By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 24, 2021) US Soccer Players – There are few places in world soccer where the passion of the fans is more celebrated than in Turkey. Though the Turkish top division doesn’t get the same attention or praise from soccer fans watching around the globe, no one doubts that the support in the country is intense.
It’s that passion and the financial clout of a handful of clubs that can make Turkey an attractive place for foreign players. Those elite clubs tend to perform well in European competitions, something that helps in player recruitment. That includes Americans.
The history of Americans in Turkish top flight is not long. Thirty or so years of American professionals spreading across Europe has only seen a few USMNT-eligible players land in the league. The first charted a path in the 90s, before the options of playing high-level pro soccer in the United States even existed. The latest arrived just a few weeks ago and is already making a mark for the same club.
American goalkeeper Brad Friedel was the first American to move to Turkey. Back when Friedel left the United States to join Galatasaray in 1995, he did so almost out of necessity. The former UCLA standout had tried numerous times to get a move to England but was consistently denied a work permit by the British government. His transfer to Galatasaray involved something unique in the world of soccer, leaving a federation for a club.
Because the United States had no first division league ahead of the 1994 World Cup, some national team players signed with the US Soccer Federation. Friedel emerged from the World Cup experience as an in-demand young talent despite not playing a match. Moving to Turkey wouldn’t pay immediate dividends for Friedel in Europe. His eventual move to English soccer came after he spent a season and a half with the Columbus Crew.
In the end, Friedel played 30 games in Turkey and left with some unforgettable memories of his time in Istanbul. At his 2018 National Soccer Hall of Fame induction, Friedel recalled his opportunity to experience one of the world’s great derby matches: Galatasaray v. Fenerbahce.
“If you can play in that derby, if you can live in that environment, you can play and live anywhere in the world,” Friedel said.
At that time, Turkish clubs were only allowed three foreign players. That naturally limited the opportunities for Americans to play in the Super Lig. It would be 15 years before another American would play in Turkey.
In 2011, two of America’s brightest young players made their way to the Super Lig. Then 21-year-old Freddy Adu joined Rizespor on loan from Benfica. He would go on to play 11 games and score three goals with Rizespor before leaving for Major League Soccer at the end of the European season.
That year also saw forward Jozy Altidore find his way to Turkey. Altidore famously joined Villarreal from the New York Red Bulls in 2008 for what was an MLS-record fee. He then spent several years out on loan from his Spanish parent club, a stint that included 12 games and a single goal at Bursaspor.
Maurice Edu went on loan to Bursaspor two years later from Stoke City. He spent six months in Turkey at the beginning of 2013. Like Altidore, Edu’s run in the Super Lig was only a brief stay, making 11 appearances.
Jermaine Jones added his name to the growing list of Americans to play in Turkey on loan the following year. He joined Besiktas in January of 2014 via a loan from Schalke. The move made sense for the 32-year-old in part because USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann, preferred his players to play in Europe rather than MLS. Jones played 10 games for Besiktas, helping them to a 3rd-place finish. He joined the New England Revolution after the 2014 World Cup.
The first player to sign a permanent deal in Turkey since Friedel’s experience in the 90s didn’t come until winger Tyler Boyd joined Besiktas in 2019. Boyd earned a four-year deal with the Super Lig power on the back of a positive loan stint at Ankaragucu in the 2018-19 season when he scored six goals with four assists.
Success at Besiktas was harder to come by. With the club sanctioned by the league for having too many foreign players, Boyd wasn’t eligible for most of the first-half of the 2020-21 season. When he regained eligibility in January, Besiktas loaned him to Sivasspor.
The January window saw two other USMNT players joining Boyd in the Super Lig. Mix Diskerud signed with Denizlispor after spending five seasons on loan from Manchester City. His most recent loan was to Helsingborg in Sweden.
DeAndre Yedlin completed a long-anticipated move away from Newcastle United on deadline day. Galatasaray is now the second Turkish club, after Besiktas, to have two Americans on its books. Because Yedlin’s contract would expire this summer, the move didn’t involve a transfer fee. Newcastle does stand to benefit from performance bonuses if Yedlin plays well in Turkey.
So far, so good. In his first start since the move, Yedlin put in a top-level performance. His 70-yard pass to set up Galatasaray’s lone goal against Alanyaspor helped the club win the match and maintain its three-point lead over Besiktas at the top of the table.
Yedlin already missed out on both of this season’s games in the “eternal rivalry” Friedel so fondly remembers. Then again, maybe it’s better this way. If the effects of the pandemic abate in time, Yedlin might get a chance to experience his first edition of the match-up in a situation closer to normal. That means playing in front of some of the most passionate soccer fans in the world.
Jason Davis is the founder of MatchFitUSA.com and the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM. Contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
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Logo courtesy of the Super Lig