From Beasley and Kirovski to Pulisic, the future’s bright

Back in 2005, DaMarcus Beasley didn’t think of himself as a trailblazer. He wasn’t thinking about being the first American to play in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, or how doing so might eventually pave the way for future U.S. players. He was just a 22-year-old midfielder trying to make his way through his first season in Europe with PSV Eindhoven.

“I didn’t know the significance of it until now,” he told ESPN by telephone. “I was just trying to win, trying to play well in Europe at a big club. There was no media really around my run, so it was pretty easy to kind of not get caught up in the hype.”

Jump to: A few minutes with Richards | Stock watch: Weah, Dest, Holmes, Gioacchini | Scouting report: Dike

Sixteen years on, Beasley marvels at how far just about everything surrounding the game has come. The players are faster, the attention greater, social media is pervasive. And American players are making even deeper inroads into Europe.

It’s a bit mind-blowing to think that the 2004-05 campaign was a high-water mark for American players at the time, with six getting minutes in that year’s Champions League. But closer inspection revealed that those roots hadn’t yet taken hold. Only Beasley, and then-Rosenborg defender Robbie Russell, could be considered full-time starters with their teams.

Jermaine Jones spent the bulk of that campaign with Bayer Leverkusen‘s reserves, and was still five years away from making his U.S. international debut. Landon Donovan played just seven games for Leverkusen before returning to Major League Soccer. Tim Howard wasn’t a full-time starter that season, nor was his Manchester United teammate, Jonathan Spector. In fact, including the nine who have played a minute in the competition this season, only 28 Americans, starting with Jovan Kirovski in 1996, have ever appeared in a UCL game.

There’s almost no comparison to what is taking place now. Not only have nine Americans played in the Champions League this season, but the likes of JuventusWeston McKennie, RB Leipzig‘s Tyler Adams, and Barcelona‘s Sergino Dest are key contributors. And while Christian Pulisic is going through a difficult spell with Chelsea at the moment, he certainly has the talent to make a significant contribution.

The others to suit up in Europe’s premier competition: Borussia Dortmund midfielder Gio Reyna, Man City goalkeeper Zack Steffen, Club Brugge ‘keeper Ethan Horvath, Barcelona winger Konrad de la Fuente, and Bayern Munich defender Chris Richards, who has since been loaned out to Hoffenheim. How much has changed since 2004-05? In all, Americans have combined to play 3,032 Champions League minutes — nearly 34 full games — over the past two seasons.

“As you already see, the success of a lot of the current national team players is leading to more clubs wanting to explore the crop of young Americans that we have and the talent that we have,” Adams told Bundesliga.com last week. “I think they’re just starting to trust and have confidence in the ability of American soccer players and with that, you’re going to see more and more players given opportunities at big clubs.”

Beasley can still recall how earning that trust of teammates, as well as coaches, was the most difficult part of his initial foray in Europe. He can easily pick out the early games where he struggled, but Champions League goals against Red Star Belgrade in the second leg of the third qualifying round, and later in a 1-0 group stage win over Rosenborg won his teammates over, and he went on to make 44 appearances in all competitions that season.

Considering the talented players in that PSV side, it was no small feat. There were the likes of Mark van Bommel and Philip Cocu. Competition on the wings came from Jefferson Farfan and Park Ji-sung. The task of turning those individuals into a cohesive unit was left to legendary manager Guus Hiddink, and the American learned early on just how big the Champions League nights were. The buzz in and around Eindhoven on those days was off the charts. If you were injured, there was a mad dash to get back to fitness; what happened the previous weekend didn’t matter.

“Everyone worried about Tuesday or Wednesday, Champions League nights,” said Beasley. “Everyone knows what those types of games mean, just the heightened awareness throughout the city.”

Beasley recalls how in the Champions League that season PSV benefited from being perpetually underestimated. After getting past Red Star Belgrade in the third qualifying round, PSV finished second behind Arsenal in a group that also included Panathinaikos and Rosenborg.

“We were a big-small team, if that makes sense,” he said. “Obviously, the Netherlands isn’t one of the top five countries in European [club] football. No one really gave us a chance. I just remember going into those games, so confident. It’s about us and blocking out all the noise.”

PSV dispatched AS Monaco 3-0 over two legs, Beasley scoring in the second leg, and then got past Lyon on penalties to set up a semifinal showdown with mighty AC Milan. It ended in heartbreak. After falling 2-0 in the first leg at the San Siro, PSV came back in the return leg, leading 2-0 as the game headed into stoppage time, only for Milan’s Massimo Ambrosini to strike. Cocu grabbed a goal back, but Milan advanced on away goals. Beasley was injured the weekend before the second leg and was forced to watch the dream end from the stands.

“After Cocu scored that goal in the 93rd minute, I thought we had a chance to get another, but it just didn’t happen,” he said.

It took 15 years for Adams to become the second American to reach the tournament’s semifinals, having scored the decisive goal last season for RB Leipzig in the quarterfinals against Atletico Madrid. With seven American players still alive in this year’s competition, that feat may yet be equaled, or even exceeded. Regardless, Beasley is excited about what’s ahead.

“It’s given fans and even the players hope and confidence that we can be a big football country,” he of the inroads by American players. “We can play good football, we have good players, and we can show that on a bigger stage. But I’m ecstatic, and I’m really happy to see the growth of the game, and these players. It’s really fun to watch.” — Jeff Carlisle

A few minutes with … Chris Richards

USMNT defender Chris Richards recently joined Hoffenheim on loan from Bayern Munich.

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TSG Hoffenheim loanee Chris Richards tells Tom Hamilton how he stays in contact with players at Bayern Munich.

ESPN’s Tom Hamilton recently caught up with the 20-year-old to discuss his decision to go out on loan, his future at Bayern and the excitement around the future of the USMNT.

Stock watch: Assessing the ups and downs of Americans abroad

Tim Weah, Lille — On the rise: The PSG academy product is getting back to his best after a disappointing and injury-plagued debut season with Lille. Weah, 21, has factored in six goals (five goals, one assist) in 26 appearances this campaign for the surprising Ligue 1 leaders, scoring in three of his last four starts, and four of six starts overall.

Last week, Weah scored Lille’s lone goal in a 2-1 Europa League defeat to Ajax and due to his recent form, he’s seemingly a lock to start the second leg on Thursday in Amsterdam. “He is improving quickly and has been really good for us. He is a good kid who works hard at training and in games and I play him in different positions, which is very valuable for us,” Lille manager Christophe Galtier told ESPN.

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Sergino Dest, Barcelona — Trending down: After a brilliant start to life at Barcelona, Dest has endured some adversity as of late with the Blaugrana. First, there was the nagging thigh injury that caused him to miss some time; then there was his one-sided recent duel with PSG’s Kylian Mbappe in the Champions League.

While Mbappe exposed some of Dest’s defensive shortcomings in a 4-1 defeat for Barca — as he has done for many a defender — the club still believe in the defender long-term. Sources tell ESPN that Barca believe this was a bit of a “wake-up call,’ and that Dest’s hot start to the season might have made him a little too confident in certain aspects of his game. Still just 20, Barca want the ex-Ajax man to continue to work on not “switching off” and were impressed with how the youngster bounced back at the weekend in the 1-1 draw vs. Cadiz.

Duane Holmes, Huddersfield Town — On the rise: The 26-year-old has made a significant impact since returning to boyhood club Huddersfield in January and is fresh off a two-goal outing — including this golazo (U.S. only) — in a 4-1 win over Swansea City at the weekend. Normally accustomed to pushing for promotion from his time at Derby, the Georgia-born midfielder’s task this season is to help keep the Terriers up.

“For Holmes, it was important for him to have this performance today,” Huddersfield manager Carlos Corberan told reporters over the weekend. “Because he shows he is adapting to the team. It takes a bit of time sometimes, especially for him to play so many games in a row because before he arrived here he didn’t have enough minutes. Sometimes the player needs a little bit of time to adapt and perform like he did today.”

Twice-capped by the United States, Holmes will hope his move to Huddersfield can help him play himself back into the national team fold.

Nicholas Gioacchini, Caen — Trending down: Gioacchini’s stock was at an all-time high after his brace against Panama in November, but boy, have things changed since. The centre-forward hasn’t scored a league goal for his club side since Dec. 18 and was handed a suspension following a red-card tackle against Chambly at the end of January.

Despite the recent struggles Caen continue to play and rely on the Missouri-born forward. “He will get back on the score sheet soon. We have faith in him. He has a great future ahead of him. We fought hard to keep him at the club in the summer when clubs wanted him” a source tells ESPNFC.

With the USMNT’s striker situation still unresolved, Gioacchini will be keen to find some form and earn another look during the side’s European friendlies in March.

Having impressed during his debut season in MLS — eight goals from 15 starts is an impressive tally for a rookie — the 20-year-old was loaned out to Barnsley last month. Before settling in Yorkshire, Dike also found time to grab his first USMNT cap — his brother and sister have both been capped by Nigeria — with a second-half substitute appearance against Trinidad and Tobago on Jan. 31.

With two starts in the Championship to his name, Dike has yet to get on the score sheet for his new club — he came close against Bristol City at the weekend, but his close-range effort was spectacularly scuffed wide — but has made his mark with a powerful presence and readiness to “mix it” with Championship centre-backs. Indeed, Dike can be described as something of a ’90s throwback centre-forward.

On the evidence of his debut season in MLS, he’s also excellent at protecting the ball, holding off his marker, and flicking the ball on with layoffs. He also features a vicious strike on the ball with his right foot plus the ability to head the ball with power and direction.

While the Championship is not renowned for being kind to young new arrivals from abroad, the Oklahoma-born forward has already shown occasional impact and, regardless of where he plays his football next season, this experience will be priceless for his further development. — Tor-Kristian Karlsen

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