At 15, Russell Canouse left for Germany to find his soccer future. The midfielder had already spent two years with the PA Classics near his childhood home of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and another two with the New York Red Bulls academy before signing with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. He played for the storied club’s youth sides between 2011 and 2013, then made 51 appearances for Hoffenheim II between 2013 and 2016. On March 12, 2016, Canouse came on as a sub in a match against VfL Wolfsburg, his first — and final — showing for Hoffenheim’s first team.
Canouse went on loan with VfL Bochum during the 2016-17 season, making 20 appearances for the club that finished ninth in Germany’s second division, but his progress stalled. He needed to make a decision about what came next and last August, he did. After six and a half years abroad, the former captain of the U.S. U20 team returned to Major League Soccer, signing with a D.C. United club that was desperate for talent and excited to secure his services.
“[Canouse] is a dominant holding midfielder with great talent and vision, especially as a young player,” said Dave Kasper, United’s general manager and VP of soccer operations, in a team release announcing the move.
For Canouse, the choice came down to one thing: playing time.
“I grew as a player, grew as a person through those years [in Germany],” he said at the U.S. national team’s January camp. “I could have stayed over there but I needed to play. For a 22-year-old like myself, playing time is key. I need to put myself in situations where I can play and develop.”
In the nation’s capital, playing time wasn’t guaranteed but it was much easier to find. Canouse started the team’s final 10 games of the season, helping the last-place squad to a 4-5-1 record over those matches. (United was 5-15-4 before he arrived.) The midfielder’s strong run of form earned him a first call to a U.S. senior team camp, and as a result, his prospects for 2018 looked bright before a knee injury in preseason wiped out the first two months of the campaign.
Canouse is hardly the only American of his generation who went to Europe as a youth player, found some fleeting but unsustainable success and then returned to MLS.
Brooks Lennon, 20, joined Liverpool in 2015 only to come back to Real Salt Lake on loan in 2017 and sign permanently for the club in January. Philadelphia Union academy product Zack Steffen, now 23, spent 2014-16 with German club Freiburg, making 14 appearances for the reserve side before signing with the Columbus Crew in July 2016 and becoming the MLS club’s No. 1.
Paul Arriola didn’t go to Europe, but he did spend 2013-17 with Club Tijuana before D.C. United paid a $3 million transfer fee last summer (plus allocation money) to the LA Galaxy for the rights to the 23-year-old U.S. international.
Such moves used to be cause for concern, but the MLS these players are rejoining is a different league than the one they left in terms of depth, quality and coaches who are willing to test younger players.
“When you watched MLS a couple years back, around the time I was leaving to England, it was mainly the older guys getting all the minutes,” said Lennon. “And the younger guys would play on their USL teams or get minutes here and there. As the years have gone on, more coaches and teams have been more open to playing the youth.”
While the truth of Lennon’s statement across the league is debatable — there are at least some coaches and clubs that seem at loathe to “play the kids” — he’ll get chances. So will Arriola, Canouse and Steffen. But there’s a question as to whether they can get better by joining the domestic league. The improving financial situation of MLS makes coming home a soft landing; players such as Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo, who went to Europe at a young age only to return to MLS in their early-20s, have struggled to progress in significant ways. (In Shea’s case, he’s clearly regressed.)
There’s something to be said for having to break through and force your way into the lineup because of your will, desire and ability. MLS squads aren’t as deep as European rosters, but by definition players who come back won’t face the same level of competition for minutes. So it’s a balance. They will have more chances to play, getting those valuable first-team starts, but they might not have to fight as hard for those spots.
Steffen has his starting role locked up. Arriola has started six of D.C.’s eight games this season, and Canouse should prove just as important once he returns to full fitness — both are high-priced acquisitions who are expected to produce. Lennon started three out of the final four games of 2017, and he’s only become more vital to RSL in 2018, starting eight of 10 matches.
It will be up to each one of them to be the driving force behind their development; after all, individual improvement comes down to the will of each individual player. A coach can only set up a situation to excel, and the player must provide his own motivation to succeed. The previous generation of Americans returning to MLS by and large failed to do so, but this generation might be different.
“I don’t ever want to feel comfortable,” said Canouse. “A key for younger players is to put yourself in uncomfortable situations where you’re getting challenged every day.”
It helps that these players continue to have aspirations that extend beyond MLS. Both Canouse and Lennon are cognizant of their youth, knowing that a couple of strong seasons in the U.S. could land them back across the pond.
“I grew up in the German system,” said the D.C. United midfielder. “The clubs know me there. I can do well in MLS, and a club in Germany, the Premier League or somewhere in Holland could see me [and sign me].”
Lennon also expressed hope that he can return to Europe in the future. In the short term, however, he has found a home: “Hopefully I can be here for a while.” Hopefully he keeps improving while he’s here.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.