By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 16, 2019) US Soccer Players - It's no secret that US soccer viewers love the English Premier League. It's packed with superstars. There's no language barrier. NBC's coverage is widely accessible. Style of play and lively crowds makes it approachable for a broad range of viewers. The lavish hype around the opening of the 2019-20 Premier League season last weekend reminded us of what a powerful combination all that can be. It is not, however, the league that stands to influence and aid American soccer the most.
That tag applies to the Bundesliga, which kicks off this weekend. While the number of Americans in the Premier League has dropped of late, Germany remains a second home for US players. It's a tradition that runs back three decades to the time of Eric Wynalda and continues today. That's in part due to the German soccer system's openness to imports, with fewer work-permit restrictions and foreigner limits.
What that means in practical terms is more opportunities for American players. It's the Bundesliga with more members of the USMNT than any of the other topflights in Europe. That number could well rise as a new crop of youthful US talent climbs through the academy and reserve systems at several clubs.
In Germany, American players generally find fewer hurdles to advancement, a familiarity with and appreciation of their attributes, and playing styles that suit them. While US viewers have traditionally gravitated towards the more familiar Premiership, it's easier than ever to follow Yanks in the Bundesliga. Here's a rundown of a few stories to watch this season.
Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig
Adams hit the ground running in Leipzig upon his midseason arrival from the New York Red Bulls last winter. He quickly proved not only that he was able to keep pace in the Bundesliga, but could be a foundational midfield element in the squad that finished third in last season's standings.
Unfortunately, all those good signs are on hold as he recovers from a persistent groin problem. It ruled him out of the Gold Cup. Now, it's kept him on the sidelines for the start of the new campaign.
"Our medical department are doing everything they can, but Tyler's injury is complicated," Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann told Bild over the summer. "Suddenly you're pain-free and expect to get involved again, but it's misleading."
With his club aiming to challenge the elite Bayern/Borussia Dortmund duo in the league while competing in the UEFA Champions League, Adams could be a key contributor for both club and country in the year ahead.
John Brooks, Wolfsburg
Injury kept Brooks out of the USMNT's Gold Cup plans this summer. That may have obscured North American eyes from seeing his progress. Brooks earned substantial minutes for Wolfsburg last season, helping them finish sixth and qualify for the group stage of the Europa League. That's a season removed from barely avoiding relegation. Now they'll want to consolidate that progress and show they're capable of competing on multiple fronts.
That process starts with a home opener vs. newly-promoted 1.FC Koln on Saturday. Brooks is likely to start. He got his first USMNT cap way back in 2012 and has been a Bundesliga regular about as long. That makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that he's still just 26. With his skill set and experience, Brooks can anchor a first-choice USMNT backline.
Weston McKennie, Schalke 04
McKennie is one of the most talented American midfielders in the game right now. He enters a new season with a new head coach and a fresh start for his team after a year of woe.
Unlucky and overstretched, Schalke had a nightmare 2018-19 that left them with little to celebrate. Now David Wagner has returned home to the helm after his stint in England with Huddersfield Town. New players are arriving as well.
McKennie was a utility man for the Miners last season, playing half-a-dozen different roles around the pitch, even in Champions League action. On the bright side, few European-based US exports had that trust at such a high level of competition. Conversely, it left him without a spot to make his own. How Wagner uses him is a major story for the club this season.
McKennie's prospects at Schalke are very likely to influence how and where Gregg Berhalter plays him with the USMNT. It bears watching, starting with a tough trip to Fabian Johnson's Gladbach this weekend, the first of several early tests on their schedule.
Khiry Shelton, Paderborn
The 26-year-old Texan striker has yet to make his presence felt on the USMNT. A serendipitous sequence of events could lead to some good opportunities to change that.
After promising but incomplete MLS stints at NYCFC and Sporting KC, Shelton moved abroad to Paderborn, then in the 2.Bundesliga, as a free agent in January. Though he saw limited action in last season's back half, in part due to injuries, the unheralded club won promotion with a 2nd-place finish.
Recent reports suggest that their athletic American frontrunner has impressed manager Steffen Baumgart and his staff during preseason. Shelton scored several goals and made an impact with his strength and range. He's on track to be a leading option off the bench, if not a starter. With Paderborn facing long odds of survival in the top flight, it could be a tough campaign, but one where he'll have real chances to contribute.
Zack Steffen, Fortuna Dusseldorf
The USMNT's starting goalkeeper starts his Manchester City career with a loan return to Germany. That's where he began his pro career at SC Freiburg four years ago. He didn't catch many breaks in that first stint abroad, but things are lining up more auspiciously in Dusseldorf, also home to USMNT player Alfredo Morales.
Steffen appears to have edged ahead of Michael Rensing in the battle for the starting job. He'll probably be busy in net as his new team tries to stave off relegation in their second year in the Bundesliga. This is a high-risk, high-reward situation for a player in need of regular action as he enters his prime.
Fortuna open their slate with a visit to Werder Bremen, where young US striker Josh Sargent is also working hard to get to the top of the depth chart and stay there. Could Sargent and Steffen find themselves dueling face to face on opening weekend? That's just one of many tasty questions for Yanks in Germany this Fall.
More from Charles Boehm:
- US Soccer adds another issue with Development Academy split
- Taking stock of MLS All-Star week
- Charting the USMNT’s autumn
- Concacaf throws a curve with new World Cup qualifying format
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