No fewer than seven US soccer stars featured in the knockout rounds of the 2020/2021 UEFA Champions League. Two even made it all the way to the final, with Christian Pulisic becoming only the second American to win a Champions League title. On the eve of the Concacaf Gold Cup, we sat down with US Club Soccer CEO, Kevin Payne, to find out what is behind the rise of US soccer players, and what it means for the USMNT and the MLS.

Breakthrough in Europe

With as many as 15 American stars now playing in Europe’s “Top 5” Leagues in Europe, this is somewhat of a phenomenon. Europe’s top leagues are no strangers to US national team stars, but the current crop seems to be a step above the vintage of Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Brian McBride and Clinton Dempsey. What is the driving force behind this unprecedented recent success in developing elite level soccer players?

First of all, I’m not sure I agree with the premise that the young players today are a step above Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Brian McBride, or Clint Dempsey.  They have yet to prove themselves over time, so let’s see after a little more time, and certainly after qualifying.  I do believe the overall football environment in the US has matured substantially – the sport is far more a part of the culture, it’s more valued, it’s more omnipresent, the development environment has improved, everything impacting the young player is better.  We’re not yet Argentina or Brazil, but we’re making progress.

Europe has been the destination of choice for footballers for a long time now, – particularly amongst young South American players. Now we are finally seeing a consistent stream of North American talent coming into some of Europe’s finest teams too. How important is that move to Europe in the development of these players?

It’s very important.  No one is prouder of the development of MLS than I am, but the experience in Europe – under the right circumstances – is more demanding and more necessary to move into the upper echelon of nations on the men’s side.

Several players, including the likes of Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams and Weston Mckennie – are not just competing for domestic honours in Europe, they’re at the sharp end of the UEFA Champions League too. Why are we seeing more American players make the grade at the highest level of European football? 

I truly believe in the past young American players with real talent were to some extent shunted into supporting roles.  I always believed that of Claudio Reyna, for instance, who was both physically gifted and technically very sound.  I think he was capable of more responsibility that he was given.  I think Christian really opened people’s eyes, and I give Dortmund and the German clubs generally a lot of credit for trusting young players, no matter from where, when they show they deserve a chance.

The Bundesliga is a popular destination for many prospects, presumably a result of the strategic partnerships being set up between German outfits and MLS teams. How beneficial are these partnerships and what makes the Bundesliga such a popular choice?

As I said, the real key is the Bundesliga clubs have been far better about trusting young players – Americans or otherwise – with real responsibility on the field.  That’s what players need to mature and reach their potential.  We’ll see what the value of the partnerships will be – I had several such partnerships when I was at DC United, and they ultimately didn’t create too much value on the technical side.  Maybe these will be different.

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Is the MLS suffering because of this talent drain towards Europe, or is it seen as a necessary evil?

This is an issue at some level for virtually every league and club in the world.  There are a few clubs at the top of the food chain – Madrid, Barca, Man United, Man City are examples – and every other club and league at some level is a seller.  I always argued when I was on the MLS Board that we shouldn’t overly focus on players moving abroad, but should instead focus on making our league the best it can be.

Christian Pulisic has been outspoken about the limited playing time for young players in the MLS as a key reason behind his desire to move on. Has that sparked a different approach to the way young stars are treated in the MLS?

I don’t know whether the approach is different on a league wide basis, though I definitely agree with Christian’s questions about the difficulty for young players seeking significant playing time and responsibility in MLS.  Certain clubs, such as the Philadelphia Union, FC Dallas, and Red Bull NY, have done a much better job in this area, both in terms of the quality of their Academies and their willingness to give real opportunities to players.  Not surprisingly, they’ve also been among the leaders in transfer fees earned to make their Academy sustainable in the long term.  Done right, it can be a virtuous circle and not a vicious cycle.

America's Rising Stars

Youth Soccer in America

What has been the reason that the development programs like id2 have had so much success identifying some of the best youth soccer talent in the United States, and what are the differentiating factors compared to other development programs?

ID2, which US Club Soccer began, is different from the USDA and the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program.  The USDA was a national league system, with roughly 170 programs on the men’s and women’s sides.  While it was ultimately closed down, it really served its purpose by changing the overall training environment for players.  The USYSA ODP program began as a good idea many years ago, but over time became a huge revenue generator because of its pay to play component.

When I was chair of the US Soccer Technical committee, the program had 80,000 participants!  I remember telling them, if you have 80,000 kids good enough to be on a National Team ID track, then we have no problems.  But of course, that wasn’t the case.  ID2 is a more focused program, and is free to all participants.  It addresses the age group immediately before the first full National Team on the boys and girls sides.

Players who were identified at least in part through that program include Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and in particular Christian Pulisic, who was playing for a relatively small club at the time.  He was very small at 13 but was so good on our ID2 trip to Spain that he was offered a contract on the sidelines after the match against Barcelona!  Thank goodness his father was there to deal with that.

America's Rising Stars

A common theme that comes up when discussing soccer in the USA is that it is a sport for the privileged, affluent children in the suburbs, with many kids from deprived, inner-city communities priced out due to the pay-to-play structure. What is being done to ensure that the kids playing soccer in America truly reflect the nation’s diversity?

There is a lot of truth, unfortunately, to the notion that the majority of kids playing in organized US Soccer leagues come from that sort of suburban, relatively affluent background.  There’s nothing that says those players can’t be successful – many of the young players we’re speaking about in this conversation come from that background.  But we do need to do a far better job of embracing our immigrant populations – especially Hispanic – and bringing the game into the inner city.

The US Soccer Foundation, of which I am proud to be the Vice Chair, is doing exactly that.  Our Soccer for Success program has introduced the game to nearly 200,000 players living in underserved communities.  Our Safe Places to Play program, which builds small sided courts in urban environments, has built over 350 courts to date, with commitments for another 200 plus, and a goal of building 1000 in all.  We will hit that goal.

America's Rising Stars

The USMNT and the Future

It’s hard to look at this current generation and not get excited about their future prospects on the international stage. How far do you think they can take the USMNT? Is a win on home soil in 2026 a realistic possibility?

While we are excited about this men’s group, and think the future is bright, its also important to remain realistic so we don’t become discouraged if we fail to achieve unrealistic goals.  Only 8 countries have won the World Cup, and only 6 since 1990, in what I would consider the modern era of soccer.  The US should always aim to get out of its group and into the knockout stages, and after that anything can happen.  We should be quite strong in 2026 with a number of players playing their second World Cup, and in their prime.

Which American stars should we be looking out for on the global stage in the next few years?

I’m excited about many of the young players on the National Team right now.  Obviously, Christian and Weston are already established with major clubs, as is Sergiño Dest.  Gio Reyna has some very special qualities, and I believe Josh Sargent could become a reliable goal scorer at top level.  I think Tyler Adams will grow to become a top-level mid-fielder with a world class engine. One player I am looking forward to watching is Brendan Aaronson, who I think has that special creative quality that only the best midfielders have.  All in all, it’s a fun time to be a fan of the US Men’s National Team.  Oh, and by the way, our women are still pretty good, as well!