USMNT’s Premier League migration shifts focus on American players in Europe
Brenden Aaronson watched his dream move to the English Premier League materialize on a smartphone in a Vienna café.
He was, on the afternoon of May 22, two hours away from becoming the second-most expensive American soccer player ever — if, that is, Leeds United could avoid relegation. So, while on a mini-vacation to the Austrian capital with his girlfriend, he tracked the final day of the EPL season frantically, “sweating and pacing around the café.”
He tried to relax; to sip a coffee; to escape the stress. As Leeds went ahead and relegation-rival Burnley went behind, and his $30 million transfer from Red Bull Salzburg crystallized, the 21-year-old from South Jersey ducked away to the bathroom “four or five times,” as his girlfriend swiped and refreshed for score updates.
It was “awful,” Aaronson said a week later — but life-changing too. “I wanted to be part of the club so bad,” he said.
A few days later, he was. A few months later, he is gearing up for his first Premier League season, and he isn’t alone. U.S. teammate Tyler Adams has joined him and American coach Jesse Marsch at Leeds, and West Yorkshire, out of nowhere, has become the nucleus of a growing U.S. men’s national team network in Europe.
For years, that nucleus was in Germany. The Bundesliga became the destination for American teens and young pros. But over the past year, USMNT regulars and hopefuls have migrated to Great Britain. At least 14 of them will begin their 2022-23 seasons in England or Scotland.
So it’s there, in the EPL (and on NBC networks), where American eyes will be trained between now and mid-November, when the 2022 World Cup begins.
But there are dozens of other USMNT players scattered across the continent as well. According to Transfermarkt data compiled by Yanks Abroad, the number of Americans in the world’s top five leagues has skyrocketed in recent seasons. U.S.-eligible players made 436 appearances in those leagues in 2021-22, per the analysis, up a whopping 79% from 244 in 2019-20.
That number could rise yet again over the coming 10 months. And whereas the Premier League represented the smallest share of appearances and minutes last season, it could leap to the top of the list by May.
So, with the Prem and Bundesliga set to begin on Friday, here’s a rundown of USMNT World Cup roster contenders and their overseas club situations.
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
(TV: NBC, USA, Peacock in English; Telemundo in Spanish)
Christian Pulisic (winger, Chelsea) — Pulisic remains in West London — for now. Whether he’ll be there come Sept. 2 is an open question that might not be answered until transfer deadline day. Playing time had already been a sticking point for the U.S. star when, in July, Chelsea paid north of $50 million for Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling.
But Pulisic has said he wants to stay and fight for his place, as he has ever since arriving at Stamford Bridge. And even if he isn’t starting regularly, he’ll be the USMNT’s catalyst in Qatar.
Tyler Adams (defensive midfielder, Leeds) — The 23-year-old’s $24 million move to Leeds made him the third-most expensive American player ever. It reunited him with Marsch, his former boss at New York Red Bulls and RB Leipzig. It also presented him with a near-perfect situation: He’ll be the first-choice defensive midfielder under a manager who trusts him in a pressing team in the most competitive league in the world.
In one sense, he’s a replacement for Kalvin Phillips, the English midfielder who departed for Man City. “But I didn’t come in to be Kalvin Phillips,” Adams recently clarified. “I came in to be Tyler Adams.”
Brenden Aaronson (attacking midfielder, Leeds) — Aaronson has been torching preseason opponents with his two preeminent skills: relentless pressing and transition passing. He is, as U.S. teammate Weston McKennie says, “an annoying gnat, like a fly that you can’t get out of your face” when you have the ball. When he wins it off you, he can carve up defenses in an instant.
He is, somewhat remarkably, not a first-choice starter for the national team, but he could play his way into a place in the USMNT 11 over the next three months.
Chris Richards (center back, Crystal Palace) — The newest addition to the American EPL flock, Richards arrived at Palace for up to $15 million from Bayern Munich after a strong loan spell at Hoffenheim. He won’t be a sure-fire starter, but if he can earn a consistent place alongside Marc Guehi in the Prem, the 22-year-old should partner Walker Zimmerman at center back for the U.S. in Qatar.
Antonee Robinson (left back, Fulham) — The USMNT’s top left back struggled in his first Premier League season, 2020-21, but is a more mature player this time around after helping Fulham win promotion back to the top flight.
Tim Ream (center back, Fulham) — Ream is not only still at Fulham; he started all 46 Championship games last season (at age 34!) as the Cottagers won the English second division. He hasn’t been called into the national team since withdrawing from an October 2021 squad for “family reasons,” and he doesn’t have the mobility that USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter desires, but he confirmed to The Athletic in April: “I’m still available to be picked. I don’t think that will change until I completely hang up the boots.”
Matt Turner (goalkeeper, Arsenal) — Turner is expected to back up Aaron Ramsdale in North London, which begs an obvious question: Why would an established starter (for the New England Revolution) voluntarily relegate himself to a reserve role, especially in a World Cup year?
“Well, I’ve been playing pretty well in MLS for the better part of three years now,” Turner said in late May. “Given the environment of transfers, for goalkeepers in particular, this was the first real interest, first real offer that I’ve had. And I’ve been trying to make things happen for quite some time. So it seems like the right time for me.
“Being a week-in, week-out starter in MLS didn’t guarantee me to be a starter here for the national team. And going to the World Cup, I obviously want to play games. So I need to shake things up in my club career, and I think this is a positive step forward for me in the long term, and in the immediate future.”
(TV: 3-4 games per weekend on ESPN+)
Zack Steffen (goalkeeper, Middlesbrough) — Steffen spent two years in a role similar to the one Turner now occupies, as an entrenched backup at Man City. And when he did get on the field, he made a few nightmarish gaffes. So he has dropped down to the Championship on loan, and made a couple big saves on his debut in a 1-1 draw with West Brom.
Although Turner is widely regarded as the better shot-stopper, a strong autumn could solidify Steffen as the U.S. No. 1.
Josh Sargent (forward, Norwich) — At this time last year, Sargent was the USMNT’s starting striker. Now he’s a try-hard second-tier winger on the fringes of the national team roster. There’s a school of thought that Norwich’s relegation to the Championship could be good for him. An uneventful display in a season-opening 1-0 loss at Cardiff, though, was inauspicious.
Daryl Dike (striker, West Brom) — One of many American strikers who, if he gets hot this fall, could sneak into Berhalter’s 26. The first steps, though, would be staying healthy and securing a regular place in West Brom’s 11.
Ethan Horvath (goalkeeper, Luton Town) — The hero of last summer’s CONCACAF Nations League final has never played consistently for club or country. He’d need to do that at Luton to snatch a World Cup roster spot away from the current clubhouse leader for the third goalkeeper slot, New York City FC’s Sean Johnson.
(TV: Every match on ESPN+ in English and Spanish)
Gio Reyna (attacking midfielder, Borussia Dortmund) — Reyna had a hellish, injury-riddled 2021-22 campaign that ended with yet another serious muscle injury, and with tears. But he’s still regarded as the USMNT’s brightest teenage prospect. He looked slick in his first unofficial game back from the hamstring tear. Dortmund is taking things slow, allowing the 19-year-old to methodically build toward full fitness, but once there, he should get plenty of minutes in both league and cup competitions.
Jordan Pefok (striker, Union Berlin) — The 26-year-old Washington, D.C.-born target man parlayed a Swiss league Golden Boot into a smart move to Union Berlin — which, after an unprecedented fifth-place finish last season, sold its top marksman, Taiwo Awoniyi, to Nottingham Forest. So Pefok will get his chance to lead the line, and, in preseason and the German Cup, he’s already taking that chance. If he keeps scoring, he’ll be in Qatar.
Ricardo Pepi (striker, Augsburg) — Pepi pounced on a big-money move to Augsburg last winter … and hasn’t scored since. He desperately needs some game time to re-find a rhythm, but seems set to start the season on the bench. Every appearance he makes will feel more pressure-packed than it should.
Joe Scally (fullback, Borussia Dortmund) — Scally, 19, is already up and running with goal in the DFB-Pokal, and, after playing 30 league games for Gladbach in his maiden season, should feature regularly again.
Gladbach, unfortunately, was a bit of a mess last year, and Scally was thrust into five different positions — “right back, right wing back, left back, left wing back, and right center back one game,” he said this offseason, rattling them off incredulously. But his versatility is a bonus for the national team, and will help his case for Qatar.
Kevin Paredes (left anything, Wolfsburg) — Scally’s primary competition for the back-up left back role could come from Paredes, who moved to Wolfsburg from D.C. United for $7.35 million in January. But he’ll need minutes, which are far from guaranteed.
George Bello (left back, Arminia Bielefeld, 2. Bundesliga) — At this time last year, Bello was the back-up left back, and a rising star at Atlanta United. But, as Berhalter has publicly suggested, he might’ve jumped to Europe too quickly. He made just three Bundesliga starts, all losses, after a January move as Bielefeld slumped to relegation. Whether he’s in the picture for Qatar or not, a pivotal season in the 2. Bundesliga lies ahead.
SPANISH LA LIGA
(TV: Every match on ESPN+ in English and Spanish)
Sergiño Dest (fullback, Barcelona) — Dest’s form and health have fluctuated constantly since arriving at Camp Nou in 2020. So have Barcelona’s opinions of him, according to local media reports. One day, he’s in Xavi’s first-team plans; the next, he’s being shopped. The latest, according to ESPN and SPORT, is that Barca will listen to offers for the 21-year-old American fullback as the club pursues Chelsea defender César Azpilicueta. It’s very unclear where Dest might end up.
Yunus Musah (midfielder, Valencia) — Musah’s national team career has accelerated quicker than his club career, in part because the U.S. plays him in his natural position, as a ball-carrying central midfielder. Valencia, meanwhile, had played the multicultural teen out wide. But that looks set to change under new manager Gennaro Gattuso, if preseason is any indication. If so, Musah, 19, could be one of La Liga’s breakout stars.
Luca de la Torre (central midfielder, Celta Vigo) — The 24-year-old San Diegan has had a rocky young career since moving to Fulham as a teen. But he found his footing last season, and especially last June with the national team. He earned an under-the-radar move to Spain, where his on-ball ability should flourish — if he gets regular playing time at Celta.
Matthew Hoppe (forward, Mallorca) — After a rough season at Mallorca, the 21-year-old forward and his club have reportedly been in talks with Middlesbrough and Sunderland. A move to the English Championship seems likely.
ITALIAN SERIE A
(TV: CBS Sports Network, Paramount+)
Weston McKennie (central midfielder, Juventus) — McKennie, a popular subject of transfer gossip, and repeatedly linked with Tottenham, seemed set for a third strong season at Juve when, in training last week, he dislocated his shoulder. The Italian club says that the injury will sideline him for at least three weeks.
Gianluca Busio (central midfielder, Venezia, Serie B) — Busio, along with a few other Americans at relegated Venezia, will now be hidden in the relative anonymity of Serie B. His stock has fallen since last autumn.
FRENCH LIGUE 1
(TV: beIN Sports, beIN Sports Connect)
Tim Weah (forward, Lille) — Weah will look to build on 2021-22, his best season yet as a professional. “I’m getting really comfortable,” he said during a USMNT camp in May. The next step? Goals. He’s never scored more than five in a pro season.
Erik Palmer-Brown (center back, Troyes) — “EPB” has finally settled at Troyes after four years as a Man City loanee in perpetual transition. But the 25-year-old central defender hasn’t distinguished himself as a reliable USMNT option.
Konrad de la Fuente (winger, Marseille) — Konrad started the USMNT’s first 2022 World Cup qualifier, and played in the second, and … hasn’t been back since. He struggled in his first season at Marseille, and will reportedly be sent out on loan — with Valladolid, a newly promoted Spanish side, the leading candidate to take him.
(TV: CBS Sports Network, Paramount+)
Cameron Carter-Vickers (centerback, Celtic) — A late addition to the World Cup roster picture after a sturdy 2021-22 campaign on loan, “CCV” and the Scottish champs made their partnership permanent this summer. He’s an every-week starter in Glasgow, and a contender to go to Qatar. The evaluative challenge for Berhalter and his U.S. staff is that the level of competition in the Scottish Premiership leaves plenty to be desired.
James Sands (defender/defensive midfielder, Rangers) — A compelling World Cup roster candidate in theory — but only in practice if he plays consistently, and well, at Rangers. He started a Champions League qualifier first leg on Tuesday, but last year’s Europa League finalists lost 2-0 to lowly Belgian side Royal Union Saint-Gilloise.
Malik Tillman (AM, Rangers) — Tillman, who committed his international future to the U.S. in May, moved on loan to Scotland last month in search of regular first-team minutes. The 20-year-old Bayern Munich product made an impressive cameo off the bench in Rangers’ league opener. More of the same could put him in World Cup contention.
Reggie Cannon (right back, Boavista, Portuguese Primeira Liga) — Cannon has been looking for paths out of Boavista for over a year now. “I can’t even imagine at this point how many transfers that have fallen through at the last second,” he said in May. But he’s still there, and while there, he’s grown into a more versatile defender, capable of playing right wing back in a 5, right back in a 4, and right center back in a 3.
Haji Wright (striker, Antalyaspor, Turkish Super Lig) — Wright, whose surge last spring earned him a USMNT debut (and debut goal), signed permanently with Antalyaspor after scoring 14 league goals on loan. Berhalter seemed strangely unimpressed with Wright in June, but a hot start in Turkey could keep the 24-year-old in the World Cup picture.
John Brooks (center back, free agent) — Brooks is one of the best center backs on the open market. The rumor mill, however, has been quiet — except for when Berhalter, explaining Brooks’ exclusion from multiple USMNT camps, told ESPN last month: “We want to play with a very high line. So ideally, if he went into a team that plays with a high line, and we can see every week how he’s dealing with space behind him, it would really help us get a picture of what he can do for our team. He hadn’t been doing it with Wolfsburg.”
ONES FOR THE FUTURE
Beyond the already-established national teamers, there are dozens of other Americans in Europe. Among the ones to keep on radars (ages in parentheses):
Folarin Balogun (FW, Arsenal but likely going on loan to Reims in France; 21)
Alex Mighten (W, Nottingham Forest, England; 20)
Auston Trusty (CB, Birmingham City, England; 23)
Richy Ledezma (AM, PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands; 21)
Cole Bassett (CM, Feyenoord, Netherlands; 21)
Sam Vines (LB, Royal Antwerp, Belgium; 23)
Mark McKenzie (CB, Genk, Belgium; 23)
Bryan Reynolds (RB, Westerlo, Belgium; 21)
Griffin Yow (W, Westerlo, Belgium; 19)
Tanner Tessmann (CM, Venezia, Italy [Serie B]; 20)