It was a special week for American teenage wingers, and the kind of week that should have Gregg Berhalter excited about the possibilities.
Gio Reyna and Indiana Vassilev made league debuts in two of the world’s biggest leagues, and both are younger than 19. Ulysses Llanez is still waiting for a first-team debut, but the 18-year-old spending this month taking part in U.S. Men’s National Team camp. He was joined there by fellow teenager Cameron Harper, who caught Berhalter’s attention in a recent Under-20 friendly.
Dangerous wingers are a sorely-needed resource to help Berhalter’s preferred system work, and while Christian Pulisic gives the USMNT a world-class threat on the flank, the overall depth on the wings has been an issue for some time, really since the days when Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey were deployed in wide roles.
Richie Ledezma isn’t a winger, but the PSV midfielder is another American midfielder coming off an impressive week, riding the momentum he has enjoyed since his impressive showing at the Under-20 World Cup. He has been under the radar a bit because he has been playing regularly for Jong PSV in the Dutch second division, but he stands a very good chance of being the next American to make his European first-team debut given his recent form.
Not all the big news in American soccer this weekend was about Americans. Chicharito Hernandez’s move to the LA Galaxy is reportedly complete, marking the most high-profile signing of the winter in MLS, and giving the Galaxy their replacement for Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Chicharito’s arrival will provide a much-needed boost to a league that lost several big stars this winter, but hasn’t quite landed the marquee names of year’s past this winter. At least not yet.
Here is a closer look at some of the weekend’s biggest storylines across American soccer:
Teenager wingers rising
Gio Reyna (17) became the fifth-youngest player to ever play in the German Bundesliga, and youngest American. Indiana Vassilev (18) became the second-youngest American to ever play in the English Premier League.
Both wingers had enjoyed good runs of form to reach this point. Reyna dazzled in Dortmund’s winter break training camp, precipitating his move to the first team. BVB boss Lucien Favre showed that he is a believer by inserting the teenager into a tightly-contested match, with Dortmund leading Augsburg 4-3 after a ferocious comeback.
Reyna did his part to help set up Dortmund’s final goal, and impressed his manager with his performance. He will now focus on the difficult task of earning consistent minutes in a stacked Dortmund midfield.
Vassilev had also been impressing in the weeks and months leading up to his league debut, earning a pair of cup appearances after the new year, and his run culminated in his appearance in Aston Villa’s 1-1 draw with Brighton, Villa manager Dean Smith calling on Vassilev in the 67th minute with the Villans trailing 1-0. Vassilev’s energy helped Aston Villa rally for a draw, with Vassilev becoming the second-youngest American to ever play in the English Premier League (second only to Jonathan Spector, who made his debut as an 18-year-old with Manchester United).
In Spain, Konrad De La Fuente continued his goal-scoring ways for Barcelona’s youth side. The U.S. Under-20 national team midfielder has been the subject of transfer rumors as Barcelona attempts to re-sign him before his current contract expires. The 18-year-old has been linked to Jurgen Klinsmann’s Hertha Berlin, and is reportedly considering a move away from Barcelona in an effort to start earning first-team minutes more quickly.
The good week enjoyed by teenage American wingers wasn’t confined to Europe. Over in Florida, Cameron Harper played well in the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team’s recently friendly against Mexico. The 18-year-old Celtic winger played so well, in fact, that Berhalter called him into to train with the USMNT the next day. Harper held his own, flashing the tenacity and attacking quality that makes him a name to remember.
Berhalter clearly liked what he saw from Harper, bringimg the Celtic winger to train with the first team a day later. The two had a long chat after training today: pic.twitter.com/a3yxy8a3E2
— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) January 17, 2020
Harper wasn’t the only teenage winger in USMNT Camp. Ulysses Llanez has looked sharp in camp since being a surprise call-up, with the 18-year-old impressing Berhalter.
“He’s grown since this camp started, Berhalter said of Llanez. “We like his tenacity and he’s able to create and try to win the ball back defensively.”
That quintet of teenage wingers should have Berhalter excited about the future of the USMNT wide positions, and if those youngsters can build on weeks like the past one, it could eventually allow Berhalter to shift Christian Pulisic into a central role.
Berhalter on dual nationals: USMNT environment matters
U.S. Soccer’s successful landing of Sergino Dest has created a much more positive vibe around the USMNT’s ability to keep dual nationals in the U.S. setup, and while Gregg Behalter isn’t about to go full-blown recruiter mode, he does believe in the importance of setting the tone for a program that can attract and keep players.
“We want to create and environment that players want to be in,” Berhalter said. “When it comes to dual nationals, they have to choose with their heart what country is going to give them the best opportunity. Sometimes it’s going be us and sometimes it’s going to be someone else.”
Berhalter’s comments came after he was asked about Uly Llanez, who is a dual national and earned a surprising USMNT call-up that could also be seen as an attempt to keep him close to the program.
Ultimately, familiarity with the various national team programs helps build bonds among players, and make it easier to keep dual nationals from straying and moving to other national teams, like Jonathan Gonzalez did when he switched to play for Mexico.
“You have to remember with Sergino, everyone talks about myself and Earnie [Stewart] going over there to see him, but he was a part of our U-17 and U-20 Men’s National Teams,” Berhalter said. “They laid the groundwork for that decision. Earnie has been a part of youth national teams as well. If we can create a good environment for these players, then you’re going to see these players stick around.”
Berhalter’s comments come at a time when the USMNT and U.S. Under-20s are both holding camps in Florida, and between the two teams there are a more than half-dozen players who are dual nationals. Players who are currently eligible to play for the United States and Mexico have a very good chance of making up a sizable portion of the USMNT in the coming years, and moves like calling in players like Llanez and Julian Araujo could help plant some root that keep players with national team options from switching sides.
Chicharito gives MLS another star, but void remains
There is no disputing just how big the impending arrival of Javier Hernandez to MLS will be, but the LA Galaxy’s signing of Chicharito isn’t nearly enough to fill the void that still remains in the league’s overall superstar stable.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic left to AC Milan, Wayne Rooney moved on to Derby County and Bastian Schweinsteiger retired. That trio of departures cost the league three of its most high-profile players.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been many high-profile arrivals in MLS this winter, at least not yet. Alan Pulido’s signing by Sporting Kansas City was certainly a major pick-up, but in terms of signings worthy of global headlines, MLS has had a quiet winter.
Will that change before the season starts? There are certainly enough teams that still have major needs and resources to attract international stars, but those hoping for more Zlatan-like signings are likely to be left waiting, potentially until the summer.