With the 2021-22 season boasting the highest-ever number of Americans plying their trade in Italy’s top two divisions, let’s take a detailed look at how things are going so far in “The Boot” of Europe.
With newly-promoted Venezia adding a pair of Yanks to their first team in the summer transfer window, there are no less than six Americans at teams in the top two divisions in Italy. Even though only four of them have earned any playing time worth mentioning, this is still by far the most that Yanks Abroad has had the pleasure of covering the Italian leagues in its nearly 20-year history.
Here, we’ll dive into how the first half of the season has gone so far for the handful of players earning meaningful minutes, take a guess of how things might go – or need to go – in back-end, and take a short retrospect look at our pre-season assessments to say a preliminary “I told you so” or “mea culpa” before the final judgement comes in May, 2022.
Weston McKennie at Juventus
I’ll be blunt here: in the post-Ronaldo ruins of the team known as Juventus, Weston McKennie might have become the team’s most important player.
As recently stated by Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon, the team progressively lost its identity with the 2018 arrival of the Portuguese legend. While this brought some measure of success – two league titles – during these three seasons, they regressed towards a team centered around a single (albeit transcendent) player, instead of a well-balanced team that made them the Italian powerhouse of the last decade.
After Ronaldo’s sudden exit to Manchester United, they have struggled to rediscover the balance. This rediscovery process is slowly progressing, with many bumps along the way, and almost certainly a few still to come.
McKennie has been at the center of it all. And like the team surrounding him, there have been bumps, drama, but better consistency as the season has worn on.
Injuries and suspensions aside, the USMNT star has started in 10 of 15 Serie A games where he suited up (including five more appearances in the Champions League), with two non-appearances in more difficult times in September/October. In terms of minutes, he is on pace to eclipse last season’s total, despite having been unavailable for four games so far due to injury or suspension.
His contribution to the team’s scoring totals is sagging a bit, with only two goals and no assists in his 870 minutes so far, however he has only earned one yellow card so far, whereas he totaled five in 2020-21.
More importantly, he has come on strongly as head coach Massimiliano Allegri’s most reliable starting midfielder since late-October, with his two substitute appearances being due to rotation prior to an important Champions League game, and precaution after returning from his recent knee injury. Otherwise he has been an every-game starter. His role has shifted somewhat from what was expected under prior head coach Andrea Pirlo, assuming more of a robust disruptor role in the midfield, although still with full liberty to join in the attack when the opportunity arises.
These duties suit him well, and as a side-benefit, harmonize nicely with his role alongside current preferred USMNT midfield starters Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah.
In 2022, Juventus still have a full, and high-pressure schedule before the summer, with work in their final 19 Serie A games needed to qualify for next season’s Champions League, the knockout round of this year’s edition starting in February, their run in the Coppa Italia beginning in mid-January, and the sideshow of the Supercoppa Italiana in a couple weeks.
Through it all, McKennie should continue to be one of Allegri’s most important pieces, starting the important games, occasionally be rested in the less critical ones (where Juventus has a bad habit of slipping up), and seeing the team’s fortunes very directly tied to how well he shows on the field.
Juventus probably won’t win the Scudetto this season (in stark contrast to my earlier prediction), but they stand see their €24 million investment McKennie fully pay off every cent and more on the field.
Gianluca Busio and Tanner Tessmann at Venezia FC
McKennie’s resurgence with Juventus has almost been overshadowed by the immediate impact of surprise Venezia acquisition Gianluca Busio, with the more recent integration of even-bigger-surprise acquisition Tanner Tessmann being a bonus.
Venezia was widely expected to be the punching bag of Serie A, yet they are at the halfway point with a six-point safety net. YA’s own pre-season prediction was that neither Busio nor Tessmann would be rushed into the starting lineup….that was only half dead-wrong.
Since joining the team in August from Kansas City in MLS, the 19 year-old Busio has made 18 Serie A appearances, 16 of them starts, racked up just short of 1400 minutes, with one goal and a pair of assists. His set-piece delivery has been an excellent benefit to the team, his tidy 86% passing accuracy to extend possession has helped to keep them from getting overrun as was commonly expected, and overall he has been one of their most important players.
The one notable downside to his season, which serves as a reminder that he is still raw on the defensive side of his play, is his accumulation of three yellow cards so far. Most likely he’ll face a suspension at some point later in the season, however this is an aspect of his game that will slowly improve with maturity.
It’s only halfway through the season, but it’s fair to say that Venezia’s €6 million investment, the most expensive arrival in club history, has already paid off. If they do end up tanking in the back-end and returning to Serie B, a Busio transfer will give them a valuable, likely eight-digit financial parachute. If they keep their form and stay up, he’ll already be a club legend before his 20th birthday.
Tessmann was the less heralded of Venezia’s American arrivals. He was a non-factor for the team through late-October, but has appeared in all but one of their last 12 Serie A and Coppa Italia games, starting three of those. Overall, he has just over 500 minutes in league and cup, has been on the field to help the team lock down nine of their 17 points, and most importantly, has become a preferred substitute option for head coach Paolo Zanetti when close games are on the line.
His play has been at times raw, his passing in pressure situations is often lacking a clear vision, and he did show a hint of recklessness in their most recent game with his late red card (even if it was a borderline harsh call by the referee). Nevertheless, he’s done a proficient job of locking down opponents in the midfield when he’s been frequently brought in during the final 15-20 minutes of close games, and shows a natural urge to storm forward into dangerous positions.
In short, it’s probably a stretch to envision him surpassing the competition and moving into a regular starting role over the next 19 games, but he will come out of his first European season as a more important player for the team, and a far better player than when he first arrived in the summer.
I should add that two young Americans – Jack de Vries and Patrick Leal – are also currently playing with Venezia’s U18 Primavera squad. Having joined in the summer de Vries has been excellent, as the team’s leading scorer with seven goals in 11 games. He made his debut with the first team in their recent Coppa Italia match, and could potentially see league action in 2022 if he continues his progress. Leal was a later addition, and has only appeared three times – all as a substitute – in Primavera play. We’ll keep an eye on his progress.
Andrija Novakovich at Frosinone Calcio
The thrice-capped USMNT forward Andrija Novakovich is having an overall disappointing season so far at Frosinone that is a major regression from a promising 2020-21 campaign. After rumors that he was wanted by other Serie B clubs and Serbian powerhouse Red Star Belgrade, he remained at Frosinone, underwent surgery in the summer, and missed their entire preseason.
This allowed French forward Gabriel Charpentier, on-loan from Serie A club Genoa, to step forward as the main man, relegating Novakovich to a largely bench role. His first appearance this season was on Septemter 25, and since then he has played a total of 385 minutes over 11 games, only three of them starts.
This can only be considered a major step backwards from the previous season, where he netted 11 goals and six assists across 33 games (featuring a hat-trick + assist finale).
His performances after returning started out promising enough, netting a clutch equalizing goal in his third appearance, and an even more important winning assist in his sixth. However, he has been on a dry spell ever since, being an unused substitute for Frosinone in two of their last three games of 2021.
Frosinone is deep in the hunt for a promotion playoff spot (third through eighth places qualify), so it is likely that the in-form Charpentier will remain the main-man and Novakovich will have to fight for minutes wherever he can get them.
It’s a shame that Bryan Reynolds has been relegated to being a footnote of our Italian coverage, but that’s where we are. Few would have expected him to flourish under incoming Roma head coach Jose Mourinho, but the fact that it has gone this poorly is a major disappointment.
The Texan has a grand total of one minute of Serie A action, and one 90-minute appearance in the Europa Conference League, an embarrassing game that saw Roma lose by a 6-1 margin to Norwegians Bodø/Glimt. In short, Reynolds has no place at Roma as long as Mourinho is the coach, and needs playing time to get back into USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter’s graces. Current rumors have Reynolds being a target of Belgian powerhouse Club Brugge and English second-tier team Hull. For the sake of ending what has been nearly a year of stagnation in his development, we can only hope that one of these rumors, or any move to a team that will put him on the field works out.
Lastly, a hardly-known Yank, Giuseppe Barone, joined Serie B team Ascoli Calcio on a free transfer in the summer, having spent the previous season as a bench player at then-Serie B team US Salernitana. The 23 year-old Barone has yet to make a first-team appearance for any of his three Serie B destinations since moving to Italy in early-2020, and has only made Ascoli’s bench one time so far this season. All things considered, even a 2022 debut for the New Yorker would be a step forward.