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Don’t look now, but a plucky soccer nation that missed the last World Cup suddenly has young stars playing for Chelsea, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and, as of Wednesday, Barcelona.
The oldest of them, Juve’s midfield metronome Weston McKennie, turned 22 less than a month ago. Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic is three weeks younger. Midfielder Tyler Adams, whose goal put Leipzig into the Champions League semifinals last season, is 21. Attacking midfielder Gio Reyna, who has begun earning significant playing time at Dortmund, doesn’t turn 18 until November.
Wing back Sergiño Dest is 19, and now reportedly the latest member of the club of Americans at Europe’s elite teams upon his agreement to sign with Barcelona from Ajax. He might be joined in the Catalan first team by Miami native Konrad de la Fuente, a 19-year-old winger threatening to play his way into a senior debut.
On the next tier, the 20-year-old striker Josh Sargent plays for Werder Bremen. John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, both defenders and both 27, play for Wolfsburg and Newcastle, respectively. And 25-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffen is now the backup at Manchester City.
The last time the national team had anywhere close to this many players at a high level was in 2010, when eight players were active in the Premier League or Championship, three played in Germany, two in Scotland, two in Mexico, one in Italy and one in France. Still, that band of overachievers, because that’s what they felt like, weren’t nearly of the caliber this budding golden generation is. What’s more, the class of 2010 was in its prime when it set those high-water marks for their careers. The latter-day group not only feels like they belong at these clubs, but that they will all get better yet.
A certain amount of skepticism feels like a healthy policy. There was anxiety in this space that Pulisic was moving to a major club like Chelsea too soon. But those concerns were plainly wrong after Pulisic posted a first season that far exceeded reasonable expectations. Likewise, McKennie’s move from Schalke to Juve, just three weeks ago, felt seminal. But the question lingered over how much he would actually play. Yet he started in Juve’s season-opener and played very well in a 3-0 thumping of Sampdoria under new manager Andrea Pirlo.
There really is no telling if Dest is making the right move by walking into the tinderbox that is Barcelona at the moment. While his new manager, Ronald Koeman, is familiar with him — when Dest picked the U.S. national team program, he also had the option of accepting a first call-up to the Netherlands, which Koeman was coaching at the time — it feels unlikely that Dest will dislodge Sergi Roberto at right back or Jordi Alba on the left. Barca has turned over backup right backs annually in the last few years. And things in Catalonia are so chaotic that Koeman could be gone within months, if not weeks, possibly taking Dest’s prospects of playing time out the door with him.
At Ajax, Dest had a mere 21 first team appearances to his name, deputizing for injured right back Noussair Mazraoui last season. He is betting on himself.
He’s young. He can afford to take the chance. Maybe it works out and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it turns out that he’d been better off staying and winning the job from Mazraoui, or waiting for left back and Argentina international Nico Tagliafico to leave, although that could be another year. Such is the nature of transfers.
Dest’s fate at Barca no longer feels like a referendum on The American Player though. And that is progress in itself. Very nearly out of nowhere, so many Americans are appearing at big clubs — Chris Richards, 20, is breaking into the first team at Bayern Munich, the other team reportedly after Dest — that the failure of one will not reflect on the others, or those that come after.
This is also new.
Americans have normalized themselves not only in Europe, but now in the old continent’s biggest clubs as well. The stigma has eroded. The pioneers, like John Harkes, Eric Wynalda and Claudio Reyna, Gio’s father, chipped away at it. The goalkeepers established beachheads at bigger clubs. The 2010 generation confirmed Americans as worthy and reliable contributors. Now follows the next step.
It is entirely possible that nine different Americans, on eight teams, will make appearances in the UEFA Champions League this season. This, needless to say, is a first. Most of them are on teams that are expected to reach the knockout rounds. This is also a first.
In fact, all of this, an entire handful of Americans playing for major European clubs, is a first.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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