An XI of ex-MLS players thriving in Europe: Davies, Almiron, Harrison…

There was once a time when the only movement between elite-level European football and Major League Soccer was ageing superstars moving stateside in search of one final payday. That still happens, of course, but we’re increasingly seeing rising stars go in the other direction.

Nowadays the major European leagues are full of talented players that first cut their teeth in MLS – a real sign that it’s a league on the up. Scouts are continuing to look closely at the top clubs in the United States and Canada for emerging talent.

There are a number of notable USA internationals – such as Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Folarin Balogun – that made their break in Europe, but a number of the best American players got their first senior opportunities in America’s premier competition.

We’ve put together a full XI, arranged in a 4-4-2 formation.

GK: Matt Turner

The New Jerseyan made over 100 MLS appearances for New England Revolution and made such an impression that Arsenal moved to sign him in 2022.

Turner never appeared for the Gunners in the Premier League but acquitted himself well in his handful of cup appearances. He’s now playing regularly for Nottingham Forest.

A penalty-saving phenomenon, too.

READ: 9 goalkeepers freakishly good at saving penalties: Turner, Handanovic…

RB: Alistair Johnston

Ange Postecoglou spoke openly of his desire to explore untapped markets when it came to building his title-winning Celtic squad, predominantly looking to Asia.

But the Scottish champions looked to North America in their final transfer window under Postecoglou in January 2023. Canadian right-back Johnston was signed from CF Montreal and made an instant impact as Celtic went on to claim the domestic treble.

He remains a player of real importance under Brendan Rodgers.

CB: Mark McKenzie

A regular USA international, McKenzie goes under the radar somewhat at Belgian Pro League side Genk.

But he’s quietly been very impressive during his time in Europe, having left Philadelphia Union after shining in their Supporters’ Shield triumph of 2020.

It wouldn’t be a major surprise to see the 24-year-old centre-back move to a club in one of Europe’s major leagues in the coming years. He remains contracted at Genk until 2025.

CB: Tim Ream

It’s well over a decade since Ream played in the MLS, such is his longevity in the game.

The defender was just making a name for himself at New York Red Bulls back when Thierry Henry rocked up there in 2010. He later recalled:

“I think when you look at some of the players that were at the club at the time, just being around the likes of Thierry Henry, the likes of Rafa Marquez, Teemu Tainio, guys who have played in Europe, who played in big leagues, they kind of just showed me what it is to be a professional.”

Bolton were still a Premier League side when he joined them back in 2012. He’s since spent the last 11 years in the English game and has earned his status as a modern-day Fulham hero with 300 appearances for the Cottagers.

LB: Alphonso Davies

It was during Bayern Munich’s 2019-20 treble-winning season that people first sat up and took notice of MLS’ ability to produce genuinely elite-level talent.

Davies was an absolute whirlwind of pace and energy that history-making year, and his display in the 8-2 mauling of Barcelona is surely one of the great individual Champions League performances.

The Bayern Roadrunner was made in MLS. He credits those key development years with Vancouver Whitecaps for becoming the player he is today.

“By the time I left the Whitecaps in November 2018, I was completely different from the shy kid who had turned up there more than four years earlier,” he wrote in The Players’ Tribune.

“I knew where I was going. I knew what was happening for me. When I got to Bayern, I wasn’t too nervous. I just wanted to show people that I could play at this level. And since I had come such a long way, I wanted to play with a smile on my face. I still remind myself of that.”

RW: Miguel Almiron

The Paraguayan was one of the star players of Atlanta United’s MLS Cup victory back in 2018. He was so impressive that Newcastle for what was then a club-record £21million.

He was written off by many as a flop – once famously mocked by Jack Grealish – after struggling for goals and assists in his early years with the Magpies.

But Almiron looks a player transformed now that there’s more quality around him. He’s been exceptional in the Magpies’ rise under Eddie Howe – with his goal against PSG producing one of the loudest roars St. James’ Park has ever heard.

CM: Tyler Adams

Admittedly Adams isn’t thriving right now, having barely featured for new club Bournemouth. In fact, he’s barely featured at all in 2023 after struggling with a hamstring injury.

But the USA captain was impressive in an otherwise shambolic Leeds team, who might have stayed up if he stayed fit – their results dovetailed after he became sidelined.

Leeds struggled to shift players in the summer, but the fact that they found a buyer for Adams – for a small profit, no less – speaks of his proven quality in the Premier League.

CM: Ismael Kone

Like Davies, Kone was born in Africa, raised in Canada, and developed by MLS club Montreal.

The midfielder represented Les Rouges at the World Cup in Qatar before moving to Championship club Watford in January.

CONCACAF Men’s Player of the Year in both 2021 and 2022, Kone is yet to turn the Hornets’ fortunes around. But he looks a quality addition to an otherwise flawed side.

LW: Jack Harrison

“I went to Manchester United academy, I was there until the age of 14 and my Mum did a lot of research and provided me with this opportunity to go to the US on a football scholarship,” Harrison recalled of his unique football journey in an interview with Football Focus.

“I started my professional career in New York City which was unbelievable. It was a great platform. And then I made my way back across the pond to England.”

The attacking midfielder played alongside Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo in New York and showed enough promise to be snapped up by their sister outfit Manchester City.

But it was at Bielsa’s Leeds where Harrison really took things up a level. He was a dedicated and consistent servant during a memorable period for the club.

Now on loan at Everton, he offered a reminder of his quality by scoring an absolute banger on his full league debut.

ST: Taty Castellanos

The Argentinian was talked up as the league’s next great export during his time at New York City, having scored 50 goals in 109 MLS appearances for the club.

Now at Lazio, we’re still waiting for Castellanos to explode into life on a consistent basis in Europe. But the fact that he scored four goals in one game (!) against Real Madrid (!!) while on loan at Girona last season shows he’s not doing too badly for himself.

ST: Ricardo Pepi

One of USA’s great hopes for when they host the World Cup on home soil in 2026, Pepi has had a nomadic time of it since leaving FC Dallas in January 2022.

The striker struggled to catch fire at Bundesliga club Augsburg, failing to score in 16 appearances, but he was much more prolific out on loan at FC Groningen (12 goals in 29 Eredivisie appearances) last term. He’s now found a new home with PSV.

Pepi looks a natural fit for Peter Bosz’s ridiculously attacking side. PSV are top of the table with 100% win record, having scored 25 goals and conceded just two in eight outings so far. They’re already 19 points ahead of crisis club Ajax.

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