How the discovery of Mikkel Diskerud launched the U.S. men’s national team’s worldwide search for talent
By Seth Vertelney
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in our Summer 2013 issue. With the U.S. national team’s winter training camp drawing to a close, and several of the young players mentioned in the piece vying for spots on the U.S. World Cup roster — including Mix Diskerud and John Anthony Brooks — it seemed like a good time to post it.
One afternoon in January 2008, Thomas Rongen was coaching the United States Under-20 national team at a tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico. The U.S. U-20s were matched up against a youth squad from the Norwegian club Stabaek. “Since this was a friendly tournament, I ended up standing next to their head coach,” Rongen says. “We’re just chatting and I go, ‘Wow, Number 10 is a great player. Is he playing on the Norway national team?’ He goes, ‘Just so you know, this kid has an American passport.’”
Rongen was stunned. In the middle of Mexico, he had stumbled upon a player who could help the U.S. U-20s. After the game, he spoke to Number 10, Mikkel Diskerud, who was born in Norway but eligible for the U.S. because his mother was born in Arizona. Three months later, Diskerud was playing for Rongen’s U-20s, and two years after, he earned his first senior cap for the U.S.
Rongen’s discovery gave him an idea. “I said, if we can find a guy in Mexico who plays in Norway with dual citizenship, why not do a little bit of research and see if I can find some other players?” He met with USSF officials, laid out his case, and asked for a budget for his project. The idea of a list tracking U.S.-eligible players overseas wasn’t completely new to the federation, but the scope of Rongen’s plan was. He got “a small budget” to travel and spread the gospel of U.S. soccer. The List was underway.
[B]ryan Arguez is a name only die-hard U.S. fans will recognize. He played for several U.S. youth national teams but has struggled to make an impact at the club level. Now 24, he currently plays for Minnesota United FC of the NASL. But Arguez may wind up having a bigger impact on the U.S. national team than some of the players currently on Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster. As Rongen began assembling The List, Arguez — then on the U.S. U-20 team told him that three of his Hertha Berlin teammates had U.S. passports.
Rongen pounced, contacting Terrence Boyd, John Anthony Brooks, and Jerome Kiesewetter. All three were born in Germany to American serviceman fathers and German mothers. All three have now played for U.S. youth teams, and Boyd has graduated to the senior level. Brooks, a hulking, 20-year-old center back, is perhaps America’s top young prospect, though he refused a recent invitation to play with the U.S. U-20s.
Rongen used his budget efficiently. On U-20 trips abroad, he would journey alone a few days ahead to meet with players and coaches, but he found most of the names on The List just by picking up his phone. “When the word got out, I was contacted almost daily about players on all levels,” he said. “Sometimes by agents, sometimes by parents, sometimes by coaches, sometimes by just people I knew who were in those countries.” The List began to grow, ballooning, eventually, to an estimated four hundred players from all corners of the globe.
Using foreign-born players is not a new phenomenon for the United States. German-born Thomas Dooley, Dutch-born Earnie Stewart, and French-born David Régis all featured prominently in the 1990s. But players were brought into the fold as established professionals; their chances of playing for their birth nations were slim to none. Targeting younger players can be more problematic. “[The USSF] knew it would ruffle some feathers,” Rongen says of his recruiting mission. “Germany got somewhat upset when I approached a player from Bayern Munich who played for the Under-17 German national team.”
That player — Mainz forward Shawn Parker — is a rising star in Germany, but has U.S. eligibility through his serviceman father. The German federation wasn’t about to let him get away. “I could just tell something was wrong as I talked to him on the phone,” Rongen says. “He said, ‘Well, I can’t really talk to you.’”
Under intense pressure from his home federation, Parker cut ties with the U.S. program. Rongen calls Parker, now a Germany youth international and Bundesliga regular at just 20 years old, “one that I couldn’t crack.” (The German federation has been on the other side of this tug-of-war in the past, awarding more than one hundred caps each to the Polish-born players Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski.)
Did they care about the crest? We opted out of a few players we felt didn’t do it for the right reasons.”
Integrating foreign-born players into the U.S. national team also presents a unique set of challenges. Rongen treated each encounter more like a job interview than a courtship. He needed “to have a keen understanding of how serious these players were about representing the United States,” he says.“To me, that was the most important thing. Did they care about the crest? We opted out of a few players we felt didn’t do it for the right reasons.”
The List included a growing number of players born in the U.S. who are signing with foreign teams at a young age — players like Ben Lederman of California, who, in 2010, became the first American to enroll at FC Barcelona’s La Masia academy. He was 10 years old at the time.
Omar Salgado was born in El Paso to an American mother and Mexican father. At 15, he left U.S. Soccer’s residency program in Bradenton, Florida, to sign with Chivas de Guadalajara in Mexico. While at Chivas, he got the itch to return to the United States. Rongen reached out. “He was under a lot of pressure from the Mexican federation and from his club,” Rongen says of Salgado, who had represented Mexico at the U-17 and U-20 level. “We emailed a couple times,” says Salgado, “and I told him that I wanted to play for the U.S. and I wanted to play for him. At the moment I couldn’t, because I was at Chivas.”
Chivas has a strict policy: its players must be eligible to play for the Mexican national team. After the emailing started, the young forward’s days in Mexico were numbered. In 2011, he signed with MLS after Vancouver selected him with the first overall pick of the 2011 SuperDraft.
[R]ongen was fired after the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup. Later that year, he met with U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and top assistant Martin Vasquez in Miami. He presented them with a copy of The List, and walked away from the U.S. Soccer program. “I have no idea what they’ve done with it since,” he says.
According to U.S. Soccer, The List is an ongoing project. “The data is tracked every day, in one way or another, by our technical staff, from top to bottom,” says Jim Moorhouse, director of the youth national teams.
Rongen is now academy director for Toronto FC in Major League Soccer. His involvement with the U.S. program is over, save for a few conversations with Tab Ramos, his replacement with the U-20s. “Tab calls me once in a while and says ‘I looked at The List again — what do you know about this guy?’” Rongen says. “He’s brought in some players who have done well for him, in particular kids who were playing in Mexico.”
The U.S. will take part in the U-20 World Cup this summer in Turkey. The U.S. men are currently trying to qualify for the main event next summer in Brazil. Both of those rosters will undoubtedly feature a few names that appeared on The List Rongen did so much to create. And for that, U.S. Soccer can be thankful its U-20 team faced Stabaek on that blistering afternoon in Mexico five years ago.