, their mental strength — the league helps make them more a complete player.”

The migration shows no signs of slowing. This summer gone, Arminia Bielefeld signed 16-year-old goalkeeper Carver Miller from DC United, while Joel Imasuen arrived at Hertha Berlin. Then Bayern and Barcelona were involved in a scramble for Dest. While some move on — like Sebastian Soto, who joined Norwich City before going out on loan to SC Telstar in the Netherlands, or Blaine Ferri, who swapped Greuther Furth for Fort Lauderdale CF in the USL — the machine keeps moving.

“I think there are a lot of talented players in the USA,” Hoppe says. “They just need to take the jump to Europe, they need to keep developing their game and take the risk.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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