North Americans flock to Germany for youth training

Recently, Bayern Munich announced the signing of the 17-year-old Canadian phenom Alphonso Davies. His signing is the first of its kind for Canadian soccer, following the pattern recently established of young U.S.-born players signing for clubs in Germany.

With the Davies signing, the list of North American-born teens playing in Germany is getting long: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKinnie, Haji Wright, Nick Taitague, Zyen Jones, Josh Sargant, Chris Richards, Brady Scott, and Isaiah Young.

Thanks to the presence of U.S. military personnel in places like Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany has been a surprising source of U.S. men’s national team talent. In recent years, the trend has been Germany-born American kids playing for the USMNT. This trend reached its apex under Jürgen Klinnsman coaching the national team, although it later emerged the trend helped disrupt a chaotic locker room.

But recently, the league has seen U.S.-eligible players, born in the U.S. heading their way.

Why? Easy: the league has an established track record in the last 15 plus years of giving young players excellent training and game-play opportunities. Few leagues in the world can rival the Bundesliga’s role as a talent training ground. Look no further than the pipeline of talent Europe’s megaclubs, especially from the Premier League, send to Germany. Or the identity that German clubs have staked on their ability annually to groom batches of new talent. It’s hard to imagine another league where Christian Pulisic would have started at age 17 against high quality opponents.

Of course, this current wave of U.S.-born players trekking to Germany began with Christian Pulisic and Weston McKinnie. I should point out these two players benefited from pre-existing connections to Europe. In Pulisic’s case, he played youth football in England as a boy, and, most importantly had a connection to a European passport via his grandfather. It meant Pulisic was able to receive an E.U. passport at 16, when he joined Borussia Dortmund’s academy. Essentially, this passport gave him an extra two years (most U.S.-born players must wait till they turn 18 to make the jump) on fellow Americans.

Like Pulisic, McKinnie grew up in Europe for a few years. Because of his father’s military career, the McKinnie family moved from Texas to Ramstein Air Force Base. In Germany, McKinnie switched from American football to soccer, and played at the club level. When his family later moved back to Texas, McKinnie was already hooked.

At this point, Pulisic and McKinnie are well-established starters for top Bundesliga clubs, and this season McKinnie will getting his first Champions League experience, thanks to Schalke’s second place finish in last season’s Bundesliga. Think about these two players as the front-guard of North American youngsters making the European trek.

But the next wave is coming.

While Davies grabbed the recent headlines with his Bayern signing, it’s Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargant who you should be watching this season. This guy is the best bet to be the U.S.’s next star to emerge in Germany.

Although Sargant’s path to Werder’s Startelf is choked with current well-seasoned veterans like Max Kruse and Fin Bartels, he’s already been capped for the USMNT, scoring a goal against Bolivia, and is showing promise.

Back at Schalke 04, joining McKinnie are three other U.S.-born players: Wright, Taitague, and Jones. Of these, Wright is the biggest name. He just returned to S04 after a year-long loan to SV Sandhusen (15 apps, 1 goal), a mid-table side in Germany’s 2.Bundesliga. Because of his height — Wright is 6’4” — he played centre forward. The 20-year-old native of Los Angeles has been slower in his development than Pulisic, McKinnie, and Sargant, but after bouncing from Sandhausen to Union Berlin (another 2.Bundesliga side), the hope is that Wright can double his playing time, and increase his goal tally.

Taitague is an attacking midfielder from Virginia, who joined die Knappenschmiede in 2017. Gifted with explosive speed, Taitague was moved from a #10 play-making role to winger at Schalke. With S04’s reserves, Taitague has 26 apps with four goals and five assists. Although making Schalke’s senior side is probably out of the question this season, the 19-year-old can hopefully make the case that he deserves a high profile loan move next year.

As for Jones, he’s just 17 and is waiting until he’s 18 to sign his full professional contract with Schalke (Sargant was in a similar position with Werder until he turned 18). Jones is from FC Atlanta United’s academy. This season, Jones is finishing up his Knappenschmiede time, so really it’s next year when his future will be further determined.

After Schalke’s four U.S.-born players, three others are scattered around Germany: Richards (Bayern), Scott (1.FC Köln), and Young (Werder Bremen).

Possibly the most interesting player from a story perspective is Young, who joins Sargant as Werder’s second U.S.-born player. Sargant left a very promising college career at Wake Forest, dropped off the soccer map for a bit and then re-emerged in Germany with Werder.

Like Sargant, Young is a centre forward, which means he’s ultimately competing with his compatriot in the Werder system. Finally, Yes, Sargant will grab the Werder headlines for Americans this season, but Young is still around, hoping for that reserve break that could lead to better things next season.

Now with Davies signing at Bayern, Canada suddenly has a toehold in the Bundesliga. Given Bayern’s ambitions, there’s no chance that Davies will make an impact this season, or even the next couple at Bayern. Instead, after some reserve side seasoning, expect Bayern to loan him out in Germany, probably the top flight. Davies is marketed as the club’s marquee youth signing this summer, so there’s incentive to develop possibly Canada’s top ever soccer prospect.

But aside from Pulisic and McKinnie, it’s far too early to determine if this ersatz U.S. strategy will work for others. After this season, the results should be clearer with Wright, Taitague, and Young being in critical positions for determining what kind of soccer futures they will have.

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