How the Bundesliga will provide the backbone to the USA’s 2026 World Cup team
FIFA has announced that the United States, Mexico and Canada will host the World Cup in 2026, and if the USA are likely to impress in front of – mostly – their own fans, it’s thanks in no small part to the Bundesliga bedrock upon which the team will be built…
The USMNT narrowly missed out on reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but by far their best player throughout qualifying was Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder Christian Pulisic, who grabbed seven goals and four assists in just 13 outings. At 19 years of age, the Hershey native has already found himself carrying the hopes and expectations of an entire nation on his shoulders.
“It sucks for Christian because he was involved in 12 out of 17 goals in qualifying,” said Pulisic’s off-pitch friend and on-pitch foe Weston McKennie – who plays just up the road at Dortmund’s great rivals Schalke – to Sports Illustrated. “He’s 19 and having to put a team full of experienced players on his back and carry them, and it’s going to suck now because his name is forever associated with the team that didn’t qualify.”
By the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around, Pulisic will be 27, at the top of his game. No great leap of imagination is required to predict that he will be the USA’s star man, given that he has already established himself as the most talented player of his generation before the age of 20.
McKennie is not far behind. The 19-year-old central midfielder also turned down the opportunity to develop on home soil by opting for an ambitious switch to Schalke’s famed Knappenschmiede youth academy, which has produced World Cup winners such as Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil and Julian Draxler.
“I made the right decision and I don’t regret it at all,” McKennie explained. “It wasn’t easy for me to let go of FC Dallas. But you’ve got to think, will I look back in 10 years and wish I could’ve gone over to Europe? I feel like if you can make it there, you can come back over here and play at a high level. But if as a kid you go into MLS and then try to come over to Europe, you might not be ready.”
Watch: Weston McKennie, Schalke’s wonderkid
If Pulisic and McKennie are the standard-bearers for the next generation of American talents thriving in the Bundesliga, then Werder Bremen‘s Josh Sargent is part of the advancing rearguard. The 18-year-old striker is set to get his chance in Florian Kohfeldt’s first-team squad next season, with the Green-Whites coach admitting that he is ready to “kick on”. Given his prolific scoring record at youth level, he could well be one to watch – especially after netting on his senior debut for the USA, like McKennie before him.
“Obviously when you move up from youth level to the men’s national team, it’s a big step,” Sargent said, after becoming the fifth-youngest goalscorer in US history against Bolivia. “But I definitely think I can hang in there and compete. Now I’m just looking forward to next season.”
The Bundesliga’s love affair with the US national team can be traced back to Jürgen Klinsmann‘s time in charge of the Stars and Stripes, between 2011 and 2016. The VfB Stuttgart and Bayern Munich legend – credited with starting the revolution that led to Germany being crowned world champions in 2014 – also shook things up on the other side of the pond during his largely successful five-year stint.
Relying on players with dual German and American nationality such as Jermaine Jones and John Brooks, Klinsmann guided the USA to the knockout stages of the 2014 World Cup. Having played a vital role in overhauling Germany’s creaking youth academies in the early 2000s, he was perfectly aware of the opportunities afforded to talented youngsters in the Bundesliga, and was able to pass that on to his American charges. Unearthing a diamond like Pulisic was also an excellent way to get his message across.
“I think it’s rare in America to be developed at such an early age,” Klinsmann told FIFA.com, when asked if Pulisic was the ‘American Messi’. “But in Europe if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Christian’s potential is limitless. He’s a great example to other young players about how to go for it – to play at the highest level and prove yourself.”
That’s why, even after Klinsmann’s exit from the national setup, American youngsters still see the Bundesliga as the perfect place to hone their craft. The one snag is that fully fledged American citizens have to wait until they turn 18 to join Bundesliga clubs, unlike their German-born counterparts. Pulisic credits his Croatian passport – which allowed him to come to Dortmund at 16 – as one of the most important factors in his precocious development.
“As a result of my dual citizenship, I’ve been able to play in Europe, training at the Dortmund academy, since I was 16,” the BVB man wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “And for a soccer player … man, ask anyone and they’ll tell you — those age 16-18 years are everything. From a developmental perspective, it’s almost like this sweet spot: It’s the age where a player’s growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way — and where, with the right direction, a player can make their biggest leap in development by far.”
That gives players of dual German-American nationality a considerable advantage over the rest, which is why rising stars such as Bayern’s Timothy Tillman and Augsburg‘s Maurice Malone have been linked with the USA national team. Dortmund’s Jeremy Toljan would also be eligible to represent his father’s country of birth, despite winning the UEFA U21 Euro title with Germany last summer.
Whatever the future has in store for the US national team, the Stars and Stripes will no doubt continue to rely on their special relationship with the Bundesliga as they look to extend their sporting dominance to the world of soccer. In Pulisic they trust, after all.