Over the last two decades, we have seen the US steadily increase its influence on the global football stage, particularly in Europe. The USA World Cup in 1994 was perhaps a prelude to what was to come, the promise that the sport had in the country and its potential to gain a grip on the sport around the world.
Europe was seen as a continent where, perhaps, the most talented US protagonists in the sport could flourish. From players to managers and, most recently, owners, these have all played a part in positioning the nation as one that could have a big effect on the sport.
Historically, the US has led the way in its national sports of American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. The 1994 World Cup essentially set the tone for what could follow in what was almost an exhibition tournament that introduced US football to the global stage.
In the years that followed, it saw the country’s best players begin to ply trade in European competitions, especially the English Premier League (EPL). Such talents as Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride (Fulham), Brad Friedel (Blackburn), and Tim Howard (Manchester United and Everton) were some of the country’s earliest star players to compete in the Premier League.
In recent years, especially over the last five, we have witnessed a considerable increase in the quality of US players, particularly those who are European-based, which gives major hope to USMNT (US Men’s National Team) for upcoming World Cups, with most of their squad being under the age of 25.
The Best Current European-Based US Players
Interestingly, Germany and even Austria have proved to be strong breeding grounds for the development of such players, with talented coaches realising the potential of such talent. The likes of tenacious midfielder Tyler Adams (who moved to Leeds United from RB Leipzig in the summer of 2022) and talented attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg to Leeds United at the same time) are just two examples of upcoming success. Ironically, now Leeds United manager Jesse Marsch (also American) coached both of these players at both clubs.
Then there is the precocious right-back Sergino Dest who moved from Ajax to AC Milan via Barcelona, who, at just 22, has all of the attributes to become one of the best in the world in his position.
The Premier League is littered with further talent, all of whom enjoyed productive apprenticeships in Europe. Chelsea attacker Christian Pulisic (now 24) moved from Borussia Dortmund in 2019 and, labelled ‘Captain America’ by his native fans, is a shining example is another who can realise his potential. Prodigious centre-back Chris Richards (22) was at Bayern Munich (before moving on loan at fellow Bundesliga club Hoffenheim for one season) prior to his switch to Crystal Palace in the 2022 summer transfer window. Again, he has all of the elements to be one of the best in the game in his position.
Striker Josh Sargent (22) moved to Norwich City in the previous summer from Werder Bremen and has demonstrated all of the traits to develop into a clinical finisher and become a star of the US side over the next few years.
Fulham, meanwhile, have, over the last couple of decades, always had a history of bringing top US talent into their side. Previously Dempsey and McBride, the club now has both left-back Antonee Robinson (22) and veteran centre-back Tim Ream (35) among their ranks.
Following a somewhat eye-catching World Cup in 2014 for the Stars and Stripes, right-back DeAndre Yedlin (now 29) did enough to catch the eye of Tottenham Hotspur that summer before Newcastle United, captured his signature in 2016 before he moved to Turkish club Galatasaray in 2021.
Other Notable US Star Players Based Around Europe
Of course, there are other European-based players who stand out, with perhaps not as high a profile currently, but who either still included in the US squad or at least mount major challenges to be included.
Prodigious box-to-box midfield talent Weston McKennie (24) is one of the first names on the team sheet for the US national side, having begun his career at German club Schalke before earning a move to Juventus in 2021.
Winger Konrad de la Fuente (21), started his career in Barcelona’s talented youth team, before moving to Marseille in 2021 – he moved on loan to Greek side Olympiakos in 2022 and is ultimately one to watch.
The pick of the bunch is arguably Borussia Dortmund’s attacking midfielder Giovanni Reyna (20) – perhaps an understudy to Aaronson, who is showing genuine signs that he can become the best out of the lot.
Other worthy mentions include centre-back Cameron Carter-Vickers (24), who came through the Tottenham youth academy before moving to Swansea City on loan between 2018-2019. After trying to break into the first team at Spurs, he then joined Celtic on loan 2021, with him still there in 2022 and developing into a competent player worthy of international status.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner (28) came up in the US playing for New England Revolution, where he won numerous personal accolades, before earning a move to Arsenal in 2022, with him challenging for the number one jersey for his national side.
Meanwhile, others worth mentioning include Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen (27), who joined Middlesbrough on loan during the summer of 2022 and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath (27), who is on loan at Luton Town from Premier League club Nottingham Forest.
Development Of US Football Players
It is possible to attribute many different factors towards the development of US football players over the years. When the MLS was formed in 1993, for several years, it really wasn’t taken very seriously – an almost amateur league for a considerable period of time.
The major sports in the US were, and arguably currently still are, comprise of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. Following a combination of an investment in talented coaches at grassroots level in the US; many of which came from across Europe, particularly the UK and then further marketing of the sport as this coaching began to pay off.
Such kids who were coached at youth level in the US subsequently earned contracts with professional MLS clubs and went on to star, raising the profile of the league and their respective employers.
With the quality of football gradually improving, this led to further investment in the league, enabling clubs to spend more money due to sponsorship and media rights.
In the mid 2000s a new policy was introduced that allowed clubs in the MLS to have star players from Europe in their teams (three being the maximum), on a much higher salary and bonuses that helped to further raise the profile of the MLS.
Usually, these were players who were coming to the end of their careers, but who were ultimately still at a much higher level in terms of quality than the rest of their teammates. These players essentially acted as mentors and role models to the younger US-based players, while at the same drawing more crowds into stadiums and increasing the amount of money that was moving into the game.
David Beckham was arguably the first star name to move across the Atlantic on a blockbuster deal when he joined LA Galaxy after a trophy-laden career spent at Manchester United and Real Madrid. While there was much scepticism from European fans about his ambition levels, he did add a considerable amount of value on the pitch as well as off.
Essentially, he was somewhat of a poster boy for both his club, but also the MLS, which substantially raised the league’s profile when considering his almost perpetual brand potential.
This was really the major game-changer for the MLS, with this then leading to numerous other star players at the end of their careers heading west. Sebastian Giovinco sparked major controversy in Italy when he moved from Juventus to Toronto at only 29, coming in for heavy criticism from fans that the player only moved for a payday and lacked ambition.
The likes of David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (to name a few) have since followed a similar path to Beckham, all of them being considerable influences on raising the profile of football in the US.
Key Differences Between US & European Football?
American business (or at least the entertainment niche) has always typically been about marketing and glitz, compared to that of the UK – there is an argument that they have a sense of the dramatic in the way that they do things, which can be attributed to Hollywood. There is an argument that this culture is relatable to sports in the country, football being no different.
Certainly, the coaching element is very motivational-based, with some of them being compared to a ‘real-life’ Ted Lasso combined with sharp analysis based on statistical-driven data to help improve the quality of players.
Leeds United’s Marsch is one who has definitely drawn such comparisons, who perhaps reminds many of Liverpool’s German manager, Jurgen Klopp, considered to be somewhat of an anomaly when compared with other European managers.
Such figures (at least until they prove themselves) have a viewpoint from many in Europe as being somewhat ‘over the top’ in their management approach, though when you combine this with their practical coaching ability, the potential is clearly there to achieve tangible results.
Fellow managers include Bob Bradley, who coached the USMNT, before having a spell at Swansea City and brought a similar approach to English football, while David Wagner followed suit in his management and coaching style to some success during his reign at Huddersfield Town while he previously managed Schalke.
Each of his spells brought a ‘breath of fresh air’ to European football, comparable to the US methods, and it is fair to say that he worked wonders with an average Huddersfield team, which subsequently led to the Yorkshire club to being promoted to the Premier League.
US Investment And Influence On English Football
There is no doubt that the Premier League is the richest competition in the world, especially when considering money generated for clubs from media rights and then sponsorship.
However, one of the biggest influences in English football can be attributed and linked to investment from across the Atlantic, with numerous owners being keen to invest in clubs in the English top flight.
Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke, who owns multiple sports franchises in the US, was one of the first to recognise the potential when in 2011, he completed a full takeover of Arsenal, having already had a share in the club. His wealth of experience, network and investment has worked wonders, with a considerable amount of money being ploughed into the club over the last decade.
A notable example is that of FSG (Fenway Sports Group), belonging to John W Henry and Tom Werner, who, since they bought Liverpool in 2010, have witnessed major success over the last five years. Of course, there has been major investment in the playing squad since, with the group owning one of the biggest franchises in the world – MLB’s Boston Red Sox (baseball) as well as the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL ice hockey team.
San Francisco 49ers began a productive partnership with then Championship side Leeds United in 2018 with a 15 per cent share, which has gradually increased over the years and a 2024 deadline to take full control of the club. The influence has been considerable, especially from an operations and commercial perspective, with experts from arguably one of the biggest sporting brands in the world sharing their highly effective knowledge, bringing somewhat of a successful US influence to the once-ailing club.
Major US Takeovers of English Football Clubs
AcquisitionPriceShahid Kahn’s acquisition of Fulham>£175 millionGlazer Family acquisition of Manchester United£800 millionTodd Boehly’s acquisition of Chelsea£3 billionFSG’s acquisition of Liverpool£300 millionStan Kroenke’s acquisition of Arsenal£550 million
How Much Of An Effect Will US Football Protagonists Continue To Have On European Football?
Over the last two decades, developments have almost come full circle. With US football once considered to be a sport that was not taken seriously, its profile has risen in a major way.
There are definite examples that the effect of US involvement in football in Europe has had a major influence on the sport, not least from a commercial perspective. However, the substantial improvement in the quality of US-based players, almost on a grand scale, can see them become a force to be reckoned with around the world.
Now, thanks to grassroots developments in the US over two decades ago and the journey since, this is paying dividends, with the MLS being considered just as competitive in terms of quality as a lot of the leagues in Europe.
More and more players are making their move to clubs in European leagues, with these acting as a platform for them to develop further and earn higher profile moves to the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A. This also goes for coaches and managers. It is fair to say that the future is bright for US football.