In a turbulent year for US Soccer, Christian Pulisic’s rise at Borussia Dortmund emerged as a positive. Not since John O’Brien at Ajax and Jonathan Spector at Manchester United had a US player charted a similar development path. Like O’Brien and Spector, Pulisic earned his first US cap in the same year as his professional breakthrough. However, in the global context, this path is atypical. It’s more common that a player debuts professionally with a team in his home country and then transfers abroad.
For an American player, that means playing in MLS and then heading abroad. Where can a player with national team aspirations reasonably expect to go?
It’s important to remember that “Europe” is a misnomer. A transfer to Europe could mean many different things, defined mostly by the strength of the club. The landscape is not stagnant: analyzing the past 25+ years of the top clubs in Europe show that the best have gotten better.
Below are the ClubELO scores from 1990 through 2016 for European clubs of various strength. I’ve included the clubs ranked 1, 5, 10, 25, 50, 75, and 100 to illustrate the shifting relative strength of top teams.
In the 1990s, Italian clubs ruled the continent, with AC Milan, Juventus, and Lazio all holding the top spot (Ajax the lone outlier in 1995.) In the early 2000s, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Valencia, and Chelsea all spent time as the best club in Europe. From 2006 through today, only Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich have ranked first; those last three were among the strongest teams in history.
Once we descend from the top 10, club strength looks more consistent.
The 25th best team in Europe usually has an ELO score around 1750, the 50th best team at 1700, the 75th best team is about 1650, and the 100th best team hovers around 1600 to 1625.
This stability means we can look at the transfers of US players from MLS to Europe over time. The balance of power across the clubs and leagues might shift, but using an ELO score to determine the strength of a club translates well through the years.
Of course, we don’t want our national team players to simply join a strong team, we want them playing. Below are the transfers of US national team players from MLS to a European club. The ELO score of the club at the time of the transfer is on the Y-axis. The circle size indicates the percent of potential minutes played by the player in his first season. I’ve only included players who made a World Cup roster, as well as a few in the mix for 2018. I’ve also kept this analysis to full transfers, so loans (like Ben Olsen to Nottingham Forest or Landon Donovan to Bayern Munich) are not included.
Transfer activity from MLS picked-up after the 2002 World Cup. Though Eddie Lewis led the way, Fulhamerica began in earnest with Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride joining Fulham from Chicago and Columbus, respectively. The mid-2000s featured the most activity following the traditional development path. Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Brad Guzan, Maurice Edu, Eddie Johnson, and Clarence Goodson all headed abroad, most of whom would make the 2010 World Cup roster.
The landing place for US players coming from MLS appears to be at clubs in the 1600 to 1700 ELO range. However, many players saw limited playing time in their first season. From a national team perspective, it is advantageous if a move occurs at the start of a World Cup cycle. Bradley, Dempsey, and Edu would eventually earn more time abroad, while it took Guzan and Altidore longer to find consistent playing time.
It’s also notable that there are fewer overall transfers from MLS to Europe. There are a variety of reasons driving this change. First, MLS introduced retention funds and Targeted Allocation Money, keeping national team players like Graham Zusi and Matt Besler in the league. Second, Liga MX is an increasingly attractive destination for US players. Omar Gonzalez joined Pachuca at the end of 2015, and players like Michael Orozco and Jonathan Bornstein have played in both leagues. Third, youth players continue to join youth academies abroad in hopes of emulating Pulisic. For example, the 2015 U20 World Cup team featured players with teams in nine different countries.
Looking at the three most recent transfers from MLS to European clubs demonstrates the value of landing in the right situation at the right time. DeAndre Yedlin played once for Tottenham before gaining regular playing time at Sunderland and Newcastle. Matt Miazga transferred to one of the highest-rated clubs in Chelsea, but played just two games before a loan deal to Vitesse this season. Perry Kitchen joined one of the lowest-rated teams in Hearts, but quickly became a regular starter and captain. Hopefully Nelson Rodriguez is advising players to look past the club name, and seek the best development opportunity