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Monday, December 5, 2022

How Europe embraced America’s young footballers

USA’s World Cup squad includes more players based in Europe, such as Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, than at home

When the USA hosted the World Cup in 1994, their squad was an overwhelmingly domestic selection.

Fourteen of their 22-man party were based in the States, with 12 of those on central contracts with the US Soccer Federation.

Only two of the players belonged to clubs in Europe’s five biggest leagues, among them Coventry City forward Roy Wegerle.

Today the picture is very different. The USA squad due to face England in their second match of this World Cup in Qatar contains 13 players from Europe’s Big Five, albeit from a slightly larger 26-man party.

That is more than the nine currently at Major League Soccer franchises and includes representatives from Chelsea, Arsenal, Juventus and AC Milan.

So why the influx? As the sport has grown in popularity stateside, so too has the quality of players the US is producing.

European clubs, including some of the very biggest, have taken note and are increasingly looking to North America for talent to follow in the footsteps of current stars Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Sergino Dest.

The result is that many more US players are getting their chance in Europe at a young age.

Of the 17 members of the World Cup squad based in the European Union or Britain, 13 of them are aged under 25.

And they are nearly all playing for top teams, with 10 of those 13 contracted to clubs in the Big Five of the Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1.

One of the reasons they are more in demand is because they are better technicians than their predecessors.

Whereas the archetypal American in English football was once a hardy type – a goalkeeper, robust centre-back or target man – now they are more likely to be a tricky forward such as Pulisic or an all-action midfielder like Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson.

National team coach Gregg Berhalter has drawn on the skills and youth of his player pool to remodel the USA as a modern, high-pressing team.

We got a glimpse of their fluid attacking potential in their opening World Cup match against Wales on Monday when Pulisic slipped in Lille’s Timothy Weah to score the opening goal.

The project remains a work in progress. The USA finished behind both neighbours Canada and Mexico in regional qualifying for this tournament, although that was better than their humiliating failure to reach the last finals in Russia four years ago.

The 1-1 draw with Wales shone a light on some of their obvious shortcomings as much as it did their qualities.

An England attack that put six goals past Iran in their first Group B match may be licking their lips at the prospect of taking on the American defence, which appears vulnerable centrally.

Fulham centre-back Tim Ream’s 35-year-old legs look no match for the pace of Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka or Marcus Rashford, while his partner Walker Zimmerman clumsily conceded the penalty from which Gareth Bale equalised for Wales.

For USA, the goal is 2026, when the World Cup will return to the States as part of a joint hosting operation with Canada and Mexico.

The benchmark to aspire to remains a run to the quarter-finals in 2002. It’s an achievable target for a group with much more of a European flavour than the hosts of 28 years ago.

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