Players such as Tim Howard used to be a rare breed, a talented young American soccer star who found success on the other side of the world.
That sort of story increasingly is becoming more normal. On Tuesday, five Americans took part in UEFA Champions League group stage matches, the most ever for a single day, as U.S. men’s national team players and youth products are finding homes in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and elsewhere with some of the sport’s elite clubs.
"For U.S. Soccer, I say it pretty boldly, I think that this generation of players is clearly the most talented group of players that this country's ever seen, front to back," Howard said on a conference call Thursday. "Playing at big clubs in Europe, playing major minutes on teams in MLS, playing in Champions League, these players have got it all."
A New Jersey native, Howard spent a handful of seasons on the MetroStars before signing with English powerhouse Manchester United in 2003, eventually joining Everton on loan and making the move permanently in 2007. Over more than a decade in England, the goalkeeper made 399 Premier League appearances, plus a dozen Champions League starts for United.
Now working on NBC Sports’ coverage of the Premier League, Howard has his eye on the next generation of American talent abroad, one that’s seemingly more robust. One such talent will be on display Saturday afternoon on NBC as Manchester United hosts Chelsea, led by 22-year-old U.S. national team star Christian Pulisic in attack.
"I think the Americans in the Champions League, with the vast number of them and the confidence and swagger that they're playing with, it's pretty impressive," said Howard, a former U.S. men’s national team keeper. "I think that the generation before mine and my generation, we had a couple of guys sprinkled into the Champions League and obviously that's a big deal. It's a big deal for any player, let alone an American player to be competing in Champions League."
In addition to Pulisic, who started in Chelsea’s scoreless draw against Sevilla, Tuesday featured Champions League appearances by Americans Sergiño Dest (FC Barcelona), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) and Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge).
For Howard, the most encouraging aspect isn’t the quantity of Americans on the sport’s biggest stages, it’s the manner in which they’re contributing, and even thriving.
"For our guys not to just be sitting on the bench, but to be competing, to be playing well, to be counted on by their other clubs, yeah, I definitely sense something different in this generation," Howard said. "I think this generation, rightfully so, see these opportunities and think, ‘no, wait a minute, I belong here. I'm not just thankful to be here, I belong here, I want to etch my name in these competitions and in the history of what this means.’"
Reyna and Adams are products of the New York area soccer landscape. Reyna, 17, signed with Dortmund directly from NYCFC’s development academy, while Adams, 21, won an MLS Supporters’ Shield with the Red Bulls in 2018 before joining RB Leipzig.
"The New York-New Jersey area has always produced good soccer talent going all the way back to the early '90s, right? So it’s nice to see that come full circle again, there was a bit of a drought there. Obviously, there’s some good football being played, it’s rough and tumble. No one gives you anything when you’re from that area.
"Gio, he’s hit the ground running and he’s just absolutely been sensational. For such a young kid, it’s just scary to think he’s so mature. Obviously, Tyler as well, he comes in really good for himself, everybody speaks highly of him in Europe. And with the United States, he was out injured all the time and all people could say was, ‘when is he going to be back? We need him, we need him,’ and it’s so true. It’s really good to see."
It’s all good to see for American soccer fans, but mostly because it’s no longer an anomaly.