As it fights to join the world's elite, the U.S. has embarked on a global search for dual-passport foreign players who could make a difference for the red, white and blue
Jermaine Jones's English is a work in progress, which makes sense for a soccer player who has lived nearly all his life in Germany. But his message came through loud and clear after the U.S.'s humbling 4--0 loss to Spain in a friendly in Foxborough, Mass., last Saturday. When Jones switched his national-team allegiance from Germany to the U.S. in 2009, he saw a chance to revive his international career and play in games against top teams such as the reigning World Cup champions. "It's not nice to lose today, but I want to play for America," said the 29-year-old midfielder, whose father was a U.S. serviceman. "It's nice to be with the boys again, and the games we need to win come now in the Gold Cup."
The most important U.S. men's game of 2011 might take place on June 25 in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, potentially against archrival Mexico. And the most intriguing trend of the new World Cup cycle is the addition of Jones and several other dual-passport holders to the U.S. team pool. Colombian-born forward Juan Agudelo, just 18, started against Spain last week (his fifth U.S. cap), and in a March friendly against Paraguay the U.S. had three players in the game whose first language is German: Jones, 21-year-old right back Timmy Chandler and 29-year-old goalkeeper David Yelldell. "Off the field there's a lot of German being spoken," said U.S. star Landon Donovan, who knows the language himself thanks to several stints in the Bundesliga. "Our job is to make sure they integrate on the field."
Enlisting foreign-born players with U.S. passports is hardly a new phenomenon; U.S. World Cup teams in the 1990s featured German-born Thomas Dooley, Dutch-born Earnie Stewart and French-born David Régis, among others. But two recent changes have increased the volume of dual-passport players. In '09, FIFA eliminated the age limit of 21 for players requesting a one-time switch of federations after having participated in official competitive youth matches for one country. That opened the door for Jones and Canadian-born forward Teal Bunbury, age 21, to join the U.S. pool. And now, U.S. Soccer is more active than ever in searching for players around the globe who are eligible for U.S. passports.
If there's a case study in those efforts it's Mikkel (Mix) Diskerud, a 20-year-old midfielder with the Norwegian club Stab√¶k. In January 2008, Diskerud was playing in an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-20 team in Guadalajara. His Stab√¶k coach told then U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen that Diskerud had dual U.S.--Norwegian citizenship—his mother is from Arizona—and Rongen asked Diskerud after the game if he'd be interested in attending a U.S. U-20 camp. Diskerud said yes, had three assists in his first start for the U.S. youth team and eventually chose to play for the Stars & Stripes instead of Norway. (He made his U.S. senior debut last November against South Africa and had an assist on Agudelo's goal in a 1--0 win.) "Born in Norway, baptized in Phoenix," Diskerud describes himself, adding that he feels equally Norwegian and American. "I'm a mix," he says with a sly smile.
The cosmic serendipity of Diskerud's discovery—a Norwegian with a U.S. passport in Mexico?—caused Rongen to wonder: How many players with Yank passports could the U.S. find abroad if the federation applied more resources to it? In late 2009 Rongen received permission from U.S. Soccer to create a budget to travel to Mexico and Europe and enhance the U.S.'s connections. Using a network that includes coaches and foreign clubs with ties to U.S. players, Rongen's crew built a sizable pool. "Along the way we discovered probably 500 players as young as 12 and as old as the Olympic [under-23] age group," says Rongen.
Those prospects include Fabian H√ºrzeler, 18, a German-American midfielder for Bayern Munich's reserve team who has captained German youth squads; Alex Zahavi, 20, a Portuguese-Israeli-American midfielder whose rights are owned by Maccabi Haifa; Conor Doyle, 19, an Irish-American forward for England's Derby County; and Moisés Orozco, 19, a Mexican-American midfielder with Mexico's Tigres.
Several caveats come with those discoveries, however. For starters, not all of the players have committed to the U.S. While Doyle and Orozco joined the U.S. at the recent qualifying tournament for the Under-20 World Cup, they can still switch loyalties. (The team surprisingly failed to punch a ticket for Colombia '11; Rongen was fired as U-20 coach but remains under contract with U.S. Soccer.) And Rongen's list of 500 prospects with U.S. passports becomes less useful at the younger end of the age range, where it's harder to forecast a player's developmental future.
Nor is owning a U.S. passport a ticket to the national team. "If we have [foreign-based] players who are in youth professional setups [and] have American passports, we should obviously monitor them and bring them in," says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "If they're better than the players we have here, that's great. But the fact that we have a player who is abroad in and of itself doesn't mean anything. It's about, Are you good enough?"
At least one player from Rongen's list is already causing excitement on the U.S. senior team: Chandler, a dynamic right back and midfielder who burst onto the first team at Nuremberg in the Bundesliga during the second half of the season. The son of a German mother and a U.S. serviceman, Chandler debuted for the U.S. in March with solid performances against Argentina and Paraguay. "I always wanted to play in the Bundesliga, and having my first [senior national team] game against Argentina is like a dream," Chandler said, adding that his less-than-enjoyable experience on German youth squads had steered him toward the U.S.
Chandler was expected to be on the U.S. Gold Cup team this month, which would have tied him for good to the Stars & Stripes. (Once a player appears in a senior game in a FIFA or confederation tournament, he cannot change his allegiance.) But Chandler was a last-minute scratch from the roster, and even though U.S. coach Bob Bradley and Chandler's agent cited Nuremberg's concern about off-season rest and small injuries, angst-ridden U.S. fans couldn't help but wonder if they might lose Chandler because of renewed interest from his home country. "The experience we've had with Timmy thus far has been incredibly positive," maintains Bradley. "From the second he moved to the first team at Nuremberg, we were right on top of it. He tells us he's very excited about playing for the U.S."
When a player owns more than one passport and is in demand by more than one national team, the choice can come down to a number of factors: Where's his best chance to play? How much travel is involved? Which national team most enhances his market value? To which country does he feel closest? In recent years the U.S. has won some of those battles and lost some. The losses include Giuseppe Rossi, 24, who grew up in Teaneck, N.J., moved to Italy to train at 12 and is now one of the best-regarded young strikers in Europe, a star with Spain's Villarreal and the Italian national team. Another miss was Neven Subotic, 22, a defender for Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund who played for the U.S. U-17 team before settling on Serbia, for which he played in the 2010 World Cup. (He was also eligible to play for Bosnia.)
The U.S. won in the recent case of José Torres, a Mexican-American midfielder who started for the Yanks in the World Cup against Slovenia and in several other instances. Three decades after the first U.S. youth soccer boom, in fact, it's revealing how many players in the national-team pool are still first- or second-generation Americans who'd be eligible to play for other countries. "The U.S. has done a lot for me and my family, and I live here," says Agudelo, who moved to New Jersey from Colombia at age eight and became a U.S. citizen a year later. "My dad wanted me to play for Colombia, but he understands my situation."
Whether you're 18 (like Agudelo) or 29 (like Jones), the U.S. appears to be more than ever a land of opportunity in international soccer. The challenge for Bradley and his staff is to channel E.M. Forster—"Only connect"—and cast a global net for emerging talents with the golden ticket: a blue Uncle Sam passport.
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Of the 60 players in the 2011 U.S. men's pool, at least 34, representing 20 countries, are first- or second-generation Americans or otherwise hold foreign passports. Even star midfielder Landon Donovan, whose father is from Canada, could have suited up for a rival early in his career.
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The U.S. serviceman's son looked sharp in two matches for the Yanks in March but declined a Gold Cup call-up. Uh-oh?
His dad wanted him to play for his native Colombia, but the 18-year-old chose the U.S. and has two goals in five games.
The Ghanaian-born onetime phenom was a surprise choice for the '11 Gold Cup squad and is looking to revive his U.S. career.
This month's Gold Cup competition is critical to U.S. long-term plans. Can the Yanks assert their regional authority?
The CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean, kicked off in the U.S. last weekend and runs through June 25. While the tournament takes place every two years, this Gold Cup comes with a perk: The winner earns a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup, an important dress rehearsal in Brazil for the World Cup that follows in 2014. "The Gold Cups that determine who represents CONCACAF [in the Confederations Cup] are extra important," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "We knew it in 2007 [when the U.S. won the Gold Cup], and we feel the same way now."
Here are five things to watch for in this year's Gold Cup
1 | Will the U.S. and Mexico set up a big-game final in the Rose Bowl?
If the continent's two heavyweights reach the final, it would be the most anticipated soccer game of 2011 in this part of the world. The bitter rivals have split the last two finals—the U.S. won 2--1 in 2007, while Mexico blew out an American B squad 5--0 in '09—and both teams will be at full strength. The Yanks have dominated the rivalry on U.S. soil recently, but the sold-out Rose Bowl would be decidedly in favor of El Tri. Anything less than a trophy will not be acceptable to either side, and that's just one of the things that makes this rivalry great.
2 | Can Mexico's Javier (Chicharito) Hernàndez bring his Manchester United form to North America?
The 23-year-old forward was perhaps the biggest revelation of European soccer this season, his first abroad, scoring 20 goals in all competitions for United and becoming one of the most popular North American athletes in the world. If his form carries over through June—and Chicharito had a hat trick in El Tri's 5--0 win over El Salvador on Sunday—look out, U.S. "His movement, his timing are really good," says Bradley. "It was a great signing for Man United. We're always hoping that our players can continue to grow in these ways too." Which brings us to....
3 | Can the U.S. forwards turn things around?
Hernàndez's meteoric rise has raised questions about why U.S. forwards have had such a disappointing scoring record in Europe. In particular, first-choice striker Jozy Altidore, now 21, has struggled in his three seasons in Europe and is in danger of dropping down the U.S. depth chart. "Jozy has played pretty well for our national team," says Bradley. "Now he's got to find a club situation where people see the talent and feel like this is a player who can help. He needs to find a way where he's on the field and developing consistency." With Altidore languishing and fellow Gold Cup strikers Juan Agudelo and Chris Wondolowski unproven (just seven caps between them), the U.S. will continue to rely on midfielders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan for goals.
4 | Any chance for a dark horse?
There's a big gap between the region's two standouts and the rest of the pack, but the U.S. and Mexico won't simply walk into the final. The best bets to upset expectations are Costa Rica, led by prolific forward Bryan Ruiz (who sat out the Ticos' 5--0 opening win against Cuba with a slight calf injury), and a rejuvenated Canada with MLS vet Dwayne De Rosario.
5 | Is CONCACAF on the verge of disintegration?
As it prepared to host its showpiece event, the federation was in turmoil, with the Caribbean islands in a power struggle with the rest of the region. On June 1, CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer of the U.S. reported his longtime ally, confederation president Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago, to FIFA on charges that he assisted Qatar's Mohamed bin Hammam in bribing Caribbean officials to vote for Bin Hammam in the recent FIFA presidential election. Warner and Bin Hammam denied the allegations but were suspended, whereupon Warner's CONCACAF replacement, interim president Lisle Austin of Barbados, announced that he had relieved Blazer of his duties. The CONCACAF executive committee, of which Blazer is a member, responded by saying Austin was unauthorized to dismiss Blazer and suspended Austin, leaving CONCACAF in the hands of acting president Alfredo Hawit of Honduras. The entire affair has been farcical, and as the tournament began it appeared CONCACAF might break in two, with the North and Central American countries on one side and the Caribbean nations on the other. Fans could only hope the action on the field would rescue the game once again from its leaders.
Photograph by DAMIAN STROHMEYER
LOSS IN TRANSLATION Jones, who played in three friendlies for Germany before switching to the U.S. in 2009, got a good sense of how far his new team had to go after a 4--0 thrashing by Spain.
ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES (CHANDLER)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (AGUDELO)
ANDY MEAD/YCJ/ICON SMI (ADU)