Wealth of young Yanks in Europe could pay long-term dividends for USMNT

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When discussing USMNT's 'next big thing,' the question is: Which one? Steve Davis explores Americans playing abroad as the new European season approaches.

Talk of “Golden Generations” is like a yummy, syrupy-sweet desert: we should certainly avoid indulging too often. That said, a little apple pie every now and then won’t kill us, eh?

To wit: In thinking about the season ahead in Europe, which starts in about 10 days, there has never been a year so blessedly stacked with bright, young American prospects fighting for minutes at major destinations. The “promise” in this group of American talent overseas has never reached so high.

Obviously, American soccer supporters have been tracking their so-called Yanks abroad for decades, since Eric Wynalda, Tab Ramos, John Harkes and others of that 1990 World Cup class fought their way into then-exotic spots in Germany, Spain and England.

But generally speaking, Americans playing in Europe have landed in two categories. First, there are seasoned 20-somethings who get plucked by bigger clubs once their pro careers are established; think about guys like Carlos Bocanegra, Brad Guzan and Clint Dempsey. And for 20 years we’ve watched emerging talent scatter around the less glamorous addresses of European soccer, mostly in the hard-to-pronounce clubs of Scandinavia, but popping up here and there in Belgium, Portugal or the lower tiers of England, Germany, Spain, etc.

This year looks different. The looming 2016-17 campaign bequeaths us with a set of up-and-comers apparently ready to land with greater impact at bigger stages, at Dortmund, Hamburg or Hertha Berlin in Germany, at Tottenham and Bournemouth in the Premier League and elsewhere.

And here’s the thing: it somehow snuck up on us! Maybe this brilliant summer of soccer domestically – the Copa America held here, the breakfast- and lunch-specials of the European Championships and the parade of showy European heavyweights now selling pricey merchandise while hopscotching across the land for friendlies – blinded us to something important coming up:

That a land where we love our “next big thing” seems to suddenly (possibly!) have a bunch of them in waiting. So when you say “next big thing” these days in American soccer, honestly, you really need to say which one.

Those coming off injury

There’s Rubio Rubin, heading into his third season at Utrecht in the Netherlands, hoping to stay injury-free after last year’s lengthy layoff. Powerful and speedy, he’s been top of the crop of U.S. prospects since starring for the United States in the Under-20 World Cup in 2015. But for last year’s injury-interrupted season, we might be talking about him at a bigger club already. 

Terrence Boyd has missed the better part of two seasons with knee injuries, and at 25 years old he no longer qualifies as a young up-and-comer. But we put him in the group because of those two years of misfortune, which took him off radar for a spell. Now Boyd is off to a good start in recovering some of that lost ground. Like Rubin, he’ll be harder to actually watch, employed at second tier Leipzig in Germany. Still, he’s one to watch.

Hitting their primes

Now we’re getting to the real stars of this breakout show.

There’s Bobby Wood, who followed up a breakthrough season in the 2.Bundesliga with a string of consistent Copa America performances for the United States in June. The 23-year-old Hawaiian is set to compete for minutes at Hamburg, having made the jump into the Bundesliga.

It’s still tough to tell where DeAndre Yedlin, 23, will land, but the safe bet is that it will be a Premier League assignment. David Moyes, now in place at Sunderland, says he’s interested in getting Yedlin back into the Stadium of Light for a second run. If Yedlin doesn’t go on loan again, the U.S. right back could remain in North London with Tottenham, where manager Mauricio Pochettino rotates his outside backs frequently. So neither spot would be terrible for Yedlin’s progress.

Still battling for time

Emerson Hyndman, 20, has a big jump ahead, moving from Fulham in England’s second tier to the “bigs” with Bournemouth. The technically gifted midfielder will have a double dip of challenge there: he’ll fight for minutes at the cozy little Vitality Stadium, and don’t be surprised if the small club on England’s south coast is fighting for its Premier League life through the campaign. The Cherries finished 16th last year, two spots away from relegation.

Around last week’s MLS All-Star game, where Arsenal was the opposition, a hot topic was the 2016-17 destination for Gedion Zelalem. He’s Gunner’s property but seems likely to be loaned again this year. Zelalem had an up-and-down stay last year at Rangers in Scotland, hardly someone ready to compete for midfield minutes around the well-stocked Emirates. Still, his “upside” is hard to ignore, so we’ll all track his progress under Arsene Wenger or somewhere along the continent.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Miazga needs playing time. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Matt Miazga (Chelsea) and Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham) are others who look like loan candidates. Either that, or we’ll wait for the promising center backs to get minutes outside of Premier League matches, most likely.

Julian Green, 21, is making a case for a role around Bayern Munich. On the one hand, unproven strikers could easily become frustrated trying to wedge their way into one of the world’s most talented rosters. Then again, if Bayern dashes away with the Bundesliga title again, those Champions League matches will become priority, leaving gaps to fill as new manager Carlo Ancelotti rotates the squad.  Bayern played in 53 competitive matches last year; that’s a lot of high-level soccer.

A hat trick last week for Green against Inter Milan (in a match in Charlotte) turned heads. So, maybe those frustrating couple of years since he scored in the 2014 World Cup can be reduced to merely bad memories and lessons learned and such.

All aboard the hype train

And then we get to the young Americans abroad who are really turning heads:

John Brooks is hardly a newcomer to the big stage. In fact, the “breakouts” just keep coming for the big center back. He became a trusted, core man last year at Hertha Berlin. From there, a stack of steady and heady Copa America performances established Brooks as a U.S center back for now and perhaps years to come. At 23 years old, U.S. managers for the next 8-10 years could be building back lines around the guy.

Meanwhile, the hype meter on Christian Pulisic threatened to approach Freddy Adu-level last spring – that toxic zone that none of us need to wade into. The reasons are clear enough: here was the youngest man ever to score in a major European league, as Pulisic found goal twice for Dortmund while finding himself increasingly in the plans around the latest youth movement at the Westfalenstadion.

This, remember, for a guy who had to take time out of the U.S. camp two months ago to attend prom. Yes, prom.

Never mind that. The young man (he’s still 17) carries himself well and seems – you never really know about these things, but you talk to people you trust and speak to the fellow a bit himself and assess as best you can – to be well grounded. He’s certainly doing fine on the field, having just returned from China with Dortmund, scoring a goal against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.

The really great thing about these guys: thanks to a landscape of modern, soccer-friendly TV contracts, we can watch most of them live whenever they do take the field. In years of smaller addresses for our men abroad, we got reduced to a greater share of on-line weekend recaps.

So there is promise and high-level potential like never before. All of this is about one thing, of course: What could these guys deliver to the national team? With World Cup qualifiers ahead, you really hope Jurgen Klinsmann leans toward the “younger side of town,” so to speak.

Attach a bunch of the young blue chips to guys like Geoff Cameron, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson and a few others, and it’s not too hard to start thinking about something special ahead, maybe as early as World Cup 2018. It’s all bright stuff of dreams, of course. But some measured indulgence in that never really hurts either, now does it?

MLS This and That

After careful scrutiny of MLS Round 21, we’d love to see …

A little more of this: More of what we saw from referee Ted Unkel, who hasn’t always been the best about making bold calls. But he certainly made a courageous one Sunday when ejecting super star Montreal striker Didier Drogba. It really was about the most silly and avoidable red card, as Drogba kicked a fallen Marcelo Sarvas with Unkel literally standing over the whole thing. Perhaps the Ivorian striker is getting a little crotchety in his relatively old age. Either way, we’ve seen preferential treatment before for big stars; good on Unkel for doing his job.

A little less of that: Any Drogba and/or Montreal Impact supporters suggesting that Drogba should not have been ejected. Oh, please. No, it was not a vicious kick, but it certainly complies with FIFA’s Laws of the Game, in Law 12 under Violent Conduct.

A little more of this: Jason Kreis’ tactical tweaks at halftime got his team over the hump in his managerial debut at Orlando City SC, a win over the New England Revolution. Former manager Adrian Heath and interim man Bobby Murphy both walked away from their initial home matches with draws, so Kreis is already a bit ahead of the game.

A little less of that: Jordan Morris’ faulty finishing at Seattle. At the end of the day, Rookie of the year may fall his way (unless Jack Harrison keeps it up at NYCFC). But at some point, here’s something that should be part of the conversation: this growing bushel of missed chances. This isn’t so much a criticism; he’s young, after all. This is just to say: he’s missed so many sitters, wasted chances that have hurt the Sounders, that it needs to be part of the conversation.

A little more of this: Between Alejandro Bedoya quite possibly coming in and Fabian Castillo quite possibly … well, honestly who knows until the guy actually surfaces somewhere, this down-to-the-wire business with the MLS transfer window is quite fascinating. The MLS window closes Wednesday.

A little less of that: Concerns that Bedoya and others returning stateside is somehow a bad thing. Think about the long game here: a stronger MLS is good for the national team program. Besides, these are established professionals (and human beings). They have the right to do what’s best for themselves – never mind what a bunch of soccer snobs want them to do.   

A little more of this: At NYCFC, Frank Lampard is slowly repairing his broken image (around MLS, that is) with a string of strong performances.

A little less of that: Suggestions that NYCFC has somehow turned Yankee Stadium into a fortress. They’ve won three in row. Just three! Patrick Vieira’s team previously took all three points in just one of nine at the baseball yard. Three in a row at home (albeit with a poor 4-3-5 home record overall) is something to build on … but let’s not get carried away.

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Steve Davis writes a weekly column for FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDavis90.