Call it the reverse migration of the Americans Abroad. It started slowly last summer, with Clarence Goodson making an unassuming return to MLS. Then came Carlos Bocanegra. Then Clint Dempsey returned in the shock move of last summer, setting the tone for a winter that would bring even more surprises.
Michael Bradley’s mega-transfer from Roma to Toronto FC earlier this month served as the bookend opposite Dempsey’s return to MLS in a seven-month stretch that saw a half-dozen current or now former U.S. national team players return to Major League Soccer.
While players returning home isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, the caliber of player, and point in their careers in which they moved made this period of time significantly different.
There is an understandable cause for concern among U.S. fans who worry that this reverse migration is capable of hurting the quality of the U.S. team. What must be understood about this recent trend is that it shouldn’t be assumed that it means American players will suddenly stop making the trek overseas.
If anything, the increased number of moves involving Americans to larger leagues in recent years suggests there is a more open acceptance of American players as transfer options. And no, we’re not talking about predictable places that clearly love signing Americans, like Stoke City. We are talking leagues like the Eredivisie, which just had FC Utrecht take Juan Agudelo on loan after the recent successes of U.S. strikers Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson.
You have Ligue 1 opening the door for the first American player there since Bocanegra in 2011 with the arrival of Alejandro Bedoya at FC Nantes. Two years ago, you saw Michael Bradley become the first U.S. national team player to ply his trade in Serie A since Alexi Lalas almost two decades earlier, and while Bradley left earlier than many would have hoped, there is no denying that he earned respect for Americans with his play in Italy the past three seasons.
These small inroads are inroads nonetheless, and as European scouts go searching ever more thoroughly for bargains, American players will soon become more reasonable transfer targets.
But just who are these next players to take the leap and replace the likes of Dempsey and Bradley as the standard bearers for the American movement in European soccer? it just so happens that Jurgen Klinsmann has taken several of them to Brazil this month. The trip isn't just designed to motivate them to keep improving, but also show them where they want to be this summer to have their best chance to impress European scouts.
So which of Klinsmann’s campers have the best chance of moving overseas if things go well in the coming months? Here are five who stand out as leading candidates:
He just signed a new deal with Sporting KC a little more than 13 months ago, but Besler’s star is rising at such a fast clip that it will be tough to keep scouts from pounding down the door at Sporting Park for a chance to buy the unassuming but supremely-talented central defender.
Besler will tell anybody who will listen that he loves playing for his hometown team, and we don’t doubt that, but a strong World Cup playing against as stacked a group as the U.S. will be facing could push Besler to the top of scouting wish lists from England to Italy.
He has yet to playing a single match for the U.S. national team, and is considered an extreme long shot to make the World Cup, so why is he on this list? He’s here because, with or without a World Cup trip, Gil will be drawing attention from scouts who appreciate the skill set and nearly three years of starting experience for Real Salt Lake from a player who is still just 20 years old.
Would Real Salt Lake really consider selling such an important building block? The team may not have much of a choice as Gil’s contract winds down with no sign of a new deal on the horizon. RSL and MLS may be forced to sell and strike a profit or risk losing him for free. And who would be interested? Considering teams like Arsenal were interested in him before he turned pro, it is safe to say there will be teams with money to spend ready to pounce on a polished and young central midfielder.
If not for that fateful torn ACL suffered two years ago on his first day of a training stint/trial at German club Nuremberg, Gonzalez may have already made the jump to Europe, but things worked out the way they did and Gonzalez returned to MLS to win a title and land the largest contract for an American defender in MLS history. You might think that relatively new deal with the LA Galaxy would preclude him from leaving MLS, but it may actually be what makes the move even more of a likelihood.
Why is that? The Galaxy are limited to the MLS-allotted three Designated Player slots, and with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane filling the other two, having Gonzalez around as a DP limits the team’s flexibility. As important as he is to the defense, MLS is still a league where highly-paid defenders are a luxury. Look for the Galaxy to pounce at offers if Gonzalez can turn in a strong World Cup, and a move overseas wouldn’t be the worst thing for the 25-year-old Gonzalez, who has nothing left to prove in MLS.
He is only 20, and has just a year of pro experience under his belt, but there is no denying Yedlin’s potential, or his marketability. He still has some things to learn about being a right back at the highest level, but training with the U.S. national team should only help speed up that process.
Is it a little far-fetched to think Yedlin could play his way onto the World Cup team this summer? Perhaps, but whether it’s by playing his way into Klinsmann’s rotation, or simply shining for the Seattle Sounders in his sophomore pro campaign, Yedlin will be attracting attention from scouts who see a young and dangerous right back with loads of potential and star power to boot.
Another player who signed a contract extension relatively recently, Zusi has seen his stock rise considerably in the months since inking that new deal in July and European clubs could target him with a good World Cup this summer.
Zusi has played well for the national team, and turned in a second straight standout campaign with Sporting KC. If he can earn a starting role in Brazil this summer, Zusi would certainly draw some overseas interest, but it might be tougher for him to leave if Sporting KC teammate Besler also has a good summer.