The 2018-19 Bundesliga season kicks off on August 24. It feels like it’s been a long time coming. Often, a World Cup summer, though drastically shorter than the normal layoff, gives a spike in both interest and excitement surrounding the upcoming club season.
Infamously, the United States Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the biggest sporting event in the world by failing to distinguish themselves from the likes of Honduras, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago. The results of the last round of World Cup qualifying via CONCACAF were a blow to the popularity of the USMNT domestically, probably bleeding over slightly to Major League Soccer, the leading domestic league. In a turn of good fortune for the game as a whole, soccer seems to have weathered the storm and appears to be on a gradual rise, from the booming attendance at Atlanta United games in MLS to the rabid fandom of traditional powers in the English Premiere League and La Liga, the game has remained strong despite the weak performance from the national side. Thanks to a World Cup victory and the acquisition of Neymar, the particularly mediocre French league looks to be making waves in both popularity and a slightly improved domestic product. And after a lengthy recession from the likes of AC Milan and Inter Milan, Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo have aroused the interest of an audience hungry for top-tier soccer that isn’t being provided by MLS or the current play of the USMNT. And yet, much like their embarrassing group stage elimination, Germany appears to be lagging with their league popularity.
While August 24 marks the first competitive game of the Bundesliga season, the DFB Pokal pushed forward with a round of matches that took place over the prior weekend. When Schalke 04 took the pitch against the minnows of 1. FC Schweinfurt on Friday, August 17, it was a 19-year-old Weston McKennie getting the start in the spot vacated by now-Bayern Munich and German National Team midfielder Leon Goretzka. McKennie turns 20 in the coming week but featured in 22 matches for Schalke during the 2017-18 season. He’s also already on the score sheet in the preseason during August, scoring a goal as a substitute in a 3-0 win over Fiorentina. McKennie has also played three matches over the summer, including a friendly against France, for the USMNT.
Three days after McKennie and Schalke eliminated Schweinfurt, Christian Pulisic started in Borussia Dortmund’s narrow 2-1 escape in their first-round Pokal matchup with Greuther Furth. Pulisic, also 19 years of age, has been a regular starter on one of the best teams in the Bundesliga over the past decade. Last season, Pulisic played 32 matches for Dortmund, totaling four goals and five assists. He featured in the Bundesliga, German Cup, and Champions League. In July, he scored two goals as a substitute against Liverpool. Though he doesn’t turn 20 until the end of September, this will be his fourth season in the Bundesliga. Like McKennie, Pulisic has also become a regular on the USMNT. However, Pulisic has already seen his star rise to unprecedented levels for a young American. Where other Americans like Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Brian McBride, Tim Howard, and Brian McBride either showed massive potential at a young age or delivered on the promise and became first team players among the biggest leagues in Europe, none has ever come with the level of excitement that Pulisic has produced. Just this summer, Pulisic has been linked to Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Real Madrid. Naturally, rumors are pure insanity and drive the most traffic. It would still be naïve to assume Pulisic will stay put. And he’s already delivered on his promise in many ways that his fellow countrymen predecessors never did. Did I mention he’s still just 19?
There are many American players that have had their time abroad, but prior to Pulisic, it’s hard to think of one more popular or well-known than Landon Donovan. Donovan was a star for the USMNT at a pivotal moment where the national team desperately needed a success. He was also a giant of MLS. However, his massive success came mostly after a German failure. As a young player, he spent a spell on the Bayer Leverkusen payroll, failing to make the breakthrough. Some of it likely came down to bias from other players, as Donovan himself claimed. Some of it also came down to his inability to perform and maintain his confidence in the slim opportunity he was given. He also had a spell with a particular German club to which Pulisic has been linked this summer – Bayern Munich. The German giants were compelled to give him a shot by then coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. The same Klinsmann that turned the USMNT on its head a few years down the road. Donovan didn’t take, but Pulisic isn’t Donovan. That’s no swipe at Donovan, it’s a statement about just how talented and loaded with potential is the teenager Pulisic.
Perhaps the transfer rumors whirling around Pulisic are down as much to the misfortune of his current club as it is to his potential. Dortmund, an innovative upstart that went from the heights of German soccer to its depths and financial struggles, only to return with a revamped youth system, a charismatic coach, and ahead-of-the-curve training methods. They wrestled the league title away from Bayern briefly, and the two teams met on the biggest club stage in the Champions League Final in London at the culmination of the 2013 season where Bayern prevailed. Since that time, Dortmund’s luck has turned as players like Shinji Kagawa, Nuri Sahin, Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ousmane Dembele, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have all exited the club. The very thing they were built on – a strong youth system – has left them open to poachers both domestic and abroad. Naturally, Pulisic is next on the list.
But the Bundesliga isn’t just a training ground for the future stars of the EPL and La Liga. The Bundesliga has been rated in past seasons as the highest-attended matches of all soccer teams in the world, averaging almost 44,000 tickets sold per match, followed closely by the EPL – about 5,000 tickets behind them.
There’s also a significant amount of action in the Bundesliga. One reddit user, Serie_Almost, calculated goals across the major European leagues, and factored for the different number of games. Using those totals, the Bundesliga almost entirely dominates the list he came up with. There can be many factors, but this chart gives you a good idea of how the leagues stacked up over the course of a decade. Additional ranking metrics across the top European leagues that factor in expected goals (xG), possession, and attempted runs/dribbles consistently rate the Bundesliga and its clubs at the top. A consistently live atmosphere, high goals per game and xG, and non-stop action combine to make the Bundesliga a top product in world soccer.
You’d think this would make the German league must-see soccer in North America.
Corroborating this sentiment, Bayern announced a partnership with FC Dallas of the MLS earlier this year. Essentially the deal, which may set precedent for the future but is something altogether new at this stage, allows for the two teams to allow exchange of training and coaching, particularly with youth players. Given the influx of talent from players like McKennie and Pulisic, both USA nationals, Bundesliga teams are starting to identity a relatively cheap and effective way to source emerging talent.
As eluded to earlier, this kind of German-American collaboration isn’t out of the blue. Klinsmann was a star player for club and country in Germany, achieving success internationally. After a spell coaching the German National Team and Bayern, he shifted to the United States and took control of essentially the entire USMNT system, flipping it on its ear. There were shouts from all directions during his tenure, many believing he was leading the team astray, but also that he was upending institutions and preconceptions that were impeding the progress of the USMNT. To date, the USMNT has looked bitterly disappointing from the end of his time in charge and has lasted since. However, the link to Germany that he helped develop could yet yield a whole new generation of talent.
Nothing is guaranteed, but teams in Germany continue to take fliers on Americans, including Julian Green. Green is an example of a player who was thrust forward too early, given the chance to fight for a place under a Bayern side that was looking for more success on the heels of a Champions League title and the oversight of ex-Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola. Playing time sparse, the talented young Green didn’t immediately reach his potential, which found him transferred, then loaned out, then sold for a fraction of his perceived value. His newest club is 2.Bundesliga side Furth. He featured as a starter against Dortmund and Pulisic on August 20. In 2014, Green became the youngest American to score a goal at the World Cup.
The picture is beginning to come into focus: The Bundesliga that looked off Donovan now looks for American talent. But is America looking for the Bundesliga?
Certainly the numbers have improved. Bayern has toured the United States for many years and recently established an office in New York. Other Bundesliga sides have begun to follow suit. Bundesliga has made the transition from being shown on Gol TV, to the Fox Network, dominating the FS1 Network every Saturday morning. But the battle has always been uphill against the EPL, which has the most ease in adoption amongst soccer viewers. Is it the language? Do Manchester United, David Beckham, and Dennis Bergkamp carry enough weight to sway the loyalty of an entire population? To be fair, those names, even Man U these days, are a bit dated, so is it the oil money that brought fresh life to Chelsea and Manchester City? Perhaps it’s the fascination with plucky mid-tier teams like Tottenham and Everton or the downright disappointing existence of Arsenal. Even LeBron James is in, as part owner of Liverpool.
It’s not just the EPL, however, that has captured fans. The dominant teams of the past decade have mostly plied their trade in La Liga. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid have spent that entire time winning their domestic league and the Champions League. The two squads were home to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who did battle back and forth for seemingly ever. The Madrid team has conquered Europe for three consecutive seasons and it shows across social media as first-sport basketball, baseball and American football fans cheer for La Liga.
Spain also dominated as a national side. They won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, with a 2010 World Cup triumph sandwiched between. In addition to La Liga’s world stars from Argentina and Portugal, there’s a host of Spanish players who have become household names – Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas and many, many more.
During the summer transfer window, Bayern has spent precisely zero to date. It’s absolutely astounding for a club that rates No. 3 among all clubs in the entire world according to the metrics of FiveThirtyEight. However, the club hasn’t been completely quiet. Rumored agreements for future transfer window exist, but the giant club has made one agreement that will take place in January – the purchase of Alphonso Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS. Davies, a pacey future star of the Canadian National Team plies his trade on MLS pitches across North America every week – and soon he will do the same in Germany. While not part of the USMNT, he will join a full cast of North Americans.
The road for the youth of today was paved by a generation of players that fought their way through the Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga long before them. Players like Jermaine Jones who held down starting roles for Schalke and the USMNT, along with Tim Chandler who worked for both Eintracht Frankfurt and 1.FC Nuremberg dating back to 2007 along with several years playing for the USMNT. Michael Bradley, USMNT captain and son of former USMNT coach Bob Bradley spent his fair share of time running the pitch for Borussia Monchengladbach. There’s also many others, including a name popular among USA fans for a while in Bobby Wood. Wood played with 1860 Munich, FC Union Berlin, and Hamburger SV prior to joining Hannover 96.
There are naturally some potential drawbacks to the league. All non-Bayern fans will immediately blame the Munich juggernaut for the woes of the league – purchasing the best players of the other teams in the league, an embarrassment of riches, and the list goes on. Bayern is currently riding a streak of six consecutive league titles. Contributing factors to be sure, that should not be enough to sink the ship. Juventus, part of Serie A that just signed a new television deal with ESPN, is riding a seven-season winning streak. The Germany squad also won the 2014 World Cup and has had a strong showing in almost every single tournament they have participated in for the past 40 years – except the 2018 World Cup.
The downside of Bayern’s dominance shouldn’t be enough alone to keep the league down. With record attendance and more action and scoring than other leagues in the world, there’s too much good to get lost in the shuffle.
The future of the USMNT is bright. Some such phrase about how dark it is before the dawn. 2018 was a low point for the national team, but the next wave of talent is on the rise – in Germany. In a story published by the Bundesliga on August 22, players were selected at each of the 11 positions to watch as “Wonderkids” in 2018-19. Of the players listed, four were American. Joining Pulisic and McKennie are 18-year-old Josh Sargent of Werder Bremen and 21-year-old Jonathan Klinsmann of Hertha Berlin, who is indeed the son of the former German, Bayern and USMNT boss, Jurgen.
Pulisic may be on the move in the near future, but he’s currently not alone at Dortmund as the team also boasts American midfielder Thomas Delaney and is reportedly set to sign USMNT U17 midfielder Giovanni Reyna when he turns 16 in November. Reyna is son of former USMNT player Claudio Reyna.
With each passing season, the connection between American and German soccer seems to grow on the pitch. Hopefully, it will grow off the pitch.
More than ever, Americans love soccer. It’s time that they start loving the Bundesliga, too.
by Daniel Coughlin