For the second time this year, we have been treated to some insight from Jurgen Klinsmann as to the problems facing US players who hope to move to a prestigious European league. According to Klinsmann, there was apparently no demand to bring US players on loan in the January transfer window, and American players lack some level of belief in themselves.
Since Klinsmann has to be a cheerleader for the American soccer player, it’s not surprising that he would be frustrated with the lack of opportunity for players like Graham Zusi and Matt Besler to go on loan in January. I’m sure Jurgen extols his players’ virtues to every European contact in his cell phone, but there were no takers this year. Part of the issue is MLS’ schedule, where players coming in during January would not be match fit, although they could obviously be training with the club before becoming eligible to play. The opportunities do exist though, and the most heartening winter loan for any American was Landon Donovan going to Everton during the 2009-2010 season. A player who American fans knew to have the talent, Landon finally demonstrated it in Europe, playing in thirteen games, scoring twice, and winning Everton’s Player of the Month award for January.
So what allowed this move to happen and become such a positive experience for both parties? First, David Moyes knew that American players could contribute, due to his previous experience working with Brian McBride at Preston North End and Everton. McBride probably opened Moyes’ mind to the qualities that existed in American players, and led him to take them more seriously. In fact, two other Americans signed for Everton the same season Donovan went there on loan. Second, Moyes was desperate. Everton were two points above the relegation zone when Donovan arrived, and Everton were not a massively rich club who could buy their way out of trouble, so a slightly chancier, cheaper loan for an American made a lot of sense. If Moyes wanted to take Donovan on loan this winter, Donovan would have gone to Manchester United, one of those top top clubs with lots of internationals where Klinsmann wants his players. And the genesis of that hypothetical loan move would have been Brian McBride going to play at Preston North End for a couple of months back in 2001.
As for Klinsmann’s statements on belief, it’s likely Klinsmann may not be considering that American players, despite their past success or reputation, may still need to prove themselves more so than other nationalities. In terms of self-belief, it’s hard to imagine anyone more focused or self-confident on the soccer field than Clint Dempsey. Dempsey approached his European career the right way, starting at an American-friendly club in Fulham, excelling there despite the managerial changes, and moving on to a club with serious Champions League aspirations, Tottenham Hotspur. Despite being the third top scorer in his only full season there, Dempsey was deemed surplus to requirements and let go when MLS came calling.
What about that belief, that desire to be the best at the very top? I don’t think Clint Dempsey was found wanting for belief or ability at Tottenham, but he did figure out that all the self-belief in the world can’t change a manager’s mind. When the manager tells a player he isn’t needed, there isn’t a great deal to be done. When teams appoint a new manager, it seems that Americans in particular suffer from those changes. Despite having a stellar debut season, when Roma appointed Rudi Garcia, Michael Bradley’s situation became more tenuous, no matter how well he played. When Garcia brought in another player for Bradley’s spot, the writing was on the wall, and there weren’t a lot of lateral or upward moves for him to make.
And of course, Bradley and Dempsey were the great hopes of American soccer finally cracking that elite circle of Champions League clubs. So where do we go from here, now that our heroes are back home? Well, looking towards the next generation of Americans trying to move to Europe, you’ll note that Juan Agudelo was very heavily pursued by Stoke. Stoke’s manager, Mark Hughes, worked with Dempsey at Fulham. So Hughes on some level trusts American players to contribute.
Building up this network of European managers who will trust Americans with minutes will be what allows American-developed players to contribute to Champions League teams. Despite Klinsmann’s statements, it won’t be a single World Cup run that magically transforms minds as to the ability of the American soccer player. It will be lots of guys like Juan Agudelo, impressing day-to-day while building on the efforts of Dempsey and Bradley, who built on the efforts of McBride and Harkes, until the American-produced players are finally featuring in the Champions League. Is it going to happen anytime soon? Oh heavens no, but it will be fun to watch.