For American soccer players competing overseas, like RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen and Haji Wright, this Thanksgiving is shaping up to be unlike any other.
During most seasons spent abroad, the Thanksgiving holiday serves as a reminder of just how far away a player’s loved ones are. The warm blanket that is reuniting with family is often absent, and it can add to a sense of isolation.
It’s a sacrifice American players have been making for decades — trailblazers overseas like Claudio Reyna, Steve Cherundolo and Clint Dempsey, to name but a few — but this time around, the chances to connect will steer more toward the virtual than normal. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited international travel, as well as movement on a more local level. There’s also the rather unsettled nature of what’s going on in the U.S. as 2020 draws to a close.
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“It’s a bit difficult for me, not to be home with the family and celebrating with everybody,” Wright, who plays in Denmark with SuperLiga side SønderjyskE, told ESPN. “But I’d say definitely this year is even more special with everything going on in the world, especially in the States with the election, the rioting, the protests. You add COVID-19 to that and the lockdowns? It’s been quite a year.”
ESPN highlights the biggest stories around USMNT stars plying their trade overseas, bringing inside information to their successes and struggles, sitting down with some of the national team’s top players and scouting the next generation of Americans breaking through across Europe.
For that reason, the recollections of Thanksgivings past are even more front of mind.
First, there’s the food. For Steffen, it’s the desserts — cream puffs, especially. For Wright, it’s his mom’s mac and cheese as well as the sweet potato pie. Adams is all about stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy.
Then there’s the time spent with family, be it around the dinner table or in the backyard. It’s why for Adams, Thanksgiving was hands down “always my favorite holiday.” That’s especially true now that his brothers are scattered at universities around the U.S. The holiday was a way of bringing everyone together, even for just a short time.
“We had the Turkey Bowl every year,” Adams told ESPN. “It was usually two against two with my brothers, and then my dad as the all-time quarterback. We always did oldest versus youngest, so it was me and Darryl against Dylan and Donovan. And then, the first one to cry from one of my younger brothers, my dad was like, ‘You guys got to switch teams because I can’t hear this.’ You can imagine. It got pretty intense. The first up to eat at the dinner table was whoever won.”
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For Steffen, especially as his professional career began to take off, Thanksgiving was a respite from the game’s grind.
“I think my family does a really good job of stepping back and seeing the important moments that we spend together,” he told ESPN. “And how big they are and massive they are for just camaraderie and love. A lot of families don’t get that, so my mom is definitely very big on recognizing how lucky and blessed we are.”
The pandemic’s impact on Thanksgiving has been driven home this week. Wright will spend the holiday with his girlfriend, Jana, although he was visited recently by his mother Serena and his brother Hanif. Adams’ girlfriend, Sarah, whom he describes as a “holiday enthusiast” who usually goes all-out for Thanksgiving, is back in the U.S., so he’ll be solo. There’s also the fact that duty calls with his club team.
“There won’t even be an attempt for me [to cook] without my girlfriend here,” he said. “I’m just bringing home food from the training ground and then I guess I’m gonna have to celebrate on FaceTime. My parents will 100 percent FaceTime me, because all my brothers will still be home. And then, there won’t be too much to it because we’ll prepare on the weekend for an away game, so I’ll leave [for that] the next day.”
Haji Wright and his family pose for a photo as they celebrate Thanksgiving in 2019. The Wright family
A year ago, Steffen’s family visited when he was playing on loan with Fortuna Dusseldorf in Germany. That won’t be possible this time, but he’s still aiming for something adventurous. With U.S. women’s national team players Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle playing for Man City’s women’s team, there’s a hope that the three of them, along with another Man City women’s star, Canadian international Janine Beckie, might be able to get together — responsibly distanced, of course — and celebrate the holiday.
The fact that the U.S. women will face the Netherlands in Breda the day after Thanksgiving — Watch LIVE on Friday, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (U.S.) — precludes anything happening on the holiday itself, while COVID-19 protocols could scuttle any plans to get together, but Steffen is determined to do something. It doesn’t help that he’s not a great cook, but he’s counting on his friend Dylan Hurley to pick up the slack.
“He likes to cook a lot and so he and I will chef up a good bit of it,” Steffen said. “And I think we might have everybody bring their own dish, so keep the fun.”
Together, they’ll remember that even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, there’s still plenty to be thankful for. – Jeff Carlisle
A few minutes with … Aron Johannsson
American striker Aron Johannsson tells ESPN FC MLS could be his next move if he leaves Hammarby in January.
Aron Johannsson hasn’t played a competitive match for the U.S. since the Yanks crashed to a fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup. Not long after came the forward’s move from AZ Alkmaar to Werder Bremen, where he would go on to miss 83 games across four seasons through wide-ranging injuries, from his hips to his adductors and his ankles.
But a move to Swedish giant Hammarby in 2019 has seen the now-30-year-old return to the form that made him such a tantalizing prospect for the USMNT when he was recruited as an Icelandic-American dual-national by Jurgen Klinsmann in 2013. He has netted 11 goals in 21 Allsvenskan appearances this season, and is hopeful of returning to the national team fold under Berhalter.
He spoke with our Sebastian Salazar about staying healthy, his success in Stockholm, his excitement surrounding the U.S. men’s national team’s crop of talented young players, and a potential future in Major League Soccer.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN FC, Aron Johannsson recalls training with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Hammarby.
Stock watch: Assessing the ups and downs of Americans abroad
Haji Wright, SønderjyskE — On the rise : After two barren seasons split between Schalke 04 and VVV-Venlo (two goals in 30 games), the once-highly touted striker has revitalized his career since arriving in Denmark in August. With six goals in eight games, Wright leads the Danish SuperLiga in scoring and was named the league’s player of the month for October.
“It’s been a good start. I’m really proud and really happy to have started the way I have. I put in a lot of hard work over this offseason, and I think that’s showing right now,” Wright told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle. “Because of COVID and everything, it gave me no other option than to just focus on my craft really. I was pretty much locked up with my younger brother and we were just really, honestly, training for multiple hours a day every day.”
Wright has put himself back on the radar of the United States national team, and if he continues his recent form could earn a call-up by Gregg Berhalter in the coming months.
Christian Pulisic, Chelsea — Holding steady : Pulisic has been out of action since Oct. 31, when he aggravated a hamstring injury in the warm-up ahead of the Chelsea’s match with Burnley.
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Tuesday’s Champions League contest against Stade Rennes marked the fourth match the 22-year-old has missed because of the injury, with the initial hamstring injury keeping him out seven games, but he has been declared fit for Sunday’s mouthwatering fixture against Tottenham Hotspur. The West London club is working to vary team sessions with more individual work and adjust his load limits to guard against future breakdowns, sources told ESPN’s James Olley.
Reggie Cannon, Boavista — On the rise : Cannon has gone the full 90 minutes in each of Boavista’s seven Primeira Liga matches this season, which is no mean feat considering he left FC Dallas for Portugal 10 days before his new club’s league campaign got underway. The 22-year-old also impressed with the U.S. men’s national team in its demolition of Panama.
Sources told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle that the Texas native has impressed coaching staffs at Boavista and the national team alike with his improved positioning and one-on-one defending, but they want to see him add more end product to his game.
Tim Ream, Fulham — Trending down : Taking the step back up to the Premier League, the veteran center back was always going to face increased competition for a starting spot. After starting four of Fulham’s first five games, the St. Louis native has seen his playing time decrease with summer signings Joachim Andersen and Tosin Adarabioyo preferred in his place. Ream has not gotten off the bench in Fulham’s past three games, but sources told Tom Hamilton that the 33-year-old has been in this position before and is confident he’ll come through it again.
With Fulham having conceded three goals against Everton at the weekend, Ream will strive to push his way back into the starting XI ahead of tough tests against Leicester City, Manchester City and Liverpool.
Scouting report: Richard Ledezma
Over the course of an eventful few weeks this fall, Phoenix-born Richard Ledezma made his Eredivisie debut for PSV Eindhoven, a Europa League cameo appearance for the Dutch side, and came off the bench to collect his first U.S. cap in the 6-2 defeat of Panama.
The attacking midfielder had already enjoyed a tiny sample of senior football in the USL with Real Monarchs (the reserve team of Real Salt Lake) before moving to the Netherlands in the summer of 2019 on the back of a fine performance against France at the FIFA U20 World Cup. To emphasize his quest for more playing time in the first team, Ledezma registered a spectacular 60-yard assist last weekend as Jong PSV (the club’s development team playing in the second division) drew 3-3 away at MVV.
A neat and tidy playmaker, the young American prefers to operate as a No. 10 or in a deeper No. 8 role akin to the one performed for more than a decade at Barcelona by his idol, Andres Iniesta. Although still a bit over-reliant on his favored right foot, he has a great eye for a defense-splitting through ball — he’s excellent at finding space between the lines and moving the ball quickly with lovely, perfectly measured touches. Great at pulling away from his marker thanks to rapid twists and turns, his agility, well-developed footballing IQ, close control and technical abilities speak in favor of a promising future for both club and country. — Tor-Kristian Karlsen