Mark Zeigler: U.S. men's national soccer team gets European infusion — finally

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

Chelsea's American midfielder Christian Pulisic in action during the UEFA Champions League football match between Krasnodar and Chelsea at the Krasnodar stadium in Krasnodar on October 28, 2020. - KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

U.S. men’s national soccer coach Gregg Berhalter announced a 24-player roster Tuesday ahead of his team’s first games in more than nine months, friendlies on European soil later this month against Wales and Panama.

Some of the planet’s biggest soccer clubs are represented: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Chelsea, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund. Nineteen are 23 or younger. Fourteen are 20 or younger. Six are still teenagers.

All are from overseas clubs.

There is Christian Pulisic, who just shy of his 18th birthday became the youngest U.S. player to appear in the UEFA Champions League, the annual tournament matching the Europe’s top clubs.

There is Gio Reyna, the son of former U.S. national team midfielder Claudio Reyna. Earlier this year, he eclipsed Pulisic’s achievement by playing for Dortmund in the Champions League at 17 years, 3 months.

There is 22-year-old Weston McKennie, who recently was loaned by Germany’s Schalke 04 to Italy’s Juventus. And 21-year-old Tyler Adams, the midfield maestro for third-place RB Leipzig in Germany. And 19-year-old Sergino Dest, the Dutch-born outside back starting for Barcelona. And 19-year-old Konrad de la Fuente, a forward from Miami who has cracked Barcelona’s first team as well.

And 20-year-old Chris Richards, a defender at reigning Champions League titlist Bayern Munich. And 20-year-old Josh Sargent, who recently scored his first goal for Germany’s Werder Bremen. And 20-year-old Richie Ledezma, who had an assist in his debut with Holland’s PSV Eindhoven over the weekend.

And another dozen or so promising players left off the roster.

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“It gives you a lot of optimism,” Berhalter said.

Smiling somewhere is Jermaine Jones.

Jones is not on the roster. The dreadlocked midfielder last played for the national team in 2017 and, now 39, is retired from professional soccer after a 21-year career. He grew up in Germany and played there before moving to Major League Soccer, straddling the divide that cuts beneath the shiny veneer of the national team program — the percolating debate about whether the best youth players should stay or go.

Three years ago, a week after the U.S. men famously lost at Trinidad and Tobago and were eliminated from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Jones sat on his couch and recorded a 14-minute YouTube video about where he stands. He wore a Los Angeles Galaxy jersey. He talked about Europe.

He used Pulisic and Jordan Morris as examples. Pulisic, who left the States for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund at age 16 and was sold last year to England’s Chelsea for $73 million. Morris, who turned down an offer from Germany’s Werder Bremen in 2016 to sign with MLS’ Seattle Sounders.

“He decided with his family to go the hardest way, and he made it,” Jones said about Pulisic. “I respect that. But I want to see more kids hungry like that. Don’t go just the easy way (and say), ‘I want to play MLS and never want to go to Europe and hope an MLS (national) coach comes and he prefers more MLS players.’

“It’s not good for soccer in this country. … Sometimes you have to talk the truth, and the truth is you need more players in the top leagues.”

Morris had the chance. Former U.S. national coach Jurgen Klinsmann, himself outspoken about getting players to Europe, asked Jones to call Morris and convince him to accept Werder Bremen’s offer.

“He said: ‘You know what? I want to go home, my dad is a doctor in Seattle, and my mom bought me and my girlfriend a dog and all that kind of stuff,’” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Really? Why you go the easy way if you have the chance? Why do we always go the easy way?’

“I hope we can convince the younger guys to not pick the easy way but pick the hard way. … That has to be the next step.”

Jones got his wish, although not through any sort of federation or coaching directive.

He did, thanks to American pioneering spirit and a pernicious pandemic.

Three years after its lowest moment, after the smoldering carnage on a rainy night in Couva, Trinidad, little has changed within U.S. Soccer. It remains an MLS-centric organization closely linked to the league, financially and otherwise. MLS Commissioner Don Garber remains the most influential member of the federation’s board of directors. The new CEO is Will Wilson, who worked under Garber at NFL Europe and MLS.

That’s great for MLS. That’s not so great for your national team.

At the 2018 World Cup, 90% of rosters from the top 10 pre-tournament favorites came from European clubs and 78% from the “big five” leagues of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France.

Or take Belgium, a nation of 11 million (think Ohio) that finished third in 2018. Nineteen players were from the big five; one was selected from Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League, which is more or less on par with MLS.

Brazil had 19 of 23 players in Europe.

Argentina had 17.

But when Klinsmann had the gall to suggest U.S. players might be better off in Europe than MLS, outside their comfort zone, inside a pressurized soccer culture, fighting for their jobs on a daily basis, battling foreign cultures and languages and biases, Garber fired off a cease-and-desist letter to then-federation President Sunil Gulati, himself a former MLS executive.

“Jurgen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league, to the sport of soccer in North America, detrimental to everything we’re trying to do,” Garber ranted to media. “To have a national team coach saying that signing with our league is not going to be good for their careers, and not good for their prospects with the national team, is incredibly damaging to our league.”

Berhalter, hired after a yearlong search, was viewed as a politically correct choice who would protect MLS’ interests for the federation. He grew up in New Jersey. He played in MLS. He coached in MLS.

On a video conference with media Tuesday, he went out of his way to explain why MLS players aren’t included, how “we made this decision to benefit the MLS clubs” and preserve roster integrity in the playoffs.

Asked if the recent explosion of talented players who left for Europe in their teens is proof that it’s the “best” route to the national team, he wouldn’t bite.

“I love this conversation, and the reason why I love it is it’s nuanced,” Berhalter said politely. “There’s no one answer to it. I know that’s not what you want me to say.”

In 2014, there was a reverse exodus by top American players from Europe to MLS, attracted by bloated salaries and an easy life devoid of mainstream criticism that you’d experience in every corner of soccer-mad Europe. Three years later, an MLS-dominated roster took the field on that fateful night in Couva.

Whether drawn to the enchanting success of Pulisic or the candid comments of Jones, enough of them listened. Twenty of the 24 on Berhalter’s roster moved to Europe in their teens or were already there.

Picked the hard way.

“There are guys at Barca, guys at Juventus, guys here in Germany and of course Christian in London,” Gio Reyna, who would be a senior in high school in the States, told Bundesliga.com recently. “There are so many guys with the best players in the world, learning every day, and it’s still a young group. I know we’re hungry to get together.”

U.S. Soccer, the rumbling, stumbling, bumbling federation, might finally be about to take the next step.

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