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From College to Europe: Soccer's Unique Pathway in the U.S.

Soccer or "football" has always had a late start to its development in the United States because of its lack of popularity compared to basketball, baseball, and American football.

Zack Steffen in Champions League Match - Steffen Prößdorf via Wikimedia

This was until the last handful of years as a plethora of young American talent has developed in the academies of Major League Soccer clubs before signing contracts with teams amongst Europe's top 5 leagues.

Given that the other three more popular sports mentioned have a draft system from college to pro, it was only expected that the MLS would have a similar process. The MLS Super Draft is a selective process of the best players exclusively from colleges and universities in the United States.

This way, every team is choosing from a pool of 18 - 22-year-olds.

In Europe and pretty much every other league in the world, players are developed through academies from the clubs themselves and then promoted to the professional level with either their parent club or bought by another.

Talent as young as 16 or 17 years old is getting experience with first-team professional football while the United States has many players still at the collegiate level until they are in their early 20s.

This seems like a disadvantage to players in the U.S. trying to make it pro within or outside of the States, but who are the players that have gone through the collegiate process and made it out to the other end with a contract with a high-profile European club?

Here is a list of a handful of familiar stars...

DARYL DIKE - University of Virginia

Daryl Dike played soccer at the University of Virginia for two years. He led the team in scoring for his freshman and sophomore years including 10 goals and 8 assists in 2019.

Following Virginia's run to the NCAA Final Four tournament in 2019, Dike was drafted 5th overall in the 2020 MLS Superdraft with Orlando City SC. He notched 8 goals in his first professional season, sparking interest from clubs abroad.

In 2021, a loan to Barnsley in the EFL Championship saw him gain even more attention. Dike came into the squad midway through the season but managed to score 9 goals and lifted the club into the EFL promotion playoffs.

An impressive display at Barnsley ended without a permanent signature. West Bromwich Albion later signed him in 2022 on a four and half year deal.

JACK HARRISON - Wake Forest University

Before moving to the States, Harrison developed in the Manchester United academy. He then attended high school in Massachusetts at the Berkshire School.

A one-year stint at Wake Forest University saw Jack Harrison drafted as the 1st overall pick in the 2016 MLS Superdraft by the Chicago Fire. He was then traded to NYCFC.

Two years later, he signed with NYCFC's parent club Manchester City. He never played a Premier League match for the Cityzens.

Shortly after signing with the Manchester club, he was loaned to Middlesbrough FC who played their football in the EFL Championship. In the following three consecutive seasons, Harrison was loaned to fellow Championship side Leeds United.

Two of those seasons were in the 2nd division before being promoted to the Premier League in 2020. His highest goalscoring and assisting season since his time at NYCFC came in that debut EPL season where he finished with 8 goals and 8 assists.

The 2020 season encouraged Leeds to sign Harrison permanently in 2021 ahead of this year's campaign.

DEANDRE YEDLIN - University of Akron

Like many American youth players, Deandre Yedlin developed his skill in the DA program. Alongside this program, he moved up the ranks in the Seattle Sounders academy.

Yedlin then committed to play at the University of Akron. He completed his freshman and sophomore season before heading back to Seattle.

Avoiding the draft, Deandre Yedlin signed as Seattle's first-ever homegrown player in 2013. In his debut, he earned a spot on the MLS Team of the Week. He was the first-ever rookie player to be awarded a Team of the Week placement on his professional debut.

In 2015, Tottenham Hotspur signed Yedlin, but he never got a look into the first team as he was loaned to Sunderland FC the following season.

A move to Newcastle United the next season after that saw Yedlin cement his place in English football. He made more than 100 appearances for the Magpies.

A season-long signing to Galatasaray was followed by a move to Inter Miami which is where he plays his football now.

TAJON BUCHANAN - Syracuse University

Syracuse University earned the commitment of Tajon Buchanan in 2017. He played two seasons with the Syracuse Orange before looking to get a professional career off the ground.

In the summer leading up to the 2019 MLS Superdraft, Buchanan played semi-professional soccer in Canada with Sigma FC.

He was then drafted by the New England Revolution as a 9th overall pick in 2019. Two years later, he was a standout performer for the Rev as they earned the 2021 Supporters' Shield title and finished 1st in the Eastern Conference.

Tajon's impressive agility and fast-paced dribbling attracted the attention of Belgian side Club Brugge following the 2021 season.

Buchanan signed a three and half year deal with Club Brugge where he has played 13 matches so far this season.

ZACK STEFFEN - University of Maryland

USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen made his way through the MLS and into professional football in a similar path to Deandre Yedlin. Steffen started his development at the Philadelphia Union Academy and the DA program.

Steffen then committed to the University of Maryland where he won the ACC Tournament and was named the NCAA Men's Soccer Tournament's most outstanding defensive player.

After two years in Maryland, Steffen signed with SC Freiburg in the 2014/15 season. He never made an appearance with the first team before signing with Columbus Crew SC in 2016.

Steffen had a successful time in Columbus as he was named 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and led his side to an Eastern Conference Final appearance.

In 2019, Steffen was signed for $7 million by Manchester City. Moving to one of the best teams in the world was a big step for the American.

In the following seasons, Steffen was loaned to Fortuna Düsseldorf as well as made appearances for Manchester City in FA Cup and Carabao Cup matches.


Deandre Yedlin training in 2014 World Cup - Carl Fonticella via Wikimedia

The growing amount of young American's moving abroad to top European clubs can only help the USMNT and its quality. Most of the young stars like Weston Mckennie, Christian Pulisic, and Tyler Adams did not play collegiately which gave them an advantage because they did not have to wait to be 20-years old or older before making their professional debut.

As shown, it is not impossible to play at the highest level if a player takes the route of college soccer, but it is certainly a unique one that has its own pros and cons.

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