Manuel Neuer. Mesut Ozil. Julian Draxler. Joel Matip.
That’s not just a list of talented (world-class in some cases) soccer players. It’s a list of talent developed and honed by famous Bundesliga club Schalke 04. “Schalker Knappenschmeide,” the club’s prestigious youth academy, has churned out some truly special players over the last 20 years and recently they’ve turned their attention to the United States in search of their next big youth star.
Two American youth stars are currently being brought up in the Schalke system with a third soon to join them. Haji Wright and Weston McKinnie star for the club’s under-19 team and are slowly working their way up the ladder to first team chances, most recently joining the club for winter break training camp in Spain. Meanwhile, U.S. U-18 midfielder Nick Taitague has arrived at the club and will officially sign with them when he turns 18 in February.
During last week’s NSCAA convention held in Los Angeles, Stars and Stripes FC had a chance to speak with Bodo Menze, who is known as “the architect” of Schalke’s hallowed youth system, via a phone conversation. Menze ran the club’s academy for 23 years before stepping into an administrative role in 2014. We got a chance to get his insight on the three Americans Schalke has recruited to join them and their progress so far.
Stars and Stripes FC: Haji Wright recently joined Schalke's first team training camp during the winter break. Was this just to give him some experience or is he close to breaking into the first team?
Bodo Menze: Haji plays for our under-19 team and is doing quite well. For the moment he is in Spain with our first team for preparation of the second half of the season. He played 15 minutes in a friendly vs. KV Oostende from Belgium. The feedback from the Sporting Director to me is that he played rather well.
SSFC: During his time with the U.S. youth national teams he's played both as a winger and a striker. Where does the club see his long term position?
Bodo: For the moment, we see him in the center forward position. I've seen him play against Bayer Leverkusen in the U-19 Bundesliga and he's able to play on the left wing, but the feedback from our first team is that they see him better as a center forward.
SSFC: Could you give us an update on Weston McKinnie and how he's transitioned into Germany?
Bodo: Weston McKinnie is in a No. 6 position. He is a very useful and valuable player in my eyes. He is strong, athletic, and I believe he has a good eye for the game in the middle of the field. He's a very energetic as well.
The advantage McKinnie has is that he's already acquainted with Germany and has no difficulty with the language. In my eyes, the language skills are extremely important for integration into the first team.
The U-19 team in which Wright and McKinnie play lead the Bundesliga and I'm rather optimistic they'll have success this season.
SSFC: There are rumors Nick Taitague could join the club as a third American. Could you give us a status update on him?
Bodo: Nick Taitague has just arrived. I haven't seen him play yet but have met with him. I've very optimistic about him because he's a very technical player.
SSFC: Could you give us a little insight on what type of player he is?
Bodo: He's a No. 10 type of player in the midfield.
SSFC: How does Schalke strategize their scouting in such a large and diverse country as the USA? Is it strictly video or do you target major youth tournaments?
Bodo: We use video scouting for pre-selection of targets. Then use our strong network of contacts worldwide to further evaluate.
SSFC: Over the last few years do you think interest in Americans from Bundesliga teams has increased since the success of players like Christian Pulisic?
Bodo: Yes, our interest is to bring our knowledge to America, to share with the world what we have done with developing players in the last 20 years.