American players are no longer immune from the negative impacts of big, rich teams stockpiling young players with potential and continuously sending them out on loan.
The dream of many American soccer players, like other players from around the world, is a move to Europe. It’s often a step in an upwards direction on the career progression ladder. And what could be better than signing to play in one of the continent’s top leagues, and more specifically a top team in that league?
I would imagine that Matt Miazga couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face back in 2016 when he left New York Red Bulls after bursting onto the scene as one of the most promising defenders in MLS, and signed for Chelsea FC on a four and a half year deal.
Yet, the USMNT defender played twice for the Blues soon after his arrival, and then was quickly shipped off on loan off to Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands. And this was the beginning of a still-ongoing life of travels of an American defender.
After a couple relatively successful Dutch years, the Jersey boy next headed to Nantes in France, where he only made eight appearances for the Ligue 1 side during a disappointing season.
Miazga came back to England for the next campaign, but didn’t stay in London. Instead Chelsea sent him on a short road trip, 40 miles west of Stamford Bridge, where he toiled in the Championship for a season with Reading. To be honest, he did quite well in England’s second level, making 38 appearances and even banging in a couple of goals.
The young man who actually played a game for the U18 Polish national team at one time, must have thought he was ready for life in the Premier League after his years of being a mostly-successful on-loan player in decent leagues.
However, the Chelsea hierarchy obviously disagreed with this sentiment, because they promptly bought him a plane ticket to Brussels and he stayed there for a year during the pandemic-stricken season to earn a starting position on Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht side. Like in the previous year, he played well on a mediocre team, though les Mauves had fallen from the top of the Pro League standings.
Finally comes the Summer of 2021, the pandemic season has ended, and the American has returned to England ready to finally be one of the Blues on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, Miazga once again started the pre-season back with his parent team and American compatriot Christian Pulisic.
It was a good preseason for the journeyman, but obviously not good enough because he was once again jettisoned by his parent team, and received a fourth mainland European stamp in his passport. Encouragingly, this next stop was Spain’s top division, arguably the best league in Europe, albeit with one of the on-paper worst teams in the division.
And again, his foreign tour started off well for Alaves, where he played solid defense for a rather bad team that just couldn’t score a goal, but his day-to-day spot in the starting eleven simply didn’t last. It’s now December 2021 and instead of collecting splinters on a London bench, he’s doing that in sunny Spain.
Miazga’s situation is hardly unique, even for Americans, as the massive amounts of money flowing into the game within the English system has led teams to stockpile players as even low-margin investments that will hardly do more than break even, in the financial sense.
Manchester City, one of the richest and most egregious buy-now-loan-later teams, also went down that road, signing a couple of Yanks that will probably never play for them.
The first is a defender that they signed at the beginning of the 2017-18 season. Erik Palmer-Brown was a product of Sporting Kansas City before the richest team in the world signed him, and subsequently sent him out on load that same season. The following year they sent him out again to a different team and then a different team after that. And so on.
He ended up in Belgium (Kortrijk), the Netherland (Breda) and then Austria (Vienna Wein). This season he’s out there again, this time with Troyes in France, where, to put it mildly, it’s not going well. Although he has arguably progressed with game-time over the years, for example playing 52 times in the Austrian capital over his two seasons there, so far his time at ESTAC has been terrible.
Like Miazga, this season is turning into a failure, albeit without the initial moments of hope in the beginning.
“Citeh” also signed another American in early-2018, and the world is still scratching their collective heads and asking, “Why?” I’m talking about the once blossoming USMNT contributor who is Mix Diskerud. The Norwegian born American signed for NYC FC in the MLS back in 2015, which is owned by the same country, um, “group” as the Manchester team.
Having been voted the most overrated player in MLS, he was exiled on loan to Sweden and somehow ended up signing for the Blues. Having never played for them (and almost certainly never playing for them in the future), he’s been out on loan to Sweden, Korea, back to Sweden and then a stint in Turkey. This season he started in that powerhouse league on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.
When I was in my early-30s, I also thought about having a plum job on a beautiful island, just a short drive from the coast, but it just didn’t work out as well for me.
Unlike Miazga and Palmer-Brown, who have a handful of national team caps between them and will only get better, why oh why did Citeh sign Diskerud to a long-term contract, a player with no chance of playing for them, no marketability to speak of, and a future of season-long loans?
OK, one last player, perhaps the most successful of the bunch.
Cameron Carter-Vickers is a product of the Tottenham Hotspur youth setup and has been with them since 2009. He has never played for their senior squad though, as one would expect with his inclusion in this article, he has been out on loan. A lot!
Currently with Glasgow Celtic where he has been putting in consistently strong performances, he has also played for six other teams in the English Championship in order to reach this point. At least he has the consistency of having never left the Island.
In contrast to his compatriots described above, who have never had the chance to suit up for their “home” team, will he ever play a competitive game for Spurs? The jury is still out. He’s only 23 years old and the North London team is a pale shadow of the squad that miraculously reached the Champions League final in 2019, so there is still a chance that one day he will.
This is not unusual for big teams, especially those with big budgets, to buy up a bunch of players like children buy candy. But they don’t want to eat their candy; they want to give it away.
All in all, why does this “loan army” phenomenon continue to grow in the English game, and increasingly suck in a larger number of once-promising, young American players? Do these teams think that it’s good business to buy up a lot of players, not only American players, and then send them off on loan season after season?
Perhaps it is good enough business for them if they manage to find one player, out of every 10 or 20 that will eventually make their roster. Or maybe the finances are a net positive when they are viewed as simple investments, as ever once in awhile, a loaned player will have an impressive season, and then be sold off to a deep-pocketed suitor.
In my humble opinion however, it is not good for the players.
Let’s look at Miazga first. He signed on with Chelsea as a 20 year old, six years ago as of this coming January. Fair play to him, he did play twice for Chelsea due to both starting central defenders out with injuries, but it’s been a life on the road with mixed fortunes since then.
The man who calls Clifton NJ his home town finished the half season in London but is now playing on his fifth different team that the Blues have sent him out to for experience and game time. The only reason that it’s not six different teams is because he spent two consecutive seasons with Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch top flight, a seeming rarity for players in this situation.
Covering the Americans in Belgium, I have seen Miazga play a few times last season when he was with Anderlecht. He fit in well with the team where he had one of the best defenders in the modern game – Vincent Kompany – as his coach. The Anderlecht fans really took to him and he seemed very comfortable living and playing in Brussels.
I just don’t understand why Vincent Kompany didn’t buy him and keep him with les Mauves, a team that has been rebuilding these past couple of seasons. They are known for putting out some very good players who eventually move on and often make names for themselves. Kompany was one of them, perhaps their greatest success story. Apart from the defense, there is also a very good striker named Romulu Lukaku who is a Belgian international and also plays for Chelsea (although will likely never share the field Miazga).
Youri Tielemans (Leicester City), Leander Dendoncker (Wolverhampton), Celestine Babayaro (former Chelsea and Newcastle) and even Sambi Lokonga, who recently signed for Arsenal have come through the Anderlecht academy and played in the first team before moving across the channel to England.
Miazga would have done himself a very big favor if he stayed with the biggest club in Belgium. He could have continued to build there, and then follow in the footsteps of so many of the team’s successes and head to a higher-profile league. I don’t know why he didn’t; if there was an offer to buy him or not, or perhaps Chelsea still rated him as a future player for them.
The new season started in August and the American was shipped back to the continent, where he’s now hardly playing in Spain (his current Covid quarantine notwithstanding). So it seems obvious to me that when it comes to players going out on loan, The Peter Principle comes into play.
In a nutshell, this principle states that in their professional lives, people are promoted up to their level of incompetence. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not calling Miazga incompetent, only not up to the core level that those with the power over his career need.
In business, which soccer undoubtedly is first and foremost, according to Laurence J. Peter, if someone is performing their job well then it’s time to promote them. If they do well in that position too then, promote them again. If the next promotion however puts them in a job that they’re not very good at, then they’re not going to be promoted again.
The problem in many cases, such as with Miazga’s earlier move from a successful Vitesse period to a largely unsuccessful time at Nantes, is that the player has been moved up the ladder from a loan team where he was very good, into one where he isn’t probably complete rubbish, but still, where he he doesn’t fit in. Instead of developing several years at a level where they are proven performers, there is the temptation of the player and parent club to immediately push him to a higher level, albeit not with the team that actually owns his rights, where he might not be up to the task. The player essentially wastes a season, and the cycle starts anew.
For Miazga, this season at Alaves is increasingly looking to be the second such instance.
In the case of journeymen soccer players, as long as they aren’t good enough for the parent club, the club will push them to the side like an unwanted kitten, since, in the soccer world, even slight incompetence at a high level hurts the bottom line, and money in the English game makes every player replaceable before they have the chance to work and reach the desired level.
In short, all I’m saying is that Miazga and his representatives made a mistake by having him continue on this road to soccer obscurity. Chelsea can keep sending him out on loan with minimal or no financial loss, until his contract runs out and he has to find a new home based on a rather scattered list of job references. Before he knows it he’ll be quite a few years older and heading back to MLS.
For Palmer-Brown and Diskerud, the path has been similarly up and down, with the only positive end in sight being the end of their contracts with Citeh.
Despite all of this doom and gloom there is some ongoing reason for a hope in one case: Cameron Carter-Vickers has been having a very good season with a very good Glasgow Celtic team, where he has helped the team keep more than a few clean sheets from his central defensive position. He’s already been recognized as one of the best central defenders in the league, and is looking like he found a level where he can dominate and grow.
As Yanks Abroad reported last week, the British born American knows when he has a good thing going and may just end up pushing to stay in Scotland.
For the sake of the 23 year-old, I do hope that a deal can be made between the two teams that will give Carter-Vickers a team that actually wants him and will let him play for them, and lift his own profile in the process. He looks on-course to become one of the best in Scotland, and there is nothing against him eventually heading back south after a few more years of seasoning, and getting the big EPL pay-check for a few years.
However, based on the history of not only the Americans left without a place to call home, but also so many other players who continually find themselves in this same situation with “big” English clubs year after year, he might be shoving his cleats into the same locker on a Mediterranean island where his countryman Diskerud did only a few months before.
In the end, there will be more Americans who think they struck it rich when they sign for a big team with a big pay-check, and I will applaud them when they do so. Money talks. I just hope they know when enough is enough and, if necessary, cut the mother club’s umbilical cord and settle down into a home where they belong.