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The U.S. Men’s National Team is ready to kick off its 2022 World Cup journey this week with its youngest and most expensive squad in history—even without star forward Christian Pulisic available for Thursday’s game in El Salvador.
The total market value of the 24 players coach Greg Berhalter initially called in for the first three qualifiers is over $270 million, 4.5 times the market value of the squad’s 2014 edition, based on a Sportico analysis of figures from Transfermarkt, which tracks global player contracts.
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This is a new era for the Stars and Stripes, so much so that the absence of Pulisic—who came into the U.S. camp having missed nearly two weeks of games and training at Chelsea because of a positive COVID test—is not cause for panic heading into the El Salvador game. As the payroll figures show, the squad has depth now, something it will need for the tight qualifying schedule; the Yanks follow up Thursday’s contest with matches against Canada in Nashville on Sunday and at Honduras on Wednesday.
The hefty paychecks reveal a leap in talent, say long-time observers. “There’s no question that it's never been better than it is now," U.S. Soccer legend Landon Donovan told Sportico in a phone interview. "We've never had this many players playing on teams at such a high level around the world. The clubs have more money to spend. And ultimately, the players also benefit from that.”
Pulisic is the highest valued player of the current USMNT squad according to Transfermarkt, at $55 million. His 2019 transfer fee from Dortmund to Chelsea for $73 million was the highest amount paid for a U.S. soccer player. The 22-year-old was influential in Chelsea's Champions League title last year and appears entrenched despite his club’s star-studded roster.
The second-highest-valued player is 18-year-old midfielder Gio Reyna of German league power Borussia Dortmund. The son of former USMNT captain Claudio Reyna and former USWMNT player Danielle Egan, he’s American soccer royalty—and is valued at $41.8 million. Reyna is the youngest American to appear in the Bundesliga and second youngest American scorer in Champions League after Pulisic.
Sergino Dest, F.C. Barcelona's defender, is valued at $33 million and holds the distinction as the first U.S. national team member to ever play a Barca-Real Madrid el Classico. The fullback signed a five-year contract in 2020 with a buyout clause set at $472 million. Aside from Dest, Reyna and Pulisic, Weston McKennie ($27.5 million), John Brooks ($15.4 million), Tim Weah ($13.2) and Brenden Aaronson ($11 million) are valued at double digits and play for top European clubs.
Until fairly recently, an American player's path to a well-known European club was long and daunting. With the exception of goalkeepers, American players were not given the opportunity unless they showed off their chops at an international event.
"I love the fact that there's more opportunity for these players, whether it's how much money they make or the places that they are playing or the attention that they get," said Alexi Lalas, a commentator at Fox Sports and former USMNT player who after the 1994 World Cup became the first American to play in Italy’s top league, Serie A. "The reason that I was able to play in Europe was that I starred in a World Cup; that's what you had to do, just to get those opportunities. And now we have kids that don't even play a single game (in a World Cup), and they're being given opportunities to a pathway, that's wonderful. You shouldn't have to be great in a World Cup just to get an opportunity to play at a high level."
John Guppy, president of Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, says it was a matter of time before the world discovered U.S. talent. “America has always had, I'm not going to say, great, but always had good players," he said. Still, he thinks the current squad is a breakthrough, because of the number of high-caliber players, its youth, and "the globalization of the game being much more pronounced than it ever was."
Because of that globalization, soccer is more relevant from an overall business perspective than ever in the U.S. Growing interest from younger audiences provides lucrative media contracts and sponsors on both sides of the pond and lures investors to soccer both home and abroad. "Football, in general, became more expensive,” said Ricardo Fort, founder of Sport by Fort Consulting. “And everything associated with football is a lot more expensive today. If you think about the value of sponsorships, the value of media packages, rights of broadcasting costs of hosting, everything is more expensive."
That has translated to the high-salaried USMNT. Berhalter said most of the credit should go to U.S. Soccer and MLS ownership "for really making a huge investment in youth player development."
Richard Motzkin, an agent whose team at Wasserman represents McKennie, Reyna, Aaronson, and Manchester City backup keeper Zack Steffen, agrees with Berhalter that these accomplishments did not happen overnight and that this generation had a perspective unlike any before it because they watched predecessors play in MLS and go to Europe. “They had the ability to aspire to be professional soccer players,” Motzkin said. “They knew that this was a pathway; the generation before them never really knew that."
Beyond that, he said, MLS poured "resources into their different academies and had set up opportunities for young players at a very young age," which set the table for players like McKennie, who came up through FC Dallas’ system, to develop here and go overseas.
FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi, who scored the game-winning penalty kick in the MLS All-Star game, may be next in line. The 18-year-old's market value is currently $2.75 million, and Pulisic’s absence could offer Pepi an opportunity to shine with the men’s national team—and up the price for his next contract.