There was a feeling of triumph when USMNT fans first heard that American players had landed at some of the biggest clubs in the world in 2020. It was something of an arrival, not just for the players themselves but the US program as a whole. When you can place players at Barcelona and Juventus, you’re a real-ass footballing nation. It meant that everyone was paying attention to what’s going on around these parts (though Sergiño Dest never really had step foot on these shores but just go with me here). The sheer shock of Weston McKennie’s move to Juventus in the summer of 2020, which came out of nowhere, combined with Dest’s choice between Barcelona and Bayern Munich and choosing to rain fire down the same wing as Leo Messi…we all had our chests puffed out.
You can’t help but feel a little deflated then, when you hear that both might be moving on from each club come the January transfer window. Dest reportedly might get to experience the other half of his 2020 conundrum, heading to Munich. McKennie might be headed to Spurs for real this time, after months of rumors. But that disappointment should only be the initial reflex, because any digging beneath the surface makes it clear these both would be very good moves for both players, and indirectly the national team.
First, both Juventus and Barcelona find themselves in pretty similar situations. Both saw the pandemic completely expose poor financial management that had run amok for years and have crippled both clubs. Which is why Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli was one of the authors of the ill-fated and half-cooked Super League. Both pillars of world soccer have found themselves cash-strapped and unable to throw around their nitrogen-fueled checkbook to solve their problems. They’ve found themselves like a lot of clubs they’ve trampled over for most of their existence. They have to sell players to open up room both on the wage bill and transfer budget to bring anyone new in. They have to maintain a balance. This is a fate worse than death to them, but that’s where they are.
Obviously, things are more dire for Barcelona (who yet somehow found the money for Fernan Torres this week, but we’ll leave that for now). They have to get rid of salary and make some money in transfers just to keep the lights on. And the players they’d like to move along most cause a cod oil face to any club they’re offered to.
Philippe Coutinho is paid in Cortez’s gold every month, and yet can’t get on the field for the 17th straight season or whatever it is since moving from Liverpool. And when he does, no one’s too impressed by watching him send 12 shots from 25 yards in the concession stand per game. Ousmane Dembélé can’t stay healthy for more than a week. Everyone’s forgotten who Clément Lenglet is. Everyone else on the Barca squad are old legends (Piqué, Busquets, Alba) that aren’t worth much to anyone else, or the young kids that Barcelona would like to build their next team around. Even if they were up for selling for some of them, they aren’t worth the transfer prices that Barca need due to having barely played.
In Dest, Barca have a young player that has an established rep (i.e. price) that other teams want. More importantly, other big teams like Bayern Munich want. You can get real money for him. He’s one of the few players Barca can get real money for. And quite frankly, Munich are in a far better place for him to develop and play big matches than Barca is, and probably will be for the next season or two. For reference, see Davies, Alphonso. Julian Nagelsmann is one of the hottest young managers on the planet right now, and helped maintain the pipeline from RB Leipzig to…well, Munich. We don’t know that Xavi isn’t a moron yet. The thoughts of Dest and Davies terrorizing teams down both flanks sends a shudder down everyone’s spine. There is a set style and structure at Bayern. There is very much not at Barca. It’s all good.
As for McKennie, it’s some of the same story. Juventus’s squad has gotten old and needs turning over. It would be great if McKennie were part of that turning into the next great Juve squad, but they’re also short on options. Frederico Chiesa is probably a $100 million player, and there just aren’t that many teams that can afford that. Matthijs de Ligt is pretty much the same story, and both are going to be central to whatever Juve become in the next few seasons. McKennie is more than young enough to still be shaped, doesn’t have a salary that lands like a fallen skyscraper every month for clubs, and is desirable. He also isn’t foundational for Juve.
And McKennie needs shaping. It’s hard to think of a better manager for that than Antonio Conte, should these Tottenham rumors come to fruition. McKennie still has some headless running to his game, and is something of a weird, off-the-ball midfielder. Conte will drill him so most of that running makes sense, and probably force him to be better on the ball. Or he will be threatened with murder. And making late runs into the box behind Kane and Son leads one to a lot of space and a lot of chances. In addition, the Premier League is a step up from Serie A. As weird as it sounds, going from Juventus to Spurs is probably the right move for where McKennie is in his career.
We’ll get more Americans onto the squads of the Asgard residents of soccer. Next time they’ll be indispensable. But sometimes, the names of the clubs cover up what those clubs actually are at the moment. All that glitters is not gold, and Dest and McKennie could very well find that out in the next few weeks. And they’ll be better for it.