It was late September in 2017 and Bruce Arena was constructing a critical roster. The United States was to play Panama and Trinidad and Tobago in an effort to finally earn qualification to an eighth consecutive World Cup and end an inconsistent run. While form and injuries drove individual decisions, at an abstract level Arena selected five players who plied their trade in Europe, and sixteen from MLS teams. In the final collapse against Trinidad and Tobago, he started three of those European based players: DeAndre Yedlin, Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood.
That level of European player involvement was atypically low for the U.S. Using World Cup rosters as guideposts for the player pool, it had been since 1994 that three or fewer starting players were from European clubs. The trend to this low point actually began after the 2010 World Cup, when the U.S. put eight European players in the starting XI against Ghana. Not even Jurgen “I-hate-MLS” Klinsmann matched that level four years later in Brazil, when he started just five such players against Belgium. Five were from MLS.
Perhaps it’s not fair to look solely at the volume of European versus MLS players on the roster, but it does say something about the state of the men’s player pool at the time. MLS would currently rank as the 21st best league in Europe according to FiveThirtyEight. That so few players were actively competing in the top leagues suggests that the margin for error was narrower than normal.
Fast forward to the current state of the USMNT player pool. The European base contingent is decidedly stronger than during Klinsmann’s era, and when it comes to the team’s future stars, it’s nearly all Euro-centric. During the last four friendlies in 2018, the roster carried sixteen players from European clubs and started on average 6.5 of them. Below is how that roster composition looks graphically going back to the 1990 World Cup.
Starting with that 1990 World Cup, the United States had been increasing their pipeline in Europe, and that trend peaked when Bob Bradley invited seventeen European players to the team in South Africa. But that tournament, coupled with the growing financial strength of MLS, motivated a shift of European based talent to the national league, and the European-based player pool started a decline that ended in Trinidad and Tobago.
Not only has the player pool shifted back towards a European focus, but it’s clear that the USMNT’s young elite core are nearly all developing across the Atlantic. Over the last year and a half of friendlies, there have been a ton of European-based players that have established themselves as starters or near starters when meaningful qualifying games begin again.
Zach Steffen is the future goalkeeper. Currently, Steffen is playing for Columbus Crew SC in MLS, but in July, he will make the move to Manchester City. Will he stay there? Who knows, but it’s more than likely he will stay over in Europe to develop. The most intriguing backup option is Ethan Horvath, who just rolled off three consecutive clean sheets in the Champions League for Club Brugge.
On the defense, the front runners appear to be DeAndre Yedlin and Antonee Robinson at fullback with John Brooks and Matt Miazga at centerback. All four of them play in Europe. In the midfield, there appear to be five clear players ahead of the rest: Tim Weah, Will Trapp, Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. Four of them play in Europe currently, Trapp being the lone MLS-based midfielder.
At forward, the heir apparent to the much needed striker throne is Josh Sargent, currently scoring off the bench at Werder Bremen. If he’s not ready, then Bobby Wood, another option, is also in the Bundesliga.
Ten of the best eleven players are or soon will be developing in Europe, and it’s not ridiculous to think that they could be starters in a critical game together in the next few years. Going back to the trends earlier, that would be a dramatic departure from even the roster that Klinsmann was putting together.
There are two potential reasons behind this trend. It could be that the development pipeline for American youth is finally yielding results, and the top talent is being moved to the appropriate place with better competition. Financial motivations may also be at play. There’s no question that Christian Pulisic’s ability to lure the American fan to Chelsea was part of the reason for his record high transfer fee. This could be happening to a lesser extent with other young players. Tyler Adams may actually be worth more to Red Bull as a RB Leipzig player than a New York Red Bulls player, where that market has less growth potential in terms of growing an American base. It’s likely a combination of these factors leading to this positive development.
The benefits of this trend are clear. As important as MLS is for giving American players a solid path to a professional career, to truly develop the world class talent the USMNT needs to take the next step, the players need to play in the best leagues in the world.
Extra credit for the community: Excluding the XI starters mentioned above, create the next best European based starting lineup and the best MLS starting lineup, then vote on who would win.