Twenty-year-old Philadelphia Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson was either going to join Borussia Dortmund or the Red Bull soccer pipeline. The reasoning wasn’t due to any insider news, but in narrowing down the options considering Aaronson’s age, country, and recent transfer window activity involving MLS sides. The midfielder’s breakout season at 19 put him with either Ajax, Dortmund, or the Red Bull system. Considering the success of young Americans and MLS prospects in the Bundesliga and Bundesliga-adjacent leagues, there was Dortmund now or a half-step before a future move to RB Leipzig. Aaronson eventually signed with FC Red Bull Salzburg for around $6 million, the highest fee for a homegrown academy player in league history.
Aaronson’s introduction to mainstream MLS supporters came during the MLS Is Back tournament at the start of the season, in which he produced viral moments and assists seemingly every match. And as quickly as he signed with Salzburg, rumors immediately started over Aaronson’s next move before his European debut. Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said that it wasn’t just the fee that enticed the sale to Salzburg, but Salzburg’s ability to also sell players. Salzburg manager Jesse Marsch already said that Aaronson’s future was “not just here, but beyond.” There must always be a “beyond.”
That restlessness is the nature of being in the Red Bull structure until the real move: a high-priced transfer to the Premier League. The move to Salzburg is the equivalent of a gap year, easing into the culture of European soccer. Ten players have then moved from Salzburg to Leipzig since 2015, tallying over $132 million in sales. The strategic transfer looking multiple steps ahead shows the bifurcated nature of clubs and leagues around the world. You’re either developing players for a big money transfer, or you are the club purchasing those players.
As for the supporters of those developmental clubs, at least there’s the memories.
Dortmund’s Gio Reyna, who came through the New York City FC youth academy, appeared as a rumored target for Real Madrid the same week as Aaronson’s move. Twenty-year-old defender Chris Richards, a beneficiary of an official relationship between FC Dallas and Bayern Munich, assisted Robert Lewandowski in his first ever Bundesliga start in October. And while the partnership between MLS and Bundesliga clubs may appear one-sided based on name recognition, MLS sides provide value to their European counterparts outside of just players.
Hoffenheim and FC Cincinnati’s three-year partnership announced in September focused upon the four pillars of sharing intel, player development, brand and corporate responsibility, and business opportunities. Hoffenheim CEO Dr. Peter Gorlich explained how “considering the simple fact that the USA are one of, or maybe, the most innovative country in the world, it would have been negligent not to look at opportunities” within MLS. Cincinnati general manager Gerard Nijkamp focused on strategy, saying MLS can serve as an entry point for European clubs into the South American talent pool. Nijkamp added that Cincinnati could “be that bridge” for South American players to settle in culturally before eventually moving to the Bundesliga, a play on the idea of America being the ultimate destination for many across the globe.
The prevalence of relationships between Bundesliga and MLS clubs is no accident. Bundesliga academy heads see a similarity in mentality between the two cultures, with Americans knowing how to “progress and prevail.” The head of Wolfsburg’s academy said that American players bring athleticism, making Germany’s role to “school them in tactics.” Gegenpressing also suits the energy and hard running of younger players. That style is a production-line view of soccer, sacrificing an individual’s brilliance at the expense of repetitive movements from the collective to create chances. If traditional stereotypes of American players tilted towards athleticism than singular on-ball creativity, pressing reshifted the value back towards disciplined athletes over skill.
After moving from the New York Red Bulls to RB Leipzig in 2019, Tyler Adams gave concrete examples of how Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann tactically rounded out his game. The 21-year-old midfielder explained how he had to unlearn his instinct of “when I lose the ball, run at the ball” in order to give his team more balance. Even the terminology - a “steil-klatsch” instead of a lay-off - provided new opportunities for exploration.
The pipeline doesn’t only reward players, but managers as well. Aaronson will be managed by the 46-year-old American Marsch, who, like Adams, worked his way up the Red Bull chain starting in MLS. With Nagelsmann expected to move onto a larger club in the near future, Marsch is the obvious built-in replacement to continue the pressing style before eventually being poached by a larger side. The brainpower replenishes itself. The Red Bulls recently hired Gerhard Struber, who oversaw one of the most aggressive pressing schemes during his time in the Championship. Marsch described Struber as a manager “deeply rooted in Red Bull.”
Taking a step back, and putting past stereotypes of the American soccer player aside, this movement of talent and capital across the globe in the digital age mimics other industries. We could lament past lost generations of American players, but this development is strictly of a contemporary time. It is a byproduct of technology and analytics, cultural factors, the Bundesliga’s investment in youth players for future resell, and global brands looking to purchase for eight figures. As perhaps the greatest American innovator of this century once said, one can never connect the dots going forward. But there must also be talent in place once opportunities open.
Yet prevailing ideas and stereotypes don’t change overnight, with past perceptions continuing to follow Americans within the sport. Marsch noted how Frank Lampard didn’t initially rate Christian Pulisic because “he was an American” as opposed to seeing his football background in Germany.
“The perception in Europe is...that the American player is willing to run, willing to fight, has good mentality, but technically they’re not very gifted and tactically they’re not very aware,” said Marsch about Pulisic’s initial struggles with Chelsea. Marsch added that Pulisic had to fight for his place, which is also “the American quality.”
Considering the competition of building a global brand, it was only a matter of time before other leagues would catch on. Barcelona, already with Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente in the first team, have reportedly increased their scouting in MLS and are linked with 18-year-old Gianluca Busio of Sporting KC and San Jose’s 17-year-old midfielder Cade Cowell (maybe not coincidentally, they also see America as a significant market for growth and sponsorship). In the social media age, ideas go from small prototypes to complete industries seemingly overnight.
Our discussions over the existential future of American soccer revolved around player development, though less exciting, non-viral topics like infrastructure and pathways were equally as essential for sustainability. The rise of analytics, which gave players a numerical paradigm of value and brought Moneyball-like terminology into the sport, also shifted the mentality and messaging. European sides are no longer buying American players - they are leveraging one of the most undervalued markets within the soccer world. The Union recently added two teenagers from California and Wisconsin to their academy. The pipeline to Germany spun off its own mini-pipeline to get a chance to get to Germany. Even Aaronson’s younger brother recently signed a homegrown contract with the Union. Losing one teenage phenom only means more room for others in the future.