These days, the career path for young American players seems simple: arrive in Europe as soon as possible and as quickly as possible and then move on. In the last six months alone, players like Brian Reynolds (FC Dallas vs. Roma), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union vs. Genk), Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia vs. Salzburg) and Daryl Dyke (Orlando City vs. Barnsley) have all moved abroad before their 22nd birthdays.
This latest departure fits the growing trend of American stars like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKenney, Tyler Adams and Giovani Reyna to cross the Atlantic in their youth.
Jump : a few minutes with Cannon | Stock Watch : Brooks, Pulisic, Zibatcheu, De La Fuente.
All this makes the travels of Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris anachronistic in comparison. Both last played on loan for top club Swansea City in the FA Championship – and could play against Manchester City in the FA Cup on Wednesday (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+) – at the relatively late age of 26. Not that it’s too late, far from it.
“My goal has always been to grow as a player, and that remains my goal,” Arriola said. “How can I push myself? How can I take it to the next level?
Of course, every career has its own dynamics. For some, the path is clear from the start and looks like a nicely paved road. Others get bogged down in deadlocks or forgo an opportunity to go abroad, a path that doesn’t follow them at the end of their playing days. There is also a school of thought that says going abroad and returning to the MLS is the same as turning away from job opportunities abroad for good. But that’s exactly what Arriola did, starting his career at the Tijuana-based Liga MX club, Club Tijuana, where he played for four years.
If Arriola made himself useful to the Cholos, he never reached the rank of indispensable. When Washington United approached him with $3 million in 2017, he jumped at the chance, turning down other opportunities abroad and becoming a consistent representative of the Black and Reds and the U.S. men’s national team. At the same time, the Californian has never closed the door on future opportunities abroad.
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“I thought I could use MLS as a trampoline jump and then move on if I could,” he said. “I found some stability [at DCU] and I was able to settle in. I always strive for a career where you’re a player who’s always making an impact and always involved in the games.
Although it has become a cliché that there are countless paths to a successful professional career, Morris seems to be breaking even more with the principles of how best to take that path. At age 18, he turned down a contract with the Seattle Sounders to follow the much more consistent path of college and Stanford University. His reasoning was simple: with players like Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson on the team, it would have been difficult to find playing time. Going to a top school like Stanford would have tested him anyway.
“When I went to Stanford, I felt like my journey was just beginning: playing as many years as possible, hoping to win a national championship and then going back to the Sounders because European teams don’t look at academics,” he said.
A practice game with the U.S. men’s national team leading up to the 2014 World Cup changed everything. Morris impressed then-U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann so much that he was inducted into the senior national team that same year, becoming the first player in 15 years to play for the USMNT. Then, in 2015, the striker scored a goal in his first international appearance in a friendly against rival Mexico. When Morris decided to turn pro in early 2016 after his junior year at Stanford, he trained with Bundesliga club Werder Bremen and received an offer from the latter. Seattle also tried to land the striker, but it was clear what most observers thought he should do: go to Germany. Morris refused and instead joined the Sounders in his hometown.
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“When I arrived in Bremen, I really felt pressure from people who thought this was the best option for me,” Morris said. “But I knew myself. And I knew what I thought was best for my career and where I could develop best, and I felt that would be in Seattle.
The decision was controversial in some circles, with then-U.S. international Jermaine Jones saying Morris had taken the “easy way out.” But Morris thought that being closer to home would help him adjust to the professional game, and time has shown that this approach has clearly paid off, as he has already won several MLS Cups. When Morris tore his ACL in 2018, the closeness of his family helped him recover. And like Arriola, Morris never felt like he was giving up on his European project entirely.
“I was sure that this option would become a reality,” he said. “But then again, then and even now, if I had played my whole career in Seattle, I think I would have been very, very happy and satisfied and feel like I developed very well as a player,” he said.
ESPN covers the biggest stories of American stars traveling abroad, provides insight into their successes and challenges, interviews the best players on the national team and explores the next generation of Americans making their way through Europe.
Could any of the actors have developed more quickly if he had seized opportunities abroad at the beginning of his career? It’s impossible to say. A few may have seen their shares skyrocket, but many American careers also stopped in Europe. They are certainly now on their way to Europe as more established and mature actors.
Time also played a role in the decision to act now. Morris said he has felt the need to test himself abroad in recent years. Because the MLS doesn’t start until April 3, Arriola said he didn’t want to wait months for his next match, especially since he’s back in top form after his own ACL injury. With a busy international schedule, it will be vital for him to test himself and stay at the top of his game. And they will be able to count on each other now, as the club finds itself at the center of the race for promotion to the Premier League.
“Paul and I are very close [and have been for a long time] with the national team,” Morris said. “He’s a good friend of mine, so it’s actually pretty surreal that we’re in the same place.”
Especially considering the paths they took….Jeff Carlisle….
A few minutes with… Reggie Cannon.
USMNT right-back Reggie Cannon joined Portuguese club Boavista in September after spending more than three years in the MLS with FC Dallas.
The 20-year-old recently spoke with ESPN’s Tom Hamilton about his decision to move to Europe, life in Portugal and how things have gone so far in Boavista.
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Reggie Cannon explains the pressure on major European clubs to play in the highest league.
Stock Watch: Assessing the ups and downs of Americans abroad
John Brooks, Wolfsburg — On the rise : Brooks has been one of the best Americans in Europe this season. He leads a Wolfsburg defense that has given up only 19 goals in 19 Bundesliga games, the second-best mark in the top German league. Wolfsburg has yet to concede a goal in five consecutive matches in all competitions, and Brooks played every minute of the game. According to sources from ESPN, the 28-year-old was available for a free transfer last summer, but Wolfsburg seems to be very happy with the American.
According to a German journalist, Brooks’ experience and Lacroix’s speed have led to a “perfect partnership” with rookie Maxence Lacroix. If Brooks can replicate his recent club career on the national team, it would be a huge boost for USMNT, as his international career has been marked by inconsistency so far.
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Christian Pulisic, Chelsea – downward trend : Thomas Tuchel confirmed after Chelsea’s win over Sheffield United on Sunday that Pulisic had been ruled out of the team due to “family problems,” but the 22-year-old’s involvement under the new Blues boss was limited to 84 minutes in four games.
Sources tell ESPN’s James Olley that the reduction in the American international’s playing time is due to two reasons: the club’s medical staff is concerned that the American international is at risk of re-injuring his hamstrings, and Tuchel wants to evaluate the team he has because he already has a good idea of what Pulisic has to offer after their joint stay at Borussia Dortmund.
Jordan Sibatcho, Young Boys (on loan from Rennes) — On the rise : If you don’t know Sibatcho’s name, it may be because he has never played for the United States, at any level. The Washington-born striker, on loan from Switzerland’s Rennes of Young Boys, scored a hat trick last week, scoring seven goals in 17 games for the Swiss Super League leaders. Although things did not go well for him at Rennes initially, sources tell ESPN that the French club is very positive about his future and expects him to return next season and fight for a starting spot.
The former France U-21 international is still eligible to play in the United States and suggested in an interview with American Soccer Now last year that he would be representing the Stars and Stripes. Given USMNT’s uncertainty about the striker, don’t be surprised if Gregg Berhalter makes a call on Zibatcheu soon.
Conrad de la Fuente, Barcelona — He has held his own : After being part of Barca’s first team in the preseason at the age of 19, De la Fuente has taken a step back in recent months. The winger has played just 26 minutes for Barca so far this season, which means he’s been getting some playing time lately for Barca B.
As Ronald Koeman strongly believes in giving young players the opportunity to play and gain experience, sources tell ESPN that if Barca can keep the players fit, he now plans to train with the first team during the week, join the B team on Friday or Saturday and then play for them at the weekend. Finding his niche in Barca’s star-studded squad has always been a difficult task for the youngster. Next season, Barca will have to decide whether it is better for his development if he stays in the first team or gets minutes on loan.
Exploration Report: Brian Reynolds
Brian Reynolds has just 31 MLS matches to his name and has yet to represent the United States of America beyond U18, but two of Italy’s biggest clubs, Juventus and Roma, have been desperate to sign him during the winter transfer window. Why? Potential.
Roma eventually won the tug-of-war over the 19-year-old right-back, the latest major talent – Weston McKenney, Chris Richards, Reggie Cannon and others – to emerge from FC Dallas’ prolific development pipeline. They have a player with a huge advantage, as Reynolds has great length (6’3″) and speed and is an excellent flanker. The time Reynolds spent as an offensive lineman early in his career seems to have served him well on the offensive end as well, especially as a dribbler and in terms of fairness. He provided three assists for Dallas last season, but given the number of chances he created for himself (16 in 19 games), that number could easily have been higher.
Reynolds still needs to develop as a defender. While he was far from a handicap last season, defensively he was inconsistent at times, and he certainly has some progress to make to keep up with runners and not get caught too early. This seems to be a common theme for most young defenders, and given that Reynolds has moved from one position to another lately, it might just be considered an inexperienced position.
Reynolds is not a player who will jump to Roma every night as a No. 11, but he has huge attacking potential as a constant contender, and that’s what the big clubs are spending a lot of money on these days.