Americans abroad analysis

Teen debuts, goalazos, and big wins highlight banner weekend for Yanks in Europe

It was a remarkable weekend for many different reasons and  one that should have American fans looking forward to the rest of the European season with optimism. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta reports.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 18, 2020
10:55 PM
IF YOU RECALL, December was a rather terrible month for Americans abroad. During that time, many k players were either injured, struggling on the field, or even benched. The end of the year and the end of the decade were limping to a rather dismal ending.

But in soccer, things can and often do change very quickly. The start of 2020 has been terrific for young Americans as many players have either used their leagues’ winter breaks to improve their standing within their teams or they have used the congested holiday schedules to find opportunities and seize the moments.

Last weekend was indeed a good one for American players but it pales in comparison to what took place on Saturday.

Reyna makes Dortmund debut

It had been rather obvious that a Bundesliga debut for Giovanni Reyna was coming. The son of the former U.S. captain performed well for Borussia Dortmund’s U-19 team in the first half of the season and enjoyed an exceptionally strong winter break camp over the past few weeks. When the team returned, it was announced that Reyna was going to be incorporated into the club’s first team.

In the Borussia Dortmund’s first game of 2020, it visited midtable Augsburg and Reyna was named to the bench.

The game was actually tougher than expected for Dortmund which trailed Augsburg 3-1 in the 55th minute. The game changed the next minute when Norwegian teenager forward Erling Haland came into the game for his club debut. After scoring goals in droves for Red Bull Salzburg, Haland had a sensational first appearance for Dortmund where he registered a hat tick over a 20-mintue span.

Gio Reyna, 17, came into the game in the 72nd minute for his first-team debut. It was an anticipated moment for Reyna who was confident in his few moments on the field. He made 15 touches, attempted a shot, and had a successful dribble. But more than that, he is at a club that clearly believes in him and is willing to bring him along.

But what is also remarkable about Reyna is that he is only 66 days past his 17th birthday. With his appearance, he became the youngest American to ever play in Germany’s top flight.

As for his status with the U.S. team, Reyna could conceivably play a role in three different U.S. teams right now. He is eligible for the current U-20 team which will attempt to qualify for the 2021 U-20 World Cup this summer. He is eligible for the U-23 team which will attempt to qualify for the Olympics this summer (and he is also age-eligible for the 2024 U-23 Olympic team as well) and he is, of course, eligible for the full national team. His most recent appearance was with the U-17 team at the 2019 World Cup where it struggled, scored just one goal, and was eliminated in the group stage.

Predicting where Reyna will end up comes down to how U.S. Soccer rates him and what teams Dortmund is willing to provide a release.

My prediction is that Reyna plays with the full national team in March for his debut. Gregg Berhalter has said that he is one of the young American players he is watching. If the U-23 team qualifies for the Olympics this summer, it wouldn’t be surprising to see if U.S. Soccer seeks his release from Dortmund to play in Tokyo. There are a lot of moving parts and anything can happen, but there is clearly a lot of opportunities for Reyna to play for the United States at different levels.

Vassilev makes Premier League debut

Reyna was not the only young American to make a significant league debut on Saturday. With Aston Villa trailing Brighton and Hove Albion in the 67th minute, head coach Dean Smith turned to young American attacker Indiana Vassilev to help turn the tide.

Vassilev has recently made a pair of cup appearances for Villa but it was hard to see how the club rated him because its main focus was on the Premier League where it is stuck in a intense relegation fight. But in a big game against fellow relegation battlers Brighton, Vassilev was the first substitute brought on with his club trailing. That was a rather significant statement made by Smith.

When Vassilev stepped on the field, he became the second youngest American player to play in the Premier League behind Jonathan Spector. The son and grandson of former Bulgarian professional players, Vassilev will turn 19 in February.

On the field, Vassilev did not touch the ball much (seven touches in 23 minutes) but he was active making dangerous runs and pressing Brighton. Aston Villa ended up finding an equalizer. Despite the point, Villa is still in the relegation zone at 18th place but is just one point from Watford and West Ham for 16th and 17th place and the last safe spots in the league.

Vassilev’s rise might have caught some by surprise although when paying closer attention to his youth performances, it shouldn’t have. He’s been remarkably steady over recent years and it is clear the club rates him. If the club continues to turn to him in the critical games down the stretch, it will be telling. It is true that the club has been dealing with injuries, but the Savanah, GA native is seen as part of the future.

Like Reyna, it will be interesting to see where Vassilev fits into the mix with U.S. Soccer as he is eligible for the 2021 U-20 team, the 2020 U-23 team, the 2024 U-23 team, and the full national team. His most recent appearance was with the U-20 team for a camp in September. The likely bet is to think he will remain with that team for this summer’s U-20 World Cup qualifying.

Of course, if he continues to get minutes for Villa and performs well, things can change although taking a leadership role within the U-20 team is a very good opportunity.

Adams strong for Bundesliga leaders

After returning from injury just before the start of the winter break, Tyler Adams earned the start for Bundesliga leading RB Leipzig at home against Union Berlin. Unlike the previous game where he started at right back, Adams returned to his natural defensive midfield position for the first time all season.

The former New York Red Bull had an outstanding game and looked like his former self where he made few mistakes, was a defensive presence in the middle of the field and broke up numerous chances, and completed a huge percentage of his passes.

With the win, RB Leipzig continue to cruise at the top of the Bundesliga table with a five point cushion on second place Borussia Monchengladbach and a six point lead over third place Bayern Munich. With each week, the odds are increasing we could have an American start for a champion of one of Europe’s biggest leagues.

It is safe to say Adams is back and playing at a very high level again and it is massive news for the U.S. team which has struggled in defensive midfield during his long absence from injury. The Olympics remain a possibility for Adams if U.S. Soccer pushes for a medal but for now, it is just good and important to have him back.

Gooch continues stellar run

Sunderland is the biggest club in England’s third tier League One and it desperately wants to return to a level of respectability. It’s two consecutive relegations in 2016/17 and 2017/18 were embarrassing and it was bitter pill when it didn’t get promoted back to the Championship in 2018/19. For most of the first half of 2019/20 the prospects of promotion were bleak.

But the club’s fortunes have changed and the primary reason is due to American Lynden Gooch who has put the club on his back the last five games. On Saturday, he scored a wonder goal in the 79th minute to give Sunderland a big 1-0 away win over MK Dons. Even more important, with the win Sunderland is back into the League One’s promotional playoff positions.

Gooch’s run has been terrific. Over the last five games he has four goals and an assist and the club has four wins and a draw over that span.

If Gooch, 24, can help the club earn promotion, it will surely be meaningful for him as he has an attachment to Sunderland which dates back to when he was 10 years old. If not, he is looking as if he is a player who could be picked up by a bigger club as he enters the prime years of his career.

Chandler Man of the Match

Timothy Chandler hasn’t had it easy in recent years with injuries limiting him for most of 2018 and 2019. The American fullback showed signs of progress in December when he began to play more for an Eintracht Frankfurt team that is now in 11th place of the Bundesliga.

After a strong winter break camp in the United States, Chandler was in fine form in Saturday’s Bundesliga second half Bundesliga opener where Eintrach Frankfurt defeated Hoffenheim on the road 2-1.

Chandler had a huge role in the win where his defense forced turnover that led to the buildup of the opening goal. Then with the score even 1-1, Chandler scored what would be winner in the 62nd minute when he headed home a Filip Kostic cross.

Besides the goal, Chandler had an overall great game where he won four aerials, was fouled twice, had a tackle, an interception, and a clearance before he was subbed out in the 83rd minute.

Chandler remains a player to watch, although his national team prospects are fading. He will turn 30 during the next U.S. national team camp and younger American fullback options are emerging. Still, he can excel, perhaps he will get a look.

Kelman scores again for Southend

In the English third tier, Southend United won just its second game of the season when it defeated Accrington Stanley 2-1 on the road and U.S. U-20 forward Charlie Kelman played a big role by scoring the team’s opening goal. On the play, Southend took advantage of a dreadful back pass from an Accrington Stanley midfielder near his own penalty area, the ball was then played to Kelman for a classy finish.

Kelman, 18, is one of the club’s top young players but will likely be on the move soon. The club is in a rough situation financially and is deep in the relegation hole. With a drop to the fourth tier nearly certain, Kelman will likely be on the move and now it is just a case of him proving himself to find a good option.

With his goal on Saturday, Kelman now has three goals in just 306 minutes of action and his limited minutes were due to a injury that kept him out two months. Kelman was invited to the recent U-20 camp in Florida but was not released. The likely bet is that he rejoins that team in March.

Steffen out as Fortuna fall again

On Saturday, Fortuna Dusseldorf hosted Werder Bremen in a Bundesliga matchup that had huge relegation implications. Alfredo Morales started for Fortuna and Josh Sargent started for Werder Bremen. Missing for Fortuna was Zack Steffen which the club revealed before the game is still dealing with tendonitis in the patellar tendon of his knee. The club has also indicated this has been an ongoing issue and Steffen missed the U.S. national team’s November camp due to it.

The game itself was dull and lethargic, despite the importance. Morales was probably Fortuna’s best player in the loss as he went 71 minutes as he had four shots and won six aerials (the best on his team). Defensively, he had four clearances, two tackles, two interceptions, and two blocked shots. Also, he was fouled four times.

As for Sargent, it was a mixed performance. He wasn’t able to register any shots or hit any key passes but his seven aerials won was the highest in the game for either team. He was also fouled four times to help Werder have free kick opportunities. He wasn’t part of the goal, but he worked hard in a very physical game in which his team came away with a huge win. Werder Bremen moved out of 17th place (automatic relegation) and into 16th place (relegation playoff).

Meanwhile, Fortuna has the worst goal differential on the season and fell into 17th place. At this point, it is unclear when they will have their starting goalkeeper back.

Ledezma notches a brace

The weekend began with a bang on Friday when U.S. U-23 midfielder Richard Ledezma scored two goals for Jong PSV in a tough 4-2 loss to FC Volendam. Obviously, it was a tough result for a Jong PSV team that is in poor shape – sitting in 17th place out of 20 in the Dutch second tier. But for Ledezma, it was a statement for him. Also of note, 2019 U.S. U-20 World Cup left back Chris Gloster got the start for Jong PSV too.

But with Jong PSV being reduced to 10 players in the 34th minute while trailing 1-0, a win was always going to be hard. But Ledezma was able to provide at least a chance with a fantastic goal to equalize in the 43rd minute and a go-ahead goal in the 50th. Eventually, Volendam was able to find its way with three straight goals to end the game.

But for Ledezma, this was his second elite outing for Jong PSV and it was also significant because it was his first great outing against an opponent which was not youth or second team.

Ledezma is inching towards breaking back into PSV’s first team bench and earning a possible debut. For the U.S. team, he seems to be a great candidate to be a leader in Olympic qualifying if PSV is willing to release him.

Fulham into third

There are a lot of Americans in the Championship right now but Tim Ream has the best chance of earning a promotion in the Premier League. On Friday, the St. Louis native anchored Fulham’s backline in a 1-0 clean sheet win over Middlesbrough.

Ream, deservedly, has become a veteran leader of Fulham and the U.S. national team. The Championship is a demanding and intense league (much like CONCACAF) and Ream has mastered it. Another promotion would be an impressive step for Fulham and another statement in Ream’s strong resume.

The rest

While it was mostly a terrific weekend for Americans abroad, it wasn’t for John Brooks or Wolfsburg which entered into the weekend with the best defense in Germany (18 goals conceded in 17 games) and within striking distance of sixth place – the Bundesliga’s Europa League spot. All that stood in their way was 13th place Koln. But Koln was able to get through Wolfsburg’s backline three times for a 3-1 win.

Two Americans faced off in the Championship when Derby County hosted Hull City on Saturday. Duane Holmes started for Derby County and Eric Lichaj started at right back where he captained Hull, as usual. It was a typical Championship physical battle and Derby came away with a 1-0 win. Both teams continue to slog through midtable with Hull in 12th place and Derby stuck in 15th.

Life in midtable for Antonee Robinson would be a luxury at this point which lost to Swansea City 2-1 on Saturday. Robinson, 22, went the distance for Wigan in the loss and it is the third straight Championship relegation battle of his three year first-team career. But this year is more of an uphill climb than in previous years. Wigan is now in 23rd place in the 24-team league. Still it is only two points from safety but is trending in the wrong direction.

Also, in the Championship, Matt Miazga did not get off the bench for Reading in a 2-0 loss to Millwall. It was easy to see why Miazga had been riding the bench because the team has been in fine form defensively in a run that began when Miazga was injured. But Reading’s defense is starting to drift back to reality and that should open the door for Miazga.

In Belgium, there was another game which pitted two Americans against each other as Sint Truiden hosted Kortrijk. U.S. U-23 defensive midfielder Chris Durkin got the start for St. Truiden while Colorado native Brendan Hines-Ike started for Kortrijk – both Americans ended up going the full 90 as St. Truiden posted a 1-0 win. The two teams remain close in the standings with St. Truiden in 11th place and Kortrijk in 12th.

Finally, in the Scottish Cup on Sunday, Dundee United and Hibs played to a 2-2 draw. American central midfielders Dillon Powers and Ian Harkes both earned the start for United and both picked up assists in the draw. For Powers, it was his second game with the club and his first assist since moving to Scotland after his contract with Orlando City expired.

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