In early 2019, Tyler Boyd found himself in Ankara, Turkey, playing for Ankaragücü in the Turkish Süper Lig, on loan from Vitória S.C. in the Portuguese first division. The 113-year-old club wasn’t footballing purgatory, but it wasn’t exactly London or Madrid or another major soccer center, either.
Boyd played well at Ankaragücü, ultimately scoring six goals in 14 appearances, but he was just another 24-year-old winger. Then, however, he got a phone call. “It actually came out of the blue,” Boyd, now with the LA Galaxy, said. “And yeah, it was a nice surprise.”
On the other end was Gregg Berhalter, head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, inquiring about Boyd’s interest in playing for the American squad. While the player was born in New Zealand and had represented the All Whites in a handful of friendlies, he was eligible to represent the United States as well and had intentionally kept his options open.
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“My dream was to play for the U.S. national team,” Boyd said, “so yeah, I chose not to play any competitive game from New Zealand.” Boyd applied for a switch, which was approved within days. (“My mom is super organized,” he said of dealing with FIFA’s document requirements.)
Four days after FIFA approved the switch, Berhalter named Boyd to the 2019 Gold Cup provisional roster. He would score two goals — including the 1,000th all-time for the U.S. — in the squad’s runner-up effort.
While Boyd’s career has, for the moment, tailed off, he’s another player on a growing list of dual nationals who chose to represent the United States men’s national team in recent years.
Four starters in the Americans’ loss to the Netherlands in the round of 16 at the most recent World Cup — Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson, Jesús Ferreira and Sergiño Dest — all had other options and picked the Stars and Stripes. More recently, it’s been Folarin Balogun, Ricardo Pepi, Alejandro Zendejas, Brandon Vázquez and Aidan Morris pledging their allegiance to the Red, White and Blue. In past years, the Americans missed out on players such as Neven Subotić and Jonathan González, losses whose importance to the overall USMNT program were blown out of proportion but losses nonetheless, but recent history is mostly one of guys saying yes to the jersey.
One reason for the recruitment success is the recent good-vibes-only attitude of this national team, a place where the leaders are in their early 20s and going to camp seems like a genuinely good time. It’s not all been smooth sailing, of course; the rift between Berhalter and Giovanni Reyna has dominated conversations in U.S. Soccer circles for nearly a year, dating back to the World Cup in November. The coach still yet to speak with the Borussia Dortmund standout about their issues, but that apart, the USMNT has been upbeat and drama free.
If the time off from club duty involves flying halfway around the world to play for your country, it’s probably important for that experience to be enjoyable. Serious, yes, but fun, too.
That’s what Boyd experienced during his national team stints. “Everyone’s so humble and so welcoming,” he said. “It’s one of the most special teams I’ve ever been a part of. Everyone’s a brother to each other. I can’t talk highly enough about the group.”
Julian Gressel found the same thing. While the German-born, U.S.-educated winger likely wasn’t going to ever get a call from Die Nationalmannschaft, he still had to go through the process of getting an American passport to join the USMNT. In other words, it took some effort on his part — effort that was rewarded with a January call-up and a spot on this year’s Gold Cup roster.
“You’re part of a culture that it’s just fun to be around,” Gressel said. “That plays a huge role. The coaching staff and U.S. Soccer in general has done a really good job of embracing that and that newness of things.”
It wasn’t always like this. Former under-20 coach and scout Thomas Rongen remembers recruiting John Brooks to play on the youth national team.
I had to fly to Germany, sit in the living room with him and his family, and get permission to take him on a trip every few months because he was underage,” Rongen said. He also played a role in bringing in Julian Green (“Bayern Munich was not happy when I told them I was going to travel over there and watch him play”), Fabian Johnson, Jerome Kiesewetter, Alfredo Morales, Bobby Wood, Sebastian Lletget and Mix Diskerud, whom he noticed at a friendly in Guadalajara.
There is, of course, a danger in upsetting the delicate chemistry of a locker room. The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup can, at some level, be traced to a team broken into factions, faults caused partially due to place of birth.
“We felt like [recruiting dual nationals] might be a bit of a shortcut for us to get a lot better immediately,” Rongen said. “The talk internally was where do we draw the line because we want to be very conscious of the fact that we also promote and develop players who came through the American system.”
It’s a constant battle: improving a team, allowing players to capitalize on the visibility that being part of the U.S. national team brings, making sure guys are in camp for the right reasons and getting better. Berhalter, newly reappointed to the head coach role, has worked hard to rebuild a sense of cohesion and unity in the squad and has mostly succeeded in making the national team somewhere players want to play. His roster for September’s friendlies includes rising Inter Miami CF talent Benjamin Cremaschi, who could also play for Argentina, as well as left-back Kristoffer Lund, who played for Denmark at youth level but applied for a one-time switch to join the U.S.
There’s also Noel Buck, last seen accepting a call to England’s under-19 team and wearing a Three Lions jersey, as well as Luca Koleosho and Nathan Ordaz and Amir Richardson and Jonathan Gomez and Bryan Okoh and Mauricio Isais and Obed Vargas and on and on and on.
The dual-national train keeps rolling; the U.S. increasingly looks like a good stop.