Long before Marcel Schafer was a German national team player and Bundesliga champion at Wolfsburg, he was a 22-year-old entering his third year as a regular at left back at 1860 Munich.
During that 2006-07 2.Bundesliga season, Schafer looked to his right and saw a new signing leading his back line in the form of veteran American center back Gregg Berhalter.
[ MORE: Pulisic scores to finish Chelsea win ]
The now USMNT head coach had just turned 33 when he made his 2.Bundesliga debut for 1860 Munich, months after captaining Energie Cottbus to Bundesliga promotion.
“He was already a leader,” Schafer said during a roundtable with American media on Monday. “It is not always easy for a very young player because a leader telling you very honestly the truth, some positive, some negative. You learn from experienced guys. When I made my step to Wolfsburg he was the first one to call me and congratulate me. We were always in touch, even in my time in the U.S.”
Schafer accepted a move to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2017 largely to the front-office experience that the then-NASL club was willing to offer him.
By that time Berhalter had earned the reputation for making a fine meal out of low-budget spending as the head coach of the Columbus Crew.
“He’s a very very good coach,” Schafer said. “Maybe in a certain time, he’ll wind up in the Bundesliga but first he has a very important job to do with the United States men’s national team.”
[ MORE: McKennie scores first Juve goal ]
The American parallels between Schafer’s playing career and time as sporting director at Wolfsburg — one of two unbeaten teams remaining in the Bundesliga — don’t stop with the Berhalter relationship.
Schafer may not be playing any more, but his left center back is still a United States men’s national team player and its best in John Brooks.
The 27-year-old arrived at Wolfsburg from Hertha Berlin in 2017, mere months after Schafer moved to Tampa.
Brooks is in the form of his career this season, and Schafer is seeing the fruits of the defender’s prime. Brooks is among the top center backs in long passes — below Mats Hummels but above Dayot Upamecano — his terrific vision being met by increased aggression befitting of his 6-foot-4 frame.
[ MORE USMNT: Reyna scores in Dortmund draw ]
ProSoccerTalk asked Schafer about Brooks’ lofty position in the passing stats and the Wolfsburg sporting director pointed to higher goals for the center back, pointing out that the Bundesliga outfit is encouraging Brooks to improve the same thing that Berhalter wants to see out of him in the USMNT set-up.
“His passing skills are on a high level, even compared to Upamecano and Hummels,” Schafer said. “Passing skills, no doubt he has one of the best things, especially left-footed because you have just a few numbers. Sometimes I wish him to be more strong and dominant defender as he was in the last couple of weeks.
“Even Gregg, we have the same opinion. Right now what he needs to do is to say, this is the final step. With his size, he needs to score 4-6 goals every year. If he jumps nobody can stop him. He needs to be our German wall.”
Berhalter said last month that Brooks “is as steady as they come in terms of his personality … When the level steps up, that’s where he can step up as well. He’s shown that he can adapt to the game.”
Schafer, who dismissed talk that Brooks could transfer with just over 18 months left on his deal, is “very proud” of how the USMNT tower has come with Wolfsburg.
While Brooks has played every single minute of Wolfsburg’s 10-match unbeaten run to start the Bundesliga season, he earned status as starter was not automatic.
“We had a long and very honest conversation,” Schafer said. “He learned from the things we told him and the last couple of weeks are his best performances since he’s been in Wolfsburg. He’s dominated. He is a huge factor in our having one of the best defenses in the Bundesliga. I’m very proud of him and everyone knew he was not really in the plan with the coach but he was patient and he got his chance and performed at a really high level.”
Schafer later added, “With more consistency, he can be one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga.”
In addition to Brooks and USMNT youngster Ulysses Llanez — more on him later — Wolfsburg has a number of Americans at different stages of development.
USL transplant Bryang Kayo (18) is on Wolfsburg II and Schafer says Kayo has made “a great impact” and is working on his decision-making in the final third. Also with Wolfsburg II is former DC United center back Michael Edwards (20). LA Galaxy product Kobe Hernandez-Foster (18) is a left back with Wolfsburg’s U-19s and Isaiah Thomas is with the U-17s.
Schafer credits his time in Tampa with giving him added confidence in the American market, noting that blue-collar synergy with owners Volkswagen and NISA club Chattanooga FC.
“I learned more about the mentality from the U.S. players,” Schafer said. “I was really impressed. They were always ready to learn. They asked me a lot of things. That’s why we signed a few more American players in our club. I can confirm that American players have a very good mentality and mentality is very very important in my country. We are a worker town. We are Volskwagen. So if we sign players we have to check that the mentality is the right thing for Wolfsburg.”
That brings us back to Llanez, who Schafer admits was in between a rock and a hard place due to his age and experience.
Llanez, 19, headed to Wolfsburg’s academy from LA Galaxy II in 2019 after scoring twice with an assist in 12 USL outings by the age of 17.
He tore up the U-19 Bundesliga Nord with 11 goals and six assists in 16 games last season and Wolfsburg felt Llanez needed a step between Wolfsburg II and the Bundesliga.
“Uly was our top top top young talent last season,” Schafer said. “He had a very impressive U-19 season. Our second team is in the fourth league in Germany. Fourth league to first league with (Champions League ambition), that’s a huge step. We have to be honest. We had a long discussion with player and agent and we found a step to Holland where a lot of young players get chances is better than staying at Wolfsburg and sometimes being a sub in the first league.”
Schafer looped Llanez into heady territory when asked why American players like Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna have made waves in Germany.
“Everybody is looking for top speed,” Schafer said. “Both of the players are really quick, really mobile, can handle 1-against-1 and that’s what I learned from the U.S. In Germany there is a huge discussion to have everyone able to play every position. What we miss now is players who are creative, who handle 1-against-1, who are a little bit crazy on the pitch. Pulisic, Reyna, Llanez, they are major 1-against-1 players and that’s what we can learn from the U.S.”
Schafer pointed to Atlanta United as a shining example of how Major League can be a stopgap between top South American talent and the upper leagues of Europe, citing Newcastle United’s Miguel Almiron as a player who took his game to the next level in MLS.
But he was also wary of the cost of playing the game at a youth level in the United States. Schafer was very surprised that he paid soccer tuition for his kids while here, comparing the $2000 per kid to the 60 euros his family plays to join a club in Europe.
“I said we will spend the money but it’s not the right system,” Schafer said. “Some parents are not in the situation to pay $2000 a year for kids to play soccer. You need to find the right way to create a fair system. … You have to think of a system, a bonus system, where the club that develops player or get them to the national team. … Money should be not the factor in whether (young players) get developed or not.”
Wolfsburg has a challenging few days ahead, with a home top-half clash against Eintracht Frankfurt on Friday before a visit to Bayern Munich five days later.