By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 8, 2020) US Soccer Players - High-level professional soccer is coming back. Thursday's announcement that Germany's Bundesliga will resume its 2019-20 season on May 16 with a slate of games sent waves of excitement through the global soccer community. Fans with nothing more than a passing interest in the German game will take the return of soccer there as a positive step towards the return of soccer everywhere. If Germany can pull this off, it bodes well for league's around the world to return to the field.
The Bundesliga's relaunch will happen under strictly controlled conditions. This is not a return to normalcy. The German government at federal and state levels handed the league a mandate to resume play, but only if the leagues can keep players, staff, and everyone else involved in the conducting of games healthy. Safety protocols are lengthy. The whole operation could be brought down by even one confirmed case of COVID-19 among the people involved.
Testing will be frequent and mandatory. Players will travel to stadiums separately or in small groups for away teams and use several different locker rooms. Nothing about the games will be normal, and that's even before accounting for the empty stands.
The Germans call games played without fans "ghost games." The name works on several levels. There is no debate that the sport of soccer suffers dramatically without vibrant atmospheres, or that these matches will stand out in the historical record when we look back on them from the future. If a soccer game happens and no one is there to see it, does it count?
Still, soccer is soccer. During this crisis, it means something that some of the best players in the world will get back to doing their jobs. Sports are a distraction we need from our everyday lives, even in the best of times. With the pandemic still spreading and quarantine conditions mandatory or otherwise in place around the world, the Bundesliga's return points to that larger societal return.
That brings us to some important business, picking a Bundesliga team to follow for the balance of the season. Ghost games or not, watching soccer is better with a rooting interest. Sports fans around the globe are going to dive in headfirst with no other sports to pull their attention elsewhere. Guidance is needed.
First, a recognition that there are no rules when it comes to picking a team. Like the club colors? That's good enough. Maybe a player grabs your fancy or you've heard good things about the fans. There's always the anti-elite position. If you're averse to choosing Bayern Munich, throwing your lot in with a less celebrated club-like Union Berlin might be more appealing.
For American soccer fans, the entry point to choosing a foreign club to support is typically one of two things: A connection even if it's tenuous to the team through family or personal history, or the presence of an American in the roster. Americans, and specifically young players who figure to be central figures for the USMNT now and into the future, are rife in Germany.
The new kid on the block is Borussia Dortmund's Giovanni Reyna. The 17-year old son of former USMNT captain Claudio Reyna made waves upon his arrival in the Dortmund first team just before the Coronavirus shutdown took effect. Reyna is the real deal, a multi-talented attacking player who fits perfectly into Dortmund's ethos of bringing through youngsters and giving them a chance to shine.
Reyna is the second precocious American teenager to land at Dortmund, following in the footsteps of Christian Pulisic. That alone is reason enough for American soccer fans to jump on the yellow bandwagon. It doesn't hurt that Dortmund comes out of the pandemic shutdown ready to resume a fight with Bayern Munich for the league title.
The gap is just four points with nine games left. How the lack of fans and intense safety protocols will impact the runout isn't clear, but nobody expects Dortmund to fold. Reyna's role before the pause was as a late-game super sub. He figures to be in coach Lucien Favre's plans with the league restarted.
Dortmund isn't the only club in the title race with an American on the roster. In the case of Tyler Adams and RB Leipzig, the player is more established and more central to the championship effort.
Adams missed a large stretch of the season due to injury, rejoining the lineup just before the shutdown. His immediate adaptation to German soccer last season spoke to his versatility and talent and set up 2019-20 as a breakout year. Leipzig reached the quarterfinal round of the Champions League before the shutdown, with Adams ready and willing to fit in at multiple positions for manager Julian Nagelsmann.
Choosing Leipzig is a little complicated. The club is loathed by many in Germany because of its ties to the Red Bull energy drink empire and how Red Bull circumvented the DFL's rules on ownership. Americans tend to be less concerned about those issues. We have our own Red Bull outpost, after all. It won't be a surprise if Leipzig gains some new converts.
One other American international remains in the title race, Fabian Johnson with Borussia Moenchengladbach. The winger isn't the national team fixture he once was but remains a part of a very good team challenging for honors in Germany. Gladbach is a sizeable club in the Bundesliga and still carries an underdog feeling about them.
Weston McKennie's Schalke side sits in 6th-place, battling for a European spot after last year's difficult season. McKennie is a fixture for one of the largest clubs in Germany, playing all over the field in recent seasons. American fans looking for a club to support that doesn't draw the ire of the rest of the league's fans or carrying the "hipster favorite" label Dortmund earned in recent years could do worse than Schalke.
If fans want a true underdog story with nine games to go and can stomach the drama of a relegation fight, there are a couple of Americans embroiled in the struggle. Unfortunately, both Zack Steffen and Alfredo Morales are dealing with injuries and could miss out on Fortuna Dusseldorf's push for safety.
At Werder Bremen, Josh Sargent is part of the quest to stay up for a proud club that hasn't been out of the top division in 40 years. The teenager's education in Germany stopped suddenly with the shutdown. With the return of the competition, his continued evolution will be worth a watch.
More From Jason Davis:
- Europe considers its club calendar
- Legendary status in MLS
- The New York City soccer market
- The importance of organized support in MLS
Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press - ISIPhotos.com