Drawing a connection between Rubio Rubin’s professional debut and Donovan’s impending retirement isn’t about trying to compare the two, which would be foolish. What it’s about is considering that the events could be seen as the end of one trend and start of a new trend.
In case you hadn’t noticed, American teenagers haven’t traditionally made it a habit of going to Europe and earning regular minutes in top leagues (and for the purposes of this discussion we will define top European leagues as leagues among the top 10). In the past decade, only the likes of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Spector, Freddy Adu and Giuseppe Rossi have developed in the United States before going played as teenagers in top European leagues, and of those only Spector didn’t have prior pro experience before heading overseas (and of course, Rossi chose to play for Italy rather than his native USA).
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Rubin’s debut was part hard work and also part opportunism, with injuries to FC Utrecht creating the opportunity, but the fact is more and more young Americans are heading to Europe seeking opportunity than ever before. Considerably more than were leaving the United States for European opportunities when Donovan first went to Bayer Leverkusen in 1999.
Some 15 years later, as Donovan winds down a historic career, a wave of American teenagers are bypassing the traditional path to pro soccer - college to MLS - and are choosing to follow the same path Donovan tried to take before choosing to come back him and kickstart his career in MLS.
Players like Russell Canouse (Hoffenheim), Junior Flores and Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Joshua Perez (Fiorentina), Danny Barbir (West Bromwich Albion) and Lynden Gooch (Sunderland) are just some of the American teenagers plying their trades overseas, albeit mostly with youth and reserve teams in some of the best leagues in Europe (and while he isn’t an American citizen yet, you can add Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem to this list as well considering he was developing in the American youth system when first discovered by the Gunners).
The exodus is a product not only of increased scouting by European clubs seeking bargains, but also by players who are increasingly well-prepared and eager to make the jump overseas. The improvements to the youth development ranks made by the Development Academy system is part of the reason, but also improved coaching in the youth ranks, and to a small degree, the growing impact of the Major League Soccer academies.
Things were far different when Donovan was a teenager, even as a highly-successful youth national team player with achievements on the international stage. He was one of few Americans to have the chance to ply his trade overseas at a very young age, along with the likes of John O’Brien at Ajax and Jovan Kirovski at Manchester United.
In the 15 years since those teen trailblazers, we have seen a sprinkling of young Americans bypass college and/or MLS to try their luck overseas, but far more have failed to break through than have actually found success.
Now, the top American teams have as good a chance as ever of being scouted, identified, and approached by foreign teams both in Europe and Mexico), and more and more of them are taking those opportunities rather than simply staying home. And not just players in the 17-19 age range, but much and much younger players are heading overseas, like Ben Lederman at Barcelona and Emerson Hyndman, who just made his professional debut for Fulham at the age of 18, and has begun the season as a starter for the recently demoted English club.
What will come of this exodus of Americans overseas? It will mean more top young talents being exposed to a higher level of development, and it will also mean added pressure on MLS teams to step up their own development systems. As much as some will suggest otherwise, MLS academies are still underperforming when it comes to developing talent (and still relying heavily on college soccer to help develop much of the talent passing through those academies).
Ultimately, it should mean having more young Americans proving themselves to be capable of playing in top leagues at younger and younger ages, which can only help strengthen the U.S. national team over time. At a time when more and more of the national team’s veterans are choosing to return home to play in MLS, it has suddenly become vital that a new generation of young Americans step up to take their place overseas, and eventually replace them on the national team.
And no, that doesn’t mean Rubio Rubin will necessarily be the one to eventually help replace Donovan in the American soccer landscape, but the new trend should help increase the chances that we will see a player, or some players, capable of filling his shoes.