Nick Taitague: The potential USMNT star robbed of his dream by injury nightmare

Nick Taitague Schalke 2018Getty

It is only a five-second clip from a training session, but it is enough to make you sit up and take notice.

A young player controls a pass with the inside of his right boot, then, with the outside, flicks it between two oncoming defenders before showing acceleration which makes you wonder if the footage is on fast forward.

The clip, which was posted to Schalke's official Twitter account in August 2020, showcases the skills of Nick Taitague, an attacking midfielder newly promoted to the first team, but already looking right at home.

It's a clip which provided hope that the 2020-21 season could be a success for Schalke, with this talented 21-year-old American running the midfield.

Instead, that campaign was an unmitigated disaster for the club – and even worse for the player.

Schalke had signed Taitague (pronounced Tie-ta-gwee) just after his 18th birthday in February 2017, and he made his debut for the Bundesliga club's Under-19s a month later.

Taitague caught the eye for Schalke after impressing for his country at a series of age groups, including the United States U18s, for whom he scored 12 goals in 15 international caps.

He joined the American legion at Schalke, with Weston McKennie and Haji Wright as his team-mates when he first arrived in Gelsenkirchen.

He was also a team-mate of Matthew Hoppe in the reserves when the striker was bought in 2019, and they were both moved up to the seniors in summer 2020.

Taitague was a regular at youth level for Schalke, with five goals and seven assists in 44 games.

He endured a number of injuries during his time among the youngsters, but shone enough to be promoted to the first team ahead of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, where he was assigned squad No.29 and appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Capable of playing in a deeper midfield role and on the wings as well as in his favoured No.10 role, Taitague looked as if he could be an important player for a Schalke team in a state of flux, with huge numbers of incomings and outgoings in the playing department and ongoing financial uncertainty off the pitch.

"It feels great," Taitague told the Schalke website in August 2020. "I didn't have any problems settling in and was right into it straight away.

Nick Taitague Schalke 2020
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"As a youth-team player, I was accepted really well by the guys. They all showed me that they were pleased that I was there.

"There were days when I would ask myself if I really have what it takes to play at the top level, but I'm a positive person and always told myself that I would come back and that I can realise my dream.

"Giving up was never an option."

That final sentence, in a few months' time, would be proven sadly ironic.

The 2020-21 season was a nightmare.

Schalke failed to win in their first 14 games, would go through five managers and eventually suffer relegation, losing their Bundesliga status after 30 consecutive years.

On a personal level for Taitague, things were even worse.

In May 2021, after having his contract terminated by Schalke in January, he announced his retirement from professional football. Injuries had prevented him from making his senior debut for the club.

Taitague revealed in an Instagram post: "Since I was a little kid, it has always been my dream to become a professional soccer player and to represent my country. I’ve been lucky enough to live that reality for the past few years.

"But football has its ups and downs and, unfortunately, I’ve had to cut my playing career short due to a serious back injury I sustained.

"While I tried my best to play through the pain and surgery it progressed to a point of no return.

"I leave the game with my head held high knowing that I’ve given myself every opportunity to play the game that I’ve devoted my life to."

Taitague returned to his native Virginia, where he works as a consultant for Centre Circle, the group which served as his agents during his playing days.

He is now a fervent fan, often seen supporting the USMNT at matches, while his connection to the team is strong.

Indeed, he has struck up a close friendship with Chelsea star Christian Pulisic, popping up on his social media from time to time.

His Instagram, meanwhile, serves as a poignant reminder of his status as a wonderkid.

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He has 14,000 followers – many of who will have been accrued through intrigue at this emerging talent – while a folder named "Footy mems" features him in USMNT training gear, playing and travelling to games with Schalke, and one clip of him in a training session, showing a brilliant turn and blistering pace to escape a crowd of team-mates before finishing smartly in the bottom corner.

While McKennie plays for Juventus and Hoppe turns out for Mallorca, once can only watch the short clips of pace, skill and brilliance, and wonder if their former colleague could have surpassed them all.