In February 2015, Borussia Dortmund signed 16 year old Christian Pulisic and brought him to Germany. This was not done to save the USMNT program, but many view it that way as there are more US Soccer players in Germany. It was good business by Dortmund; but what is good business for Germany’s Bundesliga clubs, it turns out, is saving the USMNT program.
MLS was founded by owners and administrators from the NFL world. In the NFL, players are developed, for free, by the US educational system. Primarily, elite prep high schools and NCAA college programs. NFL teams select almost finished players in their early twenties in a draft. For many years, this is how those owners thought of player recruitment in MLS. Soccer players would go to college, then be drafted into MLS.
For players born in the 70s and 80s, this was a path that could produce USMNT impact players. Tab Ramos, Claudio Reyna, Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron all went to college. The former two graduated before MLS and went to Europe to play soccer because that was all there was. Dempsey and Cameron were drafted in MLS and then moved. But something changed in world soccer and it is a big reason the USMNT missed the 2018 World Cup.
Strangely, if Germany is helping to save the USMNT, it started the process that sank it. Following several down cycles and a terrible 2000 Euro, Germany completely overhauled its youth set up. This new professional model of youth soccer led to its 2014 World Cup victory and was copied all around Europe. The four finalists in the last World Cup, France, England, Belgium, and Croatia all follow the same model. It created a generally better player where the NCAA soccer player was not able to compete.
Players born in the USA between 1990-1994, usually called the Lost Generation, still followed the traditional route. Get a college degree, try and turn pro maybe, usually by getting drafted. Most of these players could still play in MLS in the early part of this decade, but they didn’t reach the ceilings of the players before them that went to Europe. Most never left MLS. The worldwide increase in general talent level has continued and the talent level of MLS starting elevens has been increased with targeted league investment. Recently, most college graduates who are drafted into MLS; usually play in USL with very few being able to get significant playing time in MLS.
US Soccer players in Germany
US Soccer noticed the changes occurring around the world and they tried to catch up. They started a youth professionalization program in 2007 called the Development Academy (DA). The German model focuses on the time from 12-18 and that is where the DA is focused. Unlike a kid born in 1990, who turned 12 in 2002, and basically played whatever club soccer was around to then went to college, Pulisic was able to be in a professional environment, with his local DA team, from the time he turned 10.
Kids born from 1998 and on, who were identified, were now in a German type development model and most of the high ceiling talent being considered for the USMNT is born after 1997. Most of these kids were developed in the DA.
But the DA only goes to 18. Then there has to be a professional path. But MLS was still mostly relying on the bulk of their rosters being from college with some high profile foreign players added in. While MLS teams all have academies, that nominally started with the DA, most teams didn’t and still don’t have their academies integrated into their first teams. Kids were being professionalized but then had nowhere to go.
Beyond most MLS teams not really considering their Academy as a talent source, MLS has rules that discourage the signing of youth players. American kids can only join the MLS team near their home. MLS contracts offered to kids are very long, five years, and include club only options. FIFA and the Court for Arbitration in Sport, actually consider offering minors contracts of that length unethical and unenforceable and also consider the same for club only options. Even if a young player overlooked all of that and signed, MLS was not a league that played young players. For the few players that did somehow break through, MLS would never renegotiate the original contract to bring the player a salary in line with other club starters.
This is where US Soccer players in Germany steps back into the story. Pulisic was an exceptional talent, with an EU passport, and would have probably been signed by a European team regardless. But he is just one of a wave of players that have moved to Europe, especially Germany, at 16 or 18 in the last five years. Why Germany and not England? They speak English in England after all and the EPL is one the most popular leagues in the USA, far more popular than MLS.
England has work permit regulations that make it very hard for non-EU players to be registered. Especially young players that have not established themselves on their national team yet. England also, in 2010, changed roster rules to fill up more EPL rosters with young English players, which also helps exclude non-EU players. The biggest factor for US Soccer players in Germany though is money. EPL teams have so much money, they can buy any established player to fill any roster need. There is no need for an EPL team to bring in young Americans and develop them.
Germany has no rules that limit foreign players like this. Germany also has the 50+1 ownership rule that limits the amount of money an owner can put into the team. With their extremely good youth development system and the fact they can’t spend money like English teams, Germany needs to find unproven players they can then turn into players. One place they are finding those players is the USA. American players have a mentality and athleticism that fits in well in Germany. American players also are free. A quirk of the fact that MLS never wanted to pay to acquire American players, is that USSF never set up a Training Compensation system as dictated by FIFA. So, Germany, needing young players, and the USA, with lots of highly trained 16 and 18 year olds with no path forward, were a perfect match.
German teams play young players and have their youth teams integrated with their reserve and first teams. If a player moves from a youth team to the first team, they are given a new contract with better terms. If that player becomes a starter, that player is offered a new contract. While the original youth contract might be less than the MLS HG contract offered a player, if the player makes it he can be earning more than almost any non-DP in MLS very quickly.
All the young players that USMNT fans are banking on are playing in Germany or were sold from Germany: Pulisic, McKennie, Adams, and Sargent with more coming. The success of those players made other leagues take notice. Holland has restrictive salarly provisions for non-EU players. But it made sense for Dutch teams to bring in many promising young Americans in the last two windows because of the economic gain German clubs are getting from their American players.
The signing for free of McKennie from the FC Dallas Academy has had a profound affect on MLS thinking. MLS teams were used to waiting until an Academy player was needed or really showed they were ready. But with the reality of German teams being able to take the players for free at 18 has made MLS teams sign and bring in younger players.
The example of Pulisic and McKennie and how they got playing time and lucrative first team contracts as teenagers, and the counter examples of MLS players like Shawn Parker starting for years on minimum homegrown salaries, led many of the latest players to bypass MLS in mass. Players like Richie Ledezma, Josh Sargent, Uly Llanez, Alex Mendez followed the path set by McKennie and Pulisic. This has caused some MLS to recommit to developing players and playing more young players for more minutes and to increase salaries for players that breakthrough.
Americans being coveted by German teams and excelling there not only has affected the behavior of MLS. It has changed the calculus in other leagues like Holland, Scotland and Denmark. This increases the opportunities for more players to move and increases the pressure on MLS to compete for young players with higher wages, playing time, and investment.
Will we see more US Soccer players in Germany? Absolutely.