U.S. Men's National Team players Ricardo Pepi, DeAndre Yedlin, Tyler Adams and Miles Robinson all competed in one of the USL Championship, League One, or League Two at the start of their careers.
As the United States Men’s National Team convened for the final three games of 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying this week, some players now compete for some of the biggest clubs in the world, while others are getting their opportunity for top-flight football in one of Europe’s biggest five leagues.
There’s Manchester City’s Zack Steffen and RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams, or Ricardo Pepi at FC Augsburg and Gianluca Busio at Venezia F.C.
One thing all four of those players – and more than half the current 26-man squad overall – have in common? They’re all alumni of the USL Championship, League One, or League Two, key steps in their individual progression becoming part of the USMNT.
During this World Cup Qualifying cycle overall, 21 different players with experience in a USL competition have been called up by USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter.
“It’s always exciting to see current and former USL Championship, League One and League Two players represent their national teams,” said USL President Jake Edwards. “The number of players with experience in our three senior divisions on the U.S. Men’s National Team during this qualifying cycle speaks to the highly competitive environments we provide, and it underscores the work that our clubs put into scouting and development.”
Here's a look at the 14 Championship, League One and League Two alumni in the current U.S. squad for World Cup Qualifiers on March 24 (Mexico vs. USA), March 27 (USA vs. Panama) and March 30 (Costa Rica vs. USA).
Tyler Adams – New York Red Bulls II (2015-16): The first signing in New York Red Bulls II history may no longer be its youngest, but Tyler Adams’ progression from the USL Championship to the USMNT and one of the top clubs in Europe was an early indicator of the potential for the player path from the league that others are now following. Adams made 33 appearances across the Championship’s regular season and playoffs on his way to helping the Red Bulls II win the Championship Final in 2016, logging more than 2,400 minutes in the league. He is now one of the key figures for the USMNT, having made 24 appearances at the senior level while closing in on 100 appearances for RB Leipzig in all competitions.
George Bello – Atlanta United 2 (2018-20): George Bello took his first steps into the professional ranks with Atlanta United 2 as a 16-year-old during the 2018 season. He went on to make 19 appearances overall and record one goal in just over 1,000 minutes of action for the side before moving first into Major League Soccer and now the Bundesliga with Arminia Bielefeld.
Gianluca Busio – Sporting Kansas City II (2018-20): Gianluca Busio was 16 years old when he made his debut for Sporting Kansas City II in 2018 and notched one goal and two assists in 16 appearances over three seasons while emerging as one of the most intriguing talents in America. The midfield playmaker subsequently went on to make more than 60 appearances in Major League Soccer before a transfer to newly-promoted Serie A club Venezia F.C., where he has made 25 appearances in the league this season.
Jesus Ferreira – FC Tulsa (2018): Still only 17 years old when he arrived on loan at FC Tulsa during the 2018 Championship season, Ferrera came into his own as the season progressed. His rising level and confident was brought to the fore by a run of six goals in four appearances that included his first hat trick in the professional ranks. After making 14 appearances for Tulsa over the season, he returned to FC Dallas and has now notched 21 goals and 15 assists in Major League Soccer while becoming a Homegrown Designated Player for the club. This past weekend, Ferreira bagged his second professional hat trick as well, his first for FC Dallas, as his stock continues to rise.
Sean Johnson – Atlanta Blackhawks (2009): Before captaining New York City FC to its first MLS Cup in 2021, and making more than 300 top-flight appearances, Georgia native Sean Johnson spent a summer in USL League Two with the Atlanta Blackhawks. The young goalkeeper was kept busy; he recorded 35 saves in six appearances for a team that finished last in its division. Now he’s at the top of the game, and a reliable member of the USMNT squad.
Aaron Long – FC Tucson (2012-13), Sacramento Republic FC (2014), Orange County SC (2014), Tacoma Defiance (2015), New York Red Bulls II (2016): If you’re looking for persistence, Aaron Long is probably your man. After competing for current Phoenix Rising FC Head Coach Rick Schantz at FC Tucson in USL League Two for two seasons, Long went on loan to both Sacramento Republic FC and Orange County SC from Seattle Sounders FC during his first year as a professional in 2014, and then played for the club now known as Tacoma Defiance in 2015. A cross-country move to the New York Red Bulls II – and a move to center back – the following offseason provided the breakthrough for Long as he became the Championship’s Defender of the Year in 2016 and won the USL Championship Final alongside Tyler Adams. Two years later he earned the Major League Soccer Defender of the Year award and has now earned 21 caps for his country. Pretty, pretty good.
Jordan Morris – Sounders FC U-23 (2014): A graduate of the Seattle Sounders Academy, Jordan Morris was one of many who came back to the Pacific Northwest to compete in USL League Two with the Sounders FC U-23 under current Richmond Kickers Head Coach Darren Sawatzky. Of course, most didn’t have Morris’ pedigree. After he had played for the Sounders U-23 during the summer of 2014, scoring one goal in four appearances, he was called up for the first time to the United States Men’s National Team in August that year for an exhibition against the Czech Republic. Morris now sits on 10 goals in 43 appearances for his country.
Erik Palmer-Brown – Sporting Kansas City II (2017): Erik Palmer-Brown was one of the highest-profile young players in the country after he earned the Golden Ball at the 2017 Concacaf Men’s U-20 Championship while leading the United States to victory. He then went on loan to Sporting Kansas City II early in the new season and made six appearances for the side before departing for the summer’s FIFA Men’s U-20 World Cup. Since then, Palmer-Brown signed with Manchester City and now plays in France’s Ligue 1 for Troyes, where he has made 12 league appearance this campaign.
Ricardo Pepi – North Texas SC (2019-20): A native of El Paso, Texas, Ricardo Pepi burst onto the scene in the opening weeks of USL League One’s inaugural season for North Texas SC as he became the first player to record a hat trick in the league in NTSC’s inaugural game, a 3-2 victory against Chattanooga Red Wolves SC. Pepi went on to record nine goals and earned League One All-League honors. He also helped his side claim the inaugural League One title, scoring twice in the postseason. The 19-year-old has since gone on to become the youngest player to record a hat trick in Major League Soccer history, and now plies his trade in the Bundesliga for FC Augsburg after one of the biggest moves in American transfer history.
Miles Robinson – FC Boston Bolts (2016), Charleston Battery (2017), Atlanta United 2 (2018): Miles Robinson took some time to emerge in the professional ranks after competing for FC Boston Bolts in USL League Two while at Syracuse University. He made six appearances on loan with the Charleston Battery in his rookie season before recording another 14 with Atlanta United 2 in the 2018 season. That seemed to set him up for success, with the youngster earning MLS Best XI honors in 2019 before establishing himself as a USMNT regular with 17 appearances to his credit so far, including a key role in the side’s 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup victory in which he scored the winner in extra time against Mexico in the Final.
Cristian Roldan – Washington Crossfire (2013-14), Tacoma Defiance (2015): After scoring six goals in 13 appearances for the Washington Crossfire in USL League Two, Cristian Roldan only made one appearance in the USL Championship for the Tacoma Defiance, but it certainly was a memorable one. Selected by Seattle Sounders FC in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, the former University of Washington standout made his debut in the Defiance’s inaugural game and scored in a 4-2 victory against Sacramento Republic FC. It’s been up and up ever since, with Roldan now sitting on 31 senior international caps.
James Sands – Louisville City FC (2018): James Sands headed to Louisville City FC from New York City FC for a short stint on loan in the 2018 season, during which time he impressed with his composure on the ball in going the full 90 minutes in all three appearances. Sands notched an assist for LouCity and helped the side record two clean sheets in the middle of the second title-winning season for the Kentucky club, and last year helped New York City FC claim its first league title before moving to legendary Scottish club Rangers FC early this year.
Zack Steffen – Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (2016): Zack Steffen arrived with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on loan from Columbus Crew SC after returning from an early stint in Europe, and arguably began his ascent to the top of the USMNT goalkeeping depth chart at Highmark Stadium. In nine appearances for the Hounds, Steffen recorded two shutouts and 37 saves before returning to Columbus the following year, going on to become the 2018 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Since his arrival at Manchester City, Steffen has won the Premier League and EFL Cup while regularly seeing action for the club, including in the UEFA Champions League.
DeAndre Yedlin – Sounders FC U23 (2012): A graduate of the Seattle Sounders FC Academy, DeAndre Yedlin returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and had an outstanding season in USL League Two for the Sounders FC U23s, appearing in all 16 games and recording one goal and one assist on his way to being named to the League Two All-League Team at the end of the season. The following year he signed as a Homegrown Player with the Sounders and has gone on to achieve success both domestically and overseas in addition to making 71 appearances for the USMNT. Oh, and he’s also a supporting investor in the USL Championship’s San Diego Loyal SC.