By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 19, 2021) US Soccer Players – Historically, the Austrian Bundesliga isn’t exactly one of the leagues American fans normally show much interest in. The league comes in well behind all of Europe’s bigger, richer operations for quality and popularity. In UEFA’s current coefficient rankings for the region’s leagues, the Austrian Bundesliga ranks 10th behind the Belgian First Division A, the Eredivisie of the Netherlands, and the Russian Premier League.
Why is the Austrian Bundesliga suddenly in the conversation when American fans look at the weekend results? It’s because the American presence in the league has never been greater. In addition to Red Bull Salzburg head coach Jesse Marsch, there are five American players with Austrian clubs. In a league that is overwhelmingly populated by domestic players, five Americans in Austria puts the United States into a tie for the fifth most-represented nation in the Bundesliga.
The history of American players in Austria is, at best, spotty. While there have been American players at Austrian clubs before, the league has never been home to more than one or two of them at a time. Those players weren’t often well known, even among American soccer fans. Austria was most often a place for a journeyman player to spend a year or two rather than a destination of choice.
Better players worked their way to Germany or England. Young players looking for a place to grow more often chose Scandinavia, the Netherlands, or Belgium.
The first American player to spend time in Austria was Rashid Utush. He spent a few good years with the A-League version of the Seattle Sounders in the early 2000s, signed with SV Ried in March of 2001, and made seven appearances for the club.
It would take until 2008 for another American to join an Austrian Bundesliga club when Nate Jaqua signed with SC Rheindorf Altach from Houston. Up until his move to Austria, Jaqua had spent the entirety of his career in MLS. During his brief stay in Austria, Jaqua scored a respectable five goals in 13 appearances. He returned to Houston later the same year.
Former USMNT youth international Preston Zimmerman spent a few years in Austria at Kapfenberger SV, a club that won promotion from the second division in 2008. In 2012, Terrence Boyd signed for Rapid Vienna, beginning a two-year run of playing in Austria. Boyd scored 28 goals across those two seasons, helping Rapid to third-place and second-place finishes in the process.
Boyd’s output in Austria helped him earn a place with the USMNT that same year when he played a role in World Cup qualifying. He parlayed his success in Austria into a move to Germany to join RB Leipzig when that club was playing in the second division.
As Boyd was departing Austria for his chance back in Germany, American midfielder Conor O’Brien arrived from Denmark. O’Brien spent a year with Wiener Neustadt, playing 29 matches during an eighth-place campaign before returning to Denmark the following season.
One-time USMNT winger Josh Gatt spent a season in the Bundesliga with Rheindorf Altach before the club’s relegation to the second division in 2019. Gatt’s stint came just ahead of the wave of Americans currently in the league, scattered across the 12-team competition.
Marsch grabs the lion’s share of the attention for Americans in Austria because of his position and the uniqueness of an American coaching a European club. Despite the relative level of the Austrian league, Marsch wins praise for the success of his team. It helps immensely that Red Bulls Salzburg is a regular Champions League and Europa League participant.
Now Marsch has an American in the ranks of Red Bull. Brenden Aaronson’s multi-million dollar move to Salzburg did more than prove the efficacy of the Philadelphia Union developmental model. It also added to the growing American influence in Austria. Red Bull is particularly attractive to young players because of the club’s record of giving playing time to precocious talents and selling them to bigger clubs in higher profile leagues without hesitation.
Austria’s place in the European pecking order and Red Bull Salzburg’s connections to RB Leipzig provide a pathway to a big stage that didn’t exist a decade ago. There’s naturally a knock-on effect for the rest of the league. Doors are opening in Austria to American players much like they are in other leagues around Europe.
Two Americans were in Austria before Aaronson’s arrival and two more followed behind him.
Defender Erik Palmer-Brown, a product of the Sporting Kansas City academy, plays with Austria Vienna on loan from his parent club Manchester City. 23-year-old Palmer-Brown is now in his second season in Austria, where he’s racked up 35 appearances in two seasons. Austria Vienna is currently seventh in the standings, just outside of the group that qualifies for the “Championship Round” of the season that determines the league champion.
Former Philadelphia Union striker Andrew Wooten joined FC Flyeralarm Admira in the January transfer window. The striker already has three goals in five appearances for this new club, a good record that has nevertheless not helped the club avoid last-place.
Two new young Americans arrived in Austria for loan stints at the same club this winter. German-American midfielder Taylor Booth, a player with experience in the USYNT setup, is looking to earn his first senior team minutes at SKN St Polten. The 19-year-old is a product of Bayern Munich’s academy but hasn’t been able to move past the club’s reserve team.
Booth’s American compatriot at St Polten is FC Dallas product Brandon Servania. The 21-year-old Servania saw his minutes drop dramatically at FC Dallas in 2020 with the arrival of new midfield options for head coach Luchi Gonzalez and will look to find regular playing time in Austria.
Servania’s talent demands that Dallas work to help him develop his game. The emerging market for Americans in budget-minded clubs like St Polten provides a ready environment for further growth.
The American presence in Austria has never been bigger. Though the Austrian Bundesliga will never garner the same attention from soccer fans as the more famous leagues across the Atlantic, there’s more reason than ever to pay attention to another European league.
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