At the start of the European domestic league seasons, the usual excitement is magnified as some of the rising starts of the U.S. Men’s National Team have taken a place at the world’s elite clubs. With seven players – six who have U.S. Soccer Development Academy roots – set to be on rosters for Champions League teams, the prospect of top-level football for young Americans is greater than ever.
Sergiño Dest, a 19-year-old defender capped three times by the USMNT, completed his transfer from Ajax to Spanish La Liga giants FC Barcelona for more than $24 million. Sealing a five-year deal to Camp Nou on Thursday, Oct. 1, Dest became the latest young U.S. international to make a high-profile move to a major European power.
Already playing for legendary Dutch club Ajax, Dest’s move follows 22-year-old Weston McKennie, who went on loan from German Bundesliga side Schalke to nine-time defending Italian Serie A champion Juventus in September. McKennie became just the third USMNT player to appear in Serie A when he debuted in the club’s season opener last month, earning high praise from Gazetto Dello Sport in the process.
Dest and McKennie now have the opportunity to play alongside and learn from two of the greatest players in soccer history, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Last year, Christian Pulisic sealed a U.S. record transfer of $73 million from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea. Since then, the 22-year-old attacker has made himself an integral part of Frank Lampard’s squad, becoming the first American to score in the English FA Cup Final just last month before earning the coveted No. 10 shirt this season for the Blues.
WATCH: Pulisic Becomes First USMNT Player to Score in English FA Cup Final
Following in his footsteps at Dortmund is 17-year-old Gio Reyna, the son of long-time USMNT captain Claudio. Similar to Pulisic’s rise at Signal Iduna Park in 2016, the youngster earned his first team debut early in the second half of 2019 and paid dividends right away. He became the youngest player to score in the DFB-Pokal, the youngest American to play and register an assist in the UEFA Champions League, and already this season, the second youngest American to register a Bundesliga goal – behind Pulisic, of course.
WATCH: Gio Reyna Becomes Second Youngest American to Score in Bundesliga
Then there is Tyler Adams. The 21-year-old midfielder re-established himself with RB Leipzig of Germany after a nagging injury kept him out for most of the first half of the last Bundesliga season, and made more history in the Champions League earlier this summer. Tied 1-1 late with Atlético Madrid in the quarterfinal on August 13, Adams – normally a deep lying central midfielder or right back – tallied an 88th minute winner, becoming the first American to score at the stage in the storied tournament. Days later, he joined DaMarcus Beasley as only the second American to play in a UEFA Champions League semifinal.
Following a season-long loan to Fortuna Düsseldorf, 25-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffen returned to English Premier League side Manchester City this summer. Steffen came back to the Ettihad Stadium knowing he would be the understudy to Brazilian National Teamer Ederson, but has begun making his mark in Cup matches. The Downingtown, Pa. product made his City debut in the club’s 2-1 Carabao Cup win against Bournemouth and followed it up with a shutout in a 3-0 win at Burnley on Wednesday.
Zack Steffen: My First Week at City
Fellow goalkeeper Ethan Horvath also continues with Belgian giants Club Brugge as they tackle the UEFA Champions League once again this season. The 25-year-old will hope to overtake Belgium National Team ‘keeper Simon Mignolet this season.
On the Cusp of the Champions League?
Meanwhile, two more players on the periphery of the USMNT are also potential Champions League players this season. When Dest arrived at Barcelona this week, he would have seen a familiar face in 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup teammate Konrad de la Fuente. The 19-year-old winger has made huge steps towards a La Liga debut over the last year, taking part in several preseason matches with this first team leading up to the new campaign.
Back in Germany, center back Chris Richards made his Bayern Munich debut at the end of last season and has made more inroads this season. The Alabama-born center back has made two substitute appearances for the reigning Bundesliga champs thus far, coming on during Bayern’s 8-0 season opening win against Schalke, before playing the last 10 minutes of the club’s 3-2 DFL SuperCup win against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday.
No Champions League? No Problem.
Plenty more has been happening with USMNT players outside of the Champions League.
In September, 21-year-old right back Reggie Cannon made the jump from FC Dallas to Portuguese Primeira side Boavista. Cannon scored in a preseason friendly just a week after his arrival and has started each of the club’s league matches in the new campaign thus far.
Having seen a $10 million move to Italian Serie A giants AC Milan not materialize after the discovery of a heart condition earlier this year, left back Antonee Robinson made a strong return in the second half of the season for Wigan Athletic. While the club ultimately suffered relegation, the 23-year-old made a big impression, joining fellow U.S. defender Tim Ream as the latest American at newly-promoted Premier League side Fulham this season.
Robinson has appeared in each of the Cottagers’ Carabao Cup games early this season, earning Man of the Match honors in the 2-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday on Sept. 23 and the left back seems primed to make his Premier League debut quite soon.
Meanwhile, having learned the ropes over a couple seasons with Werder Bremen, 20-year-old striker Josh Sargent played a vital role down the stretch last campaign, including both legs of the Bundesliga relegation playoff to help Bremen stay in the German topflight. Before the new season, Bremen manager Florian Kohfeldt said, "I can't imagine a starting XI that doesn't include Josh Sargent".
Sargent has obliged at the start of the new campaign, scoring the winning goal and winning Man of the Match honors in Die Werderaner’s DFB-Pokal first round win vs. Carl Zeiss Jena on Sept. 12. He continued a strong run of form last weekend, providing the assist on the opening goal in Bremen’s 3-1 win against Schalke.
Finally, we come to 19-year-old Uly Llanez. The player who holds the distinction as the USMNT’s only goal scorer in the COVID-affected year of 2020, Llanez secured a loan move from German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg to Heerenveen of the Dutch Eredivisie in September.
Though yet to make his debut in Holland, Llanez is expected to compete for plenty of playing time this season at the same club which saw veteran USMNT midfielder Michael Bradley launch his long career in Europe back in 2006.