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SSFC Spotlight: Leon Flach refocuses career in Philadelphia

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The young midfielder is becoming a top player in MLS.

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MLS: Philadelphia Union at New England Revolution Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes a player will make a move that redefines their career, for better or worse. The footballing world can reward those who refuse to stagnate and instead take control of their destiny, leaving familiar confines by forcing loans and transfers. One such talent is Leon Flach, a 20-year-old dual-national midfielder-defender who switched from St. Pauli to the Philadelphia Union. In less than a season, he has risen through the American player pool due to strong performances.

Despite his mother wanting to fly home for the birth, Flach arrived four weeks early in Humble, Texas. His father worked in the United States, before relocating the family to Ostholstein, Germany. As a student, he attended Leibniz Gymnasium, pursuing his Abitur (secondary education), intending to eventually study “something in the field of sports science or sports management.” His youth career was spent with Sereetzer SV and VfB Lübeck prior to joining the FC St. Pauli academy.

In 2018, the second division club signed the 16-year-old to a long-term contract that would become a professional deal in 2020. Officials described him as a “top talent” who impressed with his “footballing skills” and “mentality.” His schedule was tight, requiring taking a train and team transportation to practice immediately after school. St. Pauli’s infrastructure impressed him, including the training facilities and the opportunity to take financial literacy courses.

Flach was briefly promoted ahead of schedule, practicing with the first team in 2019. During his fifth preseason session, a collision resulted in “meniscus damage” that required an operation and three months of rehabilitation. “This is, of course, very annoying, especially at this point in time,” he said. “I will use the time to continue working on my weaknesses and I am sure that I will come back even stronger then.”

In September of 2020, his professional debut came against 1.FC Heidenheim, a brief five-minute appearance in a 4-2 win. “This is now my fifth year at St. Pauli,” he told Bild. “I know that [this] is only the first step… The path has only begun… [It’s] a good club to make the breakthrough. My aim has always been to always play at the highest level that I can.”

For the rest of his time in Germany, Flach made nine appearances with the first team and three with the reserves. He scored his first professional goal in a 2-1 loss to Greuther Fürth. Despite the early success and enjoying the club’s “family atmosphere,” regular playing time and a spot in the starting lineup eluded him.

Following months of pursuit, the Philadelphia Union signed the dual national to a two-year deal with the option for two additional seasons. St. Pauli “reached an agreement to terminate his contract” and reportedly received a 250,000 euro transfer fee despite “wanting him to stay.” Flach initiated the move, seeking a different path.

“I always wanted to come back (to America) one day,” he said. “I think it’s a really good fit, pressing high, putting the opponent under pressure… The transition game, that’s what I want to play and what I like about football. [Cole Bassett] told me that [MLS] is a great opportunity for young players to develop and to become a real soccer player.”

Flach made an immediate impact upon joining the Union, playing a key role in the CONCACAF Champions League. He has appeared in every match this season, thriving in the high pressing, vertical attacking system. The 2020 Supporters’ Shield champions reloaded after several major transfers, with his acquisition one of the shrewdest moves during the winter window. In his opinion, while MLS is less tactically focused, the intensity is “a little higher” than Germany with more back-and-forth action. The goal is to eventually return to Europe, but there are no immediate plans.

A dual-national, Flach played with the Germany U-17s in 2017 and U-18s in 2019. “It is an absolute childhood dream and the highest feelings of being allowed to carry the eagle on your chest,” he told Sportbuzzer after his debut. “Some time ago I took part in DFB training days, and shortly afterwards I received a call from the coach who told me I am on the right path.”

He received an invitation to the U.S. U-20s in 2020, making two appearances. Flach described the American program as providing “a better chance to play a role” with “better prospects” to compete at a World Cup. Despite being included on the preliminary roster 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, manager Gregg Berhalter opted to not include him in the final group.

“I would’ve loved to be in the squad, but it’s not that I could decide who was in a spot and who was not,” Flach told Soccer By Ives. “For sure, I wanted to be in it, but I can’t change it. I will grind hard to maybe show that that’s maybe the wrong decision. I will continue my work here. I think the next few weeks, I definitely want to show everyone that it is maybe the wrong decision, but I can’t change it.”

Flach is capable of playing at holding midfielder, box-to-box, and left back, although more convincing centrally with “brutal duel strength” and “off-the-charts soccer IQ.” His abilities to “carry the ball up the field” and play line-breaking passes are an asset in a more vertical style. He has been described as “confident and determined,” while possessing “brutal combat strength, a very good [speed], and enormous will.” According to his former St. Pauli manager, weaknesses include “physical robustness” and “assertiveness in the attack,” critiques than no longer appear to hold as much validity.

As a midfielder, Flach thrives when breaking up opponent attacks. He’s considered “very fast,” while knowing “when to attack but also when to defend.” As expected, his pressure statistics are off the charts, clearly one of MLS’ best at tackling, pass interceptions, and blocks.

Based on Berhalter not including him in the Gold Cup roster, Flach appears to be classified as a developing prospect more than an immediate inclusion. However, his growth with Philadelphia should be monitored, particularly if he continues to improve. Defensive midfielder remains a position of need, and a year is plenty of time to move into World Cup contention. For now, the 20-year-old remains “on the [national team’s] radar,” which is certainly better than off of it.