With the 2022 World Cup still over a year away, there is always the potential for a new player to work his way into the national team. Center back Lennard Maloney recently made his first-team debut in Borussia Dortmund’s 3-1 win over Arminia Bielefeld. While only a brief substitute appearance, the U.S. youth international has quietly been growing over the past year and could experience an unexpected breakthrough with continued experience.
Maloney was born in Berlin, the son of an American father in the Air Force and German stewardess mother — although the pair met in Kenya. He spent time at Köpenicker SC and Blau-Weiß Mahlsdorf before joining the Union Berlin academy. The club named him captain for the U-17 and U-19 squads, described as one of the “top performers.” His play at a DFB invitational tournament drew attention from the national team program.
Union Berlin signed him to a two-year professional contract in August of 2017. “This is a very important step for me, because that is exactly what you have been working towards as a young footballer for years,” said Maloney. “I am very happy about this opportunity and will do everything I can to make the most of it.”
He made his professional debut in April of 2018 at 18 years old, starting against Greuther Fürth. Despite the initial breakthrough, Maloney failed to break into the first-team and never made another appearance for Union, likely due to the struggles of pursuing his “high school qualifications.” Studying for the German Abitur caused him to miss most training session and “disrupted his rhythm.”
He doesn’t regret focusing on academics and plans to continue his education in the fields of fitness science and fitness economics. “Of course you bite your buttocks a bit because you think, ‘What if I had trained properly for the one year,’” Maloney shared with Kicker. “But then I also say that to me school was and is important for the future. I try to make the best of the situation.”
Union Berlin signed him to a two-year extension through 2021 but mainly kept him with the youth teams while searching for a suitable loan opportunity. St. Pölten was an option, as were SV Meppen, Dunav Ruse, and Rot-Weiss Essen. In January of 2020, the club sent him to Chemnitzer FC in the third tier. Maloney made eight appearances, a necessary return to professional soccer. His temporary teammates provided a welcoming environment, while the relatively smaller and “much quieter” city of Chemnitz allowed him to focus on playing.
Union Berlin acknowledged that his future prospects for playing time were low, allowing him to leave. Maloney eschewed other options and joined Borussia Dortmund II as a free agent, after convincing in a test match and training. The eight-time German champions offered “great potential for development,” with an established history of promoting talent. He quickly assumed a leadership role for the reserves, playing in 34 matches and scoring his first career goal against SV Lippstadt 08. The team won the Regionalliga West and earned promotion to the 3. Liga, but his season ended prematurely with a foot fracture.
The U-23 level allowed for him to grow, filling a crucial in-between step that was missing during his development process while at Union Berlin. After spending the summer training with the first team, during which manager Marco Rose described him as “super,” he’s played with the reserves and appeared on the bench for a first-round DFB-Pokal match. Maloney has nine third-division appearances this season, scoring again against Eintracht Braunschweig. A recent two-match suspension due to “unsportsmanlike conduct” failed to halt his upward progression.
His first-team debut came on October 23rd against Arminia Bielefeld. He entered the match in the 88th minute, replacing Mats Hummels and seeing out the 3-1 victory on the road. His current contract lasts through 2022, and success over the past year indicates his future remains in the Bundesliga, at Dortmund or elsewhere.
As an international, Maloney played for the German U-18 and U-19 national teams in 2017. The next year, he appeared for the United States U-20s, briefly playing against Jamaica at the U.S. Soccer U-20 Men’s Invitational. The defender expressed a desire to join the program on a long-term basis, seeing himself as a better fit for the latter country. Left-footed center backs are typically viewed as an asset in possession-based systems for their ability to open the entire field, which could lead to a future senior call-up from a tactically inclined manager like Gregg Berhalter.
'This or That' ft. Lennard Maloney pic.twitter.com/5qoupcdC9e— Borussia Dortmund (@BlackYellow) July 25, 2021
“I have a U.S. jersey hanging over my bed with signatures from [Bobby Wood] and John Anthony Brooks who was playing in Berlin at the time for Hertha,” Maloney told American Soccer Now in 2018. “Of course, if the United States ever called, I would be over the ocean in 10 minutes. Playing for the United States is one of my biggest dreams. If Germany is possible, I will play for Germany. But somewhere in my heart, I want to play for the United States. I don’t know what it is. It’s just there.”
Standing a shade below 6’2”, the left-footed Maloney is a prototypical center back but also played fullback and some central midfielder in the Union academy. He lists his greatest strength as “getting on [his] opponent’s nerves.” His leadership is also considered an asset, constantly directing teammates which earned the training ground nickname “Lautsprecher mit der Pferdelunge” (loudspeaker with the horse’s lungs). Describing himself as “more of a mental player,” the 22-year-old is working to improve his “basics with the ball.” Bundesliga.com labels him as “strong in the tackle and at ease in possession,” while “able to bring the ball out from the back and transition into attack.”
Maloney is at an interesting place in his career. At 22 years old, he could hardly be considered a young prospect but still has a lot of room for growth. Over three seasons after his professional debut, Dortmund is providing a perfect environment for his development and put him in a position to succeed. Many high potential players have failed to reach the next level, but shrewdly taking a step back and joining a reserve team has led to an even greater move forward. While the USMNT may not be in his immediate future, left-footed center backs are always viewed as a commodity worth exploring, particularly those competing at one of the world’s top clubs.