U.S. players in Europe, a quality problem, not quantity problem

With Christian Pulisic’s recent success in Borussia Dortmund and the USMNT, more and more U.S. players in Europe are the topics of conversation. I decided to ask my not-so-reliable friend Wikipedia about the U.S. men players in Europe.

With the help of Wikipedia and my friends at Soccer America, I developed an excel table. There are a total of 69 U.S. players in the top five leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, Serie A and Bundesliga), second-tier leagues in those five leagues and the other first tier leagues in Europe. There are other U.S. players in lower leagues, but I did not include them in my survey.

Well, let us correct that there are 69 professional players in those leagues who carry a US passport, because at least 38 (55 percent) of them carry dual citizenships. I say at least, because my not-so-reliable friend Wikipedia did not indicate the dual citizenship status for a good number of players.

Is it a coincidence that so many U.S. players playing in Europe have dual citizenships? Definitely not! First of all, in order to play in most European leagues, you need either to have an EU passport or a work permit. Work permits for non-European players are sometimes granted based on the number of caps in the last few years or in some leagues there is a quota per team for non EU players without a minimum caps qualification. Since the USA is not in Europe, the U.S. players fall under the same category as Nigerians, Brazilians and Argentinians. The top 15 countries exporting soccer players to the world do not include the USA. The list is headed by Brazil (1,784), followed by Argentina (929) and France (758). For Europe, the list is still headed by Brazil (1,134) but a majority of foreigners still come from other European associations: 56.1 percent.

The 1,784 Brazilians exported are mostly the product of their own development programs. Of the 69 U.S. players playing in Europe, 28 (41 percent) of them are products of another country’s youth development system.  Seventeen of those 28 players (61 percent) have at least one cap for the USYNT or USMNT.  The other 41 are products of the U.S. youth development system.

If we trust Wikipedia of those 69 players, six (4/2) of them are goal keepers, 23 (13/10) are defenders, 17 (10/6) are midfielders and 23 (14/9) are forwards. (The first number in parentheses indicates the U,S. developed players) This surprised me, I would have thought that there will be more defenders and midfielders.

Out of the 69 U.S. players, 20 of them are playing in the top five leagues of Europe. Well to be exact they are playing in the Premier League and the Bundesliga and there are no US players in the Liga, the Serie A or the Ligue 1. Out of 20 only six (30 percent) of them have been developed by the U.S. youth development systems. Of those six, only Pulisic is playing for a team that competes in the Champions League or Europa League.

Sixteen out of 20 played for the USMNT at some level. All the players in those five leagues except five have dual citizenships. Brad Guzan and Geoff Cameron got their work permit based on the number of their caps. Bobby Wood, Emerson Hyndman and Lynden Gooch bypassed the FIFA’s ban of transfers before the age of 18 and joined English or German academies at an early age.

Even though we might think that there is not much of a quantity problem in the export of players to Europe, there definitely is a quality problem.  Out of the 41 players we exported to the top tier professional leagues in Europe, only one is playing in a top club and six of them are playing in a club in one of the top five leagues.

There is another interesting observation: There are 18 U.S.-developed players out of 41 who moved to Europe before the age of 19, bypassing FIFA’s ban thanks to holding passports from EU nations. They started their pro career in Europe. Four of them are in the top five leagues. This tells a lot about the expectations of U.S.-developed players toward the professional soccer environment in this country.

In 2015, U.S. leagues (MLS, NASL, USL and PDL) imported 70 players from UK, France and Spain and a total of 227 from Europe. If you consider that USA has only 61 professional men’s teams then to export 41 players to Europe might be meaningful. If you keep in mind that the first-tier professional league, MLS is only 21 years old and that the number of players the Developmental Academies are producing for the professional teams are increasing, you might be optimistic about the future.

But let us not forget that we are talking about a continent nation of 320 million people, with the highest GDP on the planet and the most successful nation in the Olympics history. Then you might like to think twice.

Ahmet Guvener ( is the former Secretary General and the Technical Director of Turkish FA. He was also the Head of Refereeing for the Turkish FA. He served as Panel member for the FIFA Panel of Referee Instructors and UEFA Referee Convention. He now lives and works as a soccer consultant in Austin, Texas.

21 comments about "U.S. players in Europe, a quality problem, not quantity problem".
  1. John Polis, October 24, 2016 at 6:40 p.m.

    Some interesting numbers here for sure. But the comment about the U.S. having 320 million people and therefore the inference that we should have more top level pros doesn't wash. If it was about population and resources, China and India (population) and resources Saudi Arabia and the UA might have a lot of top level players too, right? It's about having a national soccer tradition where all (or most) of the best athletes are playing soccer. That's not the case in the USA where there are many more professional athletic options. Population and resources don't have anything to do with it. It's about the very best athletes loving soccer first and foremost, then taking the game up and developing their talent. Many more top level athletes percentage-wise do this nations abroad than in the USA.

  2. John Polis, October 24, 2016 at 6:40 p.m.

    Sorry I meant UAE.

  3. Paul Cox, October 25, 2016 at 10:13 a.m.

    I think that the US having the highest GDP in the world actually makes it *harder* in a way for us to build up our development program.

    The reason is simple- coaching costs money, primarily in salaries but also in the costs of acquiring and maintaining facilities/fields.

    Because the economy and the cost of living in the USA is so much higher than other nations, the salaries required to buy good coaches (not to mention the field/facility costs) must be much higher, too.

    "PPP" is a way of correcting monetary compensation by nation that takes into account the cost of products and living in each nation. For example, if you make $30,000/year in the USA, and the equivalent of $27,000/year in Spain, but everything in Spain is 30% cheaper than the USA, then the guy in Spain actually has "more" money than the guy in the USA.

    By using PPP, we can directly compare costs across nations based on the local costs involved to live there.

  4. Paul Cox replied, October 25, 2016 at 10:18 a.m.

    By this number, the median per-capita income for the USA is $15,480PPP.

    The numbers for those top 10 player-exporting nations: ..... Brazil, $2,247PPP..... Argentina, $4,109PPP..... France, $12,445PPP..... Serbia, $3,020PPP ..... Nigeria, $493PPP ..... Spain, $7,284PPP ..... Croatia, $5,147PPP ..... Colombia, $1,534PPP ..... Portugal, $5,519PPP ..... Senegal, $402PPP

  5. Paul Cox replied, October 25, 2016 at 10:26 a.m.

    So, to wrap up, the premise of the end of the article seems to be "the USA is drastically underperforming in developing soccer players for such a big, rich nation".

    But when we consider just how the purchasing power of the USA compares with the nations we're looking at, it's a ridiculous argument; if a development coach in the USA costs the median income for the nation, then based on that you can have 7 coaches in Brazil for the same price.

    I would argue that in many ways, the USA is actually doing okay. We soccer fans need to take a deeper look and realize that until we sink FAR MORE money into it than we do now, we're going to continue to not develop players very well.

  6. John Lander, October 25, 2016 at 11:23 a.m.

    We in America have an incorrect concept about a countries "youth development system". Around the world, Europe, Africa, South Anerica, counties don't develope players. The nation team coach from Spain , France, Brazil or Nigeria has very little to do with the development of the players on his team. Players are develooed by clubs. Barcelona FC, Santos, Flamingo, Porto, Liverpool develop players.
    With that said though we have to ask "Can the same system work in the US?"
    The pass 20 years is proof that whatever it is we are doing, it is not working.

  7. John Lander, October 25, 2016 at 11:42 a.m.

    It is all about top level athletes. If the US is able to get a few 4 and 5 star high school athletes per year to choose soccer over football and basketball then we will produce better soccer players. Anybody who does not agree with that or admits to do that either is not familiar with what is going on in the US sports world or just have othe biases or motivation.
    Go look and see who all the training and money is being spent on. 9 and 10 year old kids who cannot cut it on the football field or the basketball court, or baseball diamond or hockey rink. So they move to play soccer. First issue US Soccer needs to address. Attract better athletes.

  8. K Michael replied, October 25, 2016 at 1:14 p.m.

    Of course, you are referring to soccer athletes like Pulisic, Donovan, et al, yes? Otherwise, your comment is THE main impediment to developing world-class talent state-side.

  9. beautiful game, October 25, 2016 at 12:02 p.m.

    Bob Parker is on point...unfortunately Mr. Lander can't grasp the center of gravity in what makes a promising soccer player; passion to succeed, work ethic and sacrifice.

  10. John Lander replied, October 25, 2016 at 12:53 p.m.

    Why you attacking me? Do you know me? I have a comment above with the point about passion. Ethic????

  11. John Lander, October 25, 2016 at 12:49 p.m.

    Read my comments befor you go attacking me.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, October 25, 2016 at 4:15 p.m.

    John, I have read both your comments and Bob's. I am not an attacking you when I say that I generally disagree with your comments and agree generally with Bob. I also disagree generally with Mr. Cox's comments. He admits that he is a fan, which explains why he has a fan's viewpoint rather than an athlete's or coach's viewpoint of athlete development.

  13. John Lander, October 25, 2016 at 6:41 p.m.

    First and foremost soccer is an athletic contest. So you need athletes to play it. Obviously like all other athletic contest you have to learn the skill set, thats a given. And yes the special ones have all the intangible like drive, motivation, leadership etc. I am not saying you dont need those. Again i assume they were a given for the purpose of this discussion.
    Your chance of producting a world class player in any sport goes way up if you teach the skills and technique to players who has balance, speed, quickness, agility, strength, can change direction in a dime, great hand eye coordination, quick feet..... Notice I did not mention size.
    I also did not mention identifying or selecting those players. I did however said "let them play and the cream will rise". Thats what we do in basketball and football in the US, but not in soccer.
    The soccer system is not set up to attract and allow those athlets to participate. Hence we are left with unccordinated, slow, unbalanced, cannot back peddle Jonny on the soccer field.
    Last point...
    Go to any city in the US. Take the top rated U10 to U15 teams in Basketball, Football, Baseball, Hockey and Soccer. Put them up against each other in pure athletic contests like sprints, hurdles, longjump, balance, agility drills, flexibility and soccer will be last. So too would the US senior soccer team against Brazil, England, France and Spain .

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, October 25, 2016 at 8:08 p.m.

    So John, how do you explain the superior athletic ability of the US WNT?

  15. K Michael replied, October 26, 2016 at 11:44 a.m.

    I am with you, John, on your definition of soccer-centric athleticism; but having been up close and personal with top level youth soccer, I can assure you that soccer is at the big boys table when it comes to being a first-choice sport of athletic, quick kids. In my middle school, anecdotally, the top three 7th/8th grade scores in our periodic benchmarking in the mile run, the sprint intervals, and push-ups were soccer players, 2 of the 3 in the local DA program. MLS increasing prosperity plus the all-the- time exposure to the world's best via TV will keep this trend going.

  16. Peter Greene, October 25, 2016 at 11:31 p.m.

    After reading this story it seems that the US is somewhat a victim of protectionism. Can you image if any American pro sports league acted the same way?

  17. aaron dutch, October 26, 2016 at 11:31 a.m.

    The core of the issue is we produce at least 10x less top talent then we should into top leagues around the world. Our complete development model is at fault. Each of these creates the platform of failure.
    Pay2Play, all middle class and above kids, MLS lack of investment in academies, horrible youth coaching development, high school/college soccer, lack of US national federation leadership of defining & designing the a functional pyramid, weak local football club & academy model, lack of small side (futsal, beach). These add up to poor quality of our best players

  18. Travis Smith, October 26, 2016 at 3:57 p.m.

    @ John,
    I respectfully disagree with your notion that the US team is at disadvantage with the rest of the world in terms of pure athleticism. I think you are incorrect if you think that Spain, England, Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, etc beats the US in a decathlon like competition. Brazil or France maybe, but 90% of the time the US steps on the field they are the better athletes.
    If Allen Iverson grew up playing soccer in the US he would still be no better than Eddie Johnson...if Iverson grew up in England I think he becomes a soccer star. The sports you mentioned-football and basketball for example, put a disproportionate emphasis on athleticism that sports like soccer do not. Hence, you wont find soccer players being "drafted" based on their 40 time or vertical jump. Good thing for Iniesta that's not how soccer players are chosen.

  19. aaron dutch, October 26, 2016 at 9:15 p.m.

    The best athletes have almost nothing to do with football. Has everyone heard of the best mid-fielder of the last generation Xavi! He would have been cut from most if not all US so called high end clubs as a kid. Until we embraces solidarity payments to clubs, some kind of pyramid with some kind of pro/rel, embrace non-middle class/white club soccer and the investment would align to build 100's of mini academies & a few dozen larger ones and maybe 2-3 great ones we will always be top 20 at best and more like 25 in the world which is absurd as our USSF/SUM/MLS mafia keeps us from being top 10

  20. Bob Ashpole, October 27, 2016 at 1:59 a.m.

    If watching children, it is easy to confuse size with athleticism, because children grow taller as they mature. Even in children, however, size is not athleticism.

  21. Joe Goss, November 7, 2016 at 9:19 p.m.

    One point is incorrect... both Hyndman (Portugal) and Gooch (England/Ireland) are dual citizens. They couldn't have gone to Europe otherwise. Wood is about the last of the wave of players who go could go over before 18.

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