The success of American soccer players in Europe is something which USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann has spoken about in great depth, and something which his predecessors often alluded to. An American player ‘making it’ in Europe is seen as something of a mark of the progress being made in U.S. soccer and the education process, which has been looking to increase the talent pool available to the U.S., especially in recent times.
There have been a number of players who have made the grade over the last decade or so, most notably the likes of Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel and Brian McBride, all of whom carved out successful career for themselves in the Premier League. For every success story though, it would seem, there are a couple or more failures. Players are often snapped up too young when they may have been better off developing as players in the U.S. and making the move at a later date.
Some players simply weren’t good enough to cut it in the higher quality leagues of Europe. Others suffered unfortunate injuries or poorly timed and thought out moves. The list is ranked both in relation to the expectations and hopes pinned upon the player and the magnitude of their failure. Many went on to have successful careers back in the U.S., while for others the damage was too severe. Here are the top 15 American soccer soccer players who failed in Europe:
15. Brek Shea
Brek Shea’s time in Europe lasted just under two years, having joined Stoke City in January 2013 from FC Dallas. The Potters other U.S. import, Geoff Cameron, has gone on to do very well for the club, but Shea failed to ever make any real inroads into the first team at the Britannia. The Texas-born left winger who has 34 caps to his name for the USMNT played five games for Stoke and a further 14 whilst on-loan at Barnsley and Birmingham. Having failed to impress, Shea was sold in December 2014, returning to the MLS, this time signing for Orlando City.
14. Edson Buddle
U.S. forward Edson Buddle’s record in Europe wasn’t actually that disastrous. The former U.S. international scored 9 goals in 33 games in the German second tier with Ingolstadt, although that was over the course of two seasons. The former New York Red Bulls forward clearly failed to impress despite his reasonable goals haul, as once his two year deal was up in 2012 the German outfit did not renew his contract and allowed the forward to leave on a free transfer. Buddle returned to the MLS and joined L.A. Galaxy, but in December 2015 he parted company with the club and is currently a free agent once more.
13. Benny Feilhaber
Born in Rio as his paternal grandfather had emigrated to Brazil from Vienna as a Jew in 1938 escaping the clutches of the Nazi regime, Feilhaber moved to the U.S. aged six, settling in to a New York suburb. Feilhaber turned down the chance to play for Austria in favor of playing for the USMNT, and has since won 41 caps since making his debut in 2007. He was young when he had his crack at making it in Europe, first in Germany and then England. Feilhaber became a regular fixture in Hamburg’s reserve team but failed to step up to the first team and was equally unimpressive after his move to Derby County. He then spent three years in Denmark, where he played regularly but hardly at the highest level, before a move to New England Revolution in 2011.
12. Ricardo Clark
Following three highly successful seasons with Houston Dynamo, and having become a regular fixture in the USMNT, Ricardo Clark got his move to Europe in 2010. The dynamic midfielder was signed by Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt, eventually putting pen to paper on a three-year deal. Plagued by injuries, the midfielder played only 18 games in three seasons for Eintracht, also spending a year on-loan in Norway with Stabaek, where he played 14 games and scored once.
The unsuccessful spell didn’t put Houston Dynamo off taking back their former star in 2012 though, and the 33-year-old has remained there ever since, and now holds the record for the eighth most appearances in the clubs history.
11. Josh Wolff
One of the leading players in the MLS with Chicago Fire and the Kansas City Wizards, Wolff got his dream move to Europe a little later than most, aged 29 when a move to 1860 Munich finally materialized. Wolff spent two years in 2. Bundesliga, the German second tier, in which he scored just 2 goals from 34 appearances. Wolff’s goals tally wasn’t helped by often being utilised on the wing rather than his more natural central position, but even barring the excuses he was poor. He returned to the MLS in 2008, rejoining the Kansas City Wizards and is currently the assistant manager for Columbus Crew.
10. Johann Smith
A versatile player renowned for his explosive pace, Johann Smith was a gifted sprinter at school, capable of running the 100 metres in only 10.5 seconds. He was spotted by Bolton Wanderers talent scouts as a teenager who brought him to England and handed him a three-year scholarship with the club’s academy. He made his Premier League debut as a 19-year-old against Manchester United, but it would prove the only league game he ever played for Bolton. Loan spells with Carlisle, Darlington and Stockport saw him drop right down the Football League pyramid, and in 2008 he left England and joined Toronto FC. He is currently playing for FC Edmonton in the NASL.
9. Tony Meola
If there is one position where U.S. soccer players cannot be criticized for a lack of talent it is in goal. Kasey Keller, Tim Howard and Brad Friedel are just some of the successful U.S. goalkeeping exports, but while 100 caps for the USMNT and countless impressive performances in the MLS showed Tony Meola was a talented goalkeeper, his time in Europe was an absolute disaster. Meola was only 21 when he made the move to England, and was still 21 when he left. He had two spells, one with Brighton and the other with Watford. He is widely regarded as the worst goalkeeper in Watford’s history, despite only playing a cup game for the club and never appearing in a league fixture.
8. Jozy Altidore
If it were only going on his time in Spain and England, Jozy Altidore would surely come close to topping this list, but a successful spell in the Netherlands means he ranks a little higher. Altidore was young in his time with Villarreal, Xerez, Bursaspor and Hull City, although similar excuses cannot be made for his time at Sunderland. The powerful forward scored for fun with AZ, but the Dutch league is no longer the force it once was.
In 91 league games in Spain, Turkey and England, Altidore scored a measly 4 goals. An embarrassing strike rate for a forward, and one which makes his lucrative deal with Toronto seem somewhat absurd, although he has scored 14 goals in 27 games since returning to the MLS.
7. Sal Zizzo
Having starred at the 2007 under-20 World Cup for the U.S., Sal Zizzo was snapped up from Orange County Blue Star by Hannover 96. He spent three seasons in Germany, in which time he played 45 times for Hannover’s reserve team and only eight times for the first team. An ACL injury in 2009 didn’t help, but in truth, Zizzo never looked like becoming a star of the Bundesliga. He returned to the U.S. in 2010, joining Chivas, and currently plays for the New York Red Bulls. He has failed to win a second cap for the USMNT since making his debut in 2007, aged 20.
6. Frankie Hejduk
Californian soccer icon Frankie Hejduk was a key player for the U.S. for around a decade, racking up 85 caps for his country between 1996 and 2009. Having begun his pro career with Tampa Bay Mutiny, Hejduk moved to the Bundesliga aged 24. Like Zizzo, Hejduk saw more reserve soccer than first team soccer, playing 26 times for the second string and 19 times for the first team, over the course of a five-year period. The wingback also had a brief spell on loan at St. Gallen of Switzerland. Having failed to make an impression in Europe, Hejduk returned to the US in 2003, joining Columbus Crew, where he stayed for the next seven years.
5. Eddie Johnson
Fulham are no stranger to taking a chance on an American soccer player, and in many cases it has paid off for the club. Eddie Johnson was not one of those cases though. The forward made his move to the Premier League in January 2008 and spent four seasons in Europe, being loaned out three times by the Premier League outfit. Two of his loans were to Championship teams, in the form of Cardiff City and Preston North End, whilst the other saw him join up with Greek side Aris. He had a modicum of success in the considerably weaker Greek league, scoring 5 goals in 19 games. In England, Johnson managed only 2 goals from 71 appearances. He left England in 2012 when he joined the Seattle Sounders.
4. Marcus Tracy
A very highly rated prospect in U.S. soccer at one time, big things were expected of Marcus Tracy. He ended his college career with 100 goals to his name, having won All-American honors and having won the Hermann Trophy as the outstanding college soccer player in 2008. He was eventually drafted by Houston Dynamo in 2009, but joined Danish side Aalborg that year. He was handed a baptism of fire, making his debut in the UEFA Cup against Manchester City. Despite initially impressing, injuries soon halted his progress and paved the way for his ultimate failure. He left Europe in 2012 when he joined the San Jose Earthquakes, but he has been without a team since 2013.
3. Kenny Cooper
The son of an English soccer player, Kenny Cooper Sr., who moved to the U.S. at the end of his playing career and made it his home, Kenny Cooper was educated in Dallas, and it was there he was spotted as a potential star of the future. He was recommended to Manchester United and the Premier League giants took a chance on him in 2003. He spent three years at Old Trafford but never played for the club, having two unsuccessful loan spells before joining FC Dallas in 2006. Still young, Cooper got a second crack at making it in Europe three years later, this time in the Bundesliga with 1860 Munich, but the forward only played 13 times in two years, scoring only twice.
2. Danny Szetela
Once tipped as a future star of American soccer, Danny Szetela was another standout player from the 2007 U-20 World Cup. The young midfielder’s dazzling displays saw a spike of interest in him, eventually resulting in his transfer from Columbus Crew to Racing Santander in 2007. He spent 2 years on the books with the La Liga side, but never made a league appearance, playing only once in the Copa del Rey.
He was loaned out for one of his two seasons to Italian second tier side Brescia, but the Italian outfit didn’t take Racing up on their offer to sign the player. Szetela was out of soccer for almost four years between 2009 and 2013, before a brief spell with Icon FC and eventually joining New York Cosmos, where he remains and has since played 47 games.
1. Freddy Adu
Freddy Adu simply had to be top of this list. A victim of the American hype-machine somewhat, the U.S. was so desperate to have a soccer star on the scale of the great European and South American players that they pinned all their hopes on one man. Or, more accurately, one boy. Adu had made outstanding progress, playing and scoring in the MLS at the age of just 14, an incredibly achievement in any professional soccer league. The teenager was linked with just about every major team in the western hemisphere before finally signing for Portuguese giants Benfica.
It proved a poor move. Adu was unable to break into the Benfica first team, then aged just 18, and in 4 years at the club, he was loaned out four times, all with very limited results. All of a sudden the ‘future superstar’ was 22, and appeared to have made little progress since making his DC United debut at 14. The youngster who was likened to Pele as an early teen has since played in Europe a few more times, in Serbia and Finland, but currently holds a record of having played for eight European teams, but only scored for four of them. Now aged 26, Adu is playing in the NASL for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, looking to reignite his career.
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