In the early 1990s, two phenomena coincided. US soccer players, having emerged from 40 years in the World Cup wilderness, started to find steady work in Europe. There was also this new-fangled thing called the World Wide Web, which allowed the scattered pockets of soccer supporters in the US to find each other and share information about the exploits of the latest American soccer saviors lurking somewhere in the Luxembourg fifth division or perhaps in Germany’s Oberliga.
Since then, US soccer players have slowly but surely broken down barriers in Europe -- gaining places in top leagues, becoming supporters’ favorites, and even winning the Champions League. From Fulham to … well, mostly Fulham, but also Borussia Dortmund, Everton, Tottenham, Rangers, Hannover and Chelsea … it’s where a handful of players have made indelible impressions.
These are the 10 US players who have found the most success across the Atlantic Ocean. The list includes only players who declared their nationality for the US, with apologies to Neven Subotić and Giuseppe Rossi.
10) Jovan Kirovski: Manchester United youth 1992-96, Borussia Dortmund 1996-2000, Fortuna Köln (loan from Dortmund) 1998-99, Sporting CP 2000-01, Crystal Palace 2001-02, Birmingham 2002-04
Not the most decorated national team player on this list, having never played in a World Cup, but the Californian is notable for being a youth teammate of the likes of David Beckham and Paul Scholes at Manchester United. More importantly, he became the first US player to score in a Champions League game and the first to earn a Champions League winners’ medal.
He achieved neither of those things at United, due in part to the then-onerous work permit restrictions in England, but he was able to get just enough of a foothold at Borussia Dortmund to break Champions League barriers. He couldn’t lock down a steady place in the side, though, and he made a few more stops in Europe before finishing up his career in Major League Soccer, where he has since found success as the Los Angeles Galaxy’s technical director.
His most productive season was the 2001-02 campaign with Crystal Palace, when he had five goals and seven assists in 36 first division games.
9) John Harkes: Sheffield Wednesday 1990-93, Derby County 1993-95, loan spells with West Ham United 1995-96 and Nottingham Forest 1999
After the 1990 World Cup, the University of Virginia alumnus got his shot in England with second-tier Sheffield Wednesday. And he took it. Literally. Given an acre of space 35 yards away from the Derby County goal minded by England keeper Peter Shilton, Harkes let loose a wonder strike. Wednesday went on to win that fourth-round replay of the Rumbelows (League) Cup and would go on to lift the trophy four months later, with Harkes starting at Wembley.
Wednesday also won promotion and finished third the next season, ensuring that the new Premier League would have an American participant upon its launch. Harkes also made another trip to Wembley, this time finding the net for the opening goal in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Arsenal in the 1993 League Cup final, especially appropriate given that the Cup was now sponsored by US business colossus Coca-Cola.
But Harkes was on the move after that – ironically, to Derby County. He stayed there until MLS started signing players. A loan spell to West Ham United filled some time before the league launched and Harkes returned to US as a cornerstone of a dominant DC United team.
8) Claudio Reyna: Bayer Leverkusen 1994-99, Wolfsburg (loan from Leverkusen) 1997-99, Rangers 1999-01, Sunderland 2001-03, Manchester City 2003-07
Another Virginia college player, Reyna was the first US field player to have a long-term impact with several clubs. He broke through on loan at Wolfsburg, where he served as captain. His next move was to Rangers, where he won a league title and befriended Giovanni van Bronckhorst, after whom he would name his son.
Intent on playing in England’s Premier League, he moved to Sunderland in December 2001. Injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness at the Stadium of Light and his next stop, Manchester City, where he remained for several years at the then-struggling club before finishing out his playing career in MLS.
7) Kasey Keller: Millwall 1992-96, Leicester City 1996-99, Rayo Vallecano 1999-01, Tottenham 2001-05, Southampton (loan from Tottenham) 2004, Borussia Mönchengladbach 2005-07, Fulham 2007-08
As incongruous as it seems now, the US soccer community spent several years in the early days of the internet riveted to a Millwall fan site that took pride in the terrace slogan: You’ll never make the station. The interest was twofold – US striker John Kerr had finally found a home at Millwall, as had a mild-mannered goalkeeper, follically impaired like many of his fellow US netminders, who used hooligan culture as a topic of a school paper.
After serving as a folk hero for a few years while Millwall couldn’t quite climb the mountain to reach the Premier League, Keller moved to the top flight himself, signing with Leicester. Like Harkes before him, Keller wound up at Wembley in a League Cup final, though the Cup still used replays in the final in those years, and Emile Heskey’s late goal gave Leicester a lifeline that it used to win the Cup 10 days later in Sheffield.
Keller was far from done. He spent two years with Rayo Vallecano, where he was part of a run to the UEFA Cup quarter-finals. Next up: Tottenham, where he spent two seasons as the starter. Then he was off to Borussia Mönchengladbach, where he lived in a 1,000-year-old castle. His last stop before a triumphant homecoming in Seattle was a familiar place for US players: Fulham. In his last European game, playing in the same side as longtime national teammates Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey, Keller posted a clean sheet in Portsmouth to clinch the club’s miraculous escape from relegation.
6) Brad Friedel: Bröndby 1995, Galatasaray 1995-96, Liverpool 1997-00, Blackburn 2000-08, Aston Villa 2008-11, Tottenham 2011-15
You’d never guess from the English accent he picked up over the years or his longevity record that the towering goalkeeper and hero of the 2002 World Cup was once an unfortunate example of England’s overbearing work-permit rules. After spending several years unable to get the stamp of approval despite the entreaties of several clubs, during which time he had a short spell in Denmark, Friedel moved to Turkey to play for Galatasaray.
After one year there, Friedel went back to the US for a strong stint with the Columbus Crew. At long last, Liverpool was able to get him a job in England, but he served mostly as a backup.
That changed at Blackburn.
Friedel joined the second-tier side in November 2000 at the behest of Graeme Souness, his manager at Galatarasay. Rovers immediately went up to the Premier League, where Friedel served with distinction for eight years and won a League Cup. Next up: Aston Villa, where he was the starter for another three seasons and tutored fellow US keeper Brad Guzan while setting the record for consecutive appearances in the Premier League. That streak continued even after his 40th birthday and another change of scenery, moving to Tottenham, where he helped Spurs to the 2013 Europa League quarter-finals.
His Premier League streak finally ended at 310 consecutive games, and he retired in 2015. In 2019, he was one of the first players inducted into Blackburn Rovers’ Hall of Fame.
5) Tim Howard: Manchester United 2003-06, Everton 2006-16
“How nice,” the thinking went when Tim Howard signed with Manchester United in 2003. “He’ll get to learn a lot in the reserves.”
A few months later, he was in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year.
Along the way, though, he had made one or two crucial mistakes, and Alex Ferguson had little patience for such things. The next year, Fergie awkwardly alternated between Howard and Roy Carroll. Manchester United then solved the issue the way all big-spending clubs do: by spending big, in this case for Dutch veteran Edwin van der Sar.
So Howard simply went to Everton – initially on loan – and started 354 Premier League games in 10 years, plus European games in many of those seasons.
When Howard became a meme following his 2014 World Cup performance against Belgium, when he racked up 16 saves, few at Everton or in England could call themselves surprised.
4) DaMarcus Beasley: PSV 2004-07, Manchester City (loan) 2006-07, Rangers 2007-10, Hannover 2010-11
The fleet-footed, skillful winger burst onto the scene at the 1999 U-17 World Championships, taking the Silver Ball while teammate Landon Donovan won the Golden Ball. He started his pro career with the Chicago Fire, then moved to PSV in the Netherlands, where in 2005 he became the first US player to feature in a Champions League semi-final, which the Dutch side lost to AC Milan on away goals.
Injuries halted his progress any further into the European firmament, but he had a few more highlights, including a goal and an assist to help Rangers win the 2008 Scottish Cup final a few months after a devastating injury suffered in Champions League play. His time in Glasgow was certainly eventful – a thief ransacked his car in December 2008, and his car was firebombed in February 2010.
After a brief stint at Hannover, he played for a while in Mexico, then returned to MLS. He retired from the Houston Dynamo in 2019 and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame earlier this year.
4) Steve Cherundolo: Hannover 1999-2014
He wasn’t just the right back. He wasn’t just the captain. He was the mayor.
Hannover had only recently been promoted from Regionalliga Nord to the 2.Bundesliga when Cherundolo arrived from the University of Portland. The club made it to the top flight in 2002 and stayed there the rest of his career. Late in that long run, Hannover made two appearances in the Europa League and reached the quarter-finals in 2012. He remained with the club for several years coaching youth teams but moved to the USA in 2021 and took over as head coach of Los Angeles FC in 2022, winning MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield in his first season.
Apparently, playing 400 games for the same club teaches you something about the game.
3) Clint Dempsey: Fulham 2007-12, Tottenham 2012-13, loan spell with Fulham 2014
After some productive years with New England in MLS, the Texas striker arrived at Fulham in January 2007 to join national teammates Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra. Over his time at Craven Cottage, he simply got better and better. So did Fulham. After escaping relegation in 2008 (see the Kasey Keller entry above), Fulham moved solidly into midtable and made the Europa League final in 2010.
Dempsey’s 17 goals in the 2011-12 Premier League season earned him a transfer to Tottenham, which had established itself as a perennial top-five club. He had a decent season with Spurs, but Seattle came calling, and he returned to MLS to have a few more good years, with a loan back to Fulham for good measure.
2) Christian Pulisic: Borussia Dortmund 2015-19, Chelsea 2019-23, AC Milan 2023-present
Ungrateful Chelsea fans may disagree, but Pulisic has been and remains an impact player in Europe when he’s healthy and allowed to play by managers that aren’t running a perennial Champions League club into the lower half of the Premier League table.
By age 18, he was a part-time starter on a Dortmund squad that reached the Champions League quarter-finals. In his four years with Dortmund, the club never finished lower than fourth in the Bundesliga.
Chelsea also stayed in the top four of its domestic league – when Pulisic was playing regularly. And Chelsea fans with a memory longer than that of a fruit fly may remember that he scored a vital away goal against Real Madrid in the 2020-21 Champions League semifinals, a competition Chelsea just happened to win.
In the ill-fated 2022-23 campaign, only three Chelsea players had a positive plus-minus rating in the Premier League – Jorginho, Benoît Badiashile and Christian Pulisic.
And Chelsea fans booed him on his final appearance.
Chelsea fans may dread a matchup with AC Milan one day. But they’ll have to get back into European competition first. (And, to be fair, Pulisic will have to stay healthy, the biggest hurdle he has faced in his career other than managerial whims.)
1) Brian McBride: Wolfsburg 1994-95, Preston (loan from Columbus) 2000-01, Everton (loan from Columbus) 2003, Fulham 2004-08
Take any criteria you like. Goals. Goals and assists. Games played. Champions League appearances. Key passes into the offensive third while taking on a defender wearing his club’s third jersey.
McBride has one record that may someday be equalled but is unlikely to be exceeded … Pubs named after him on the home ground.
The hard-working target forward didn’t begin his top-flight European career until he was nearly 31 years old. (Wolfsburg was in the 2.Bundesliga when he spent time there before coming home as the first draft pick in MLS history.) It took him less than 10 minutes to find the net (against Kasey Keller, coincidentally). That goal kicked off a glorious eight-game loan spell with four goals for Everton under the watchful eye of David Moyes, who had previously managed McBride during an injury-riddled loan spell at Preston.
Fulham took notice. In January 2004, they purchased McBride from MLS. He again scored on his debut – again against Kasey Keller.
It was a perfect fit. Fulham isn’t a glamorous side, and McBride isn’t a glamorous player. The enduring image of McBride is from the 2006 World Cup, when he calmly walked around with a sea of blood on his face, courtesy of a vicious Daniele De Rossi elbow.
McBride simply gave his heart and soul – and head – to keep Fulham safely ensconced in the Premier League, year after year. The numbers -- 40 goals in 154 games across all competitions – don’t tell the story. Fulham rewarded him with their captaincy. And their chants.
And, at least for a few years until it was removed during a renovation, their pub.