Yanks in Deutschland: John Anthony “The Berlin Wall“ Brooks

Ever since his game winner for the Red, White & Blue against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, John Anthony Brooks doesn’t need an introduction.

In case you don’t know who he is, Budweiser (who would have thought?) made a pretty good video about Brooks’ background:

His header beat “American nemesis” Ghana, the team that eliminated the United States from Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010. The three points Brooks secured were the foundation for Klinsmann’s squad to successfully escape from a so-called „Group of Death“ that also featured Germany (the eventual world champs) and Portugal (Euro 2016 champions). In Brazil Brooks came off the bench, but just two years later he excelled as a starter during the Copa America Centenario on home soil.

At the club level, Brooks has played a big role in the revitalization of his hometown club Hertha BSC Berlin. In 2011 Brooks got called up to Hertha’s pro squad; back then Hertha was a troubled club that had to stomach relegation campaigns in 2010 and 2012. These days Hertha BSC looks like a lock to finish among the best eight teams and that amazing defense spearheaded by Brooks is one of the reasons. According to the transfermarkt.de records, Jozy Altidore (Alkmaar to Sunderland) set the transfer record for an American player at 10 million Euros in 2014. The site currently values Brooks at 10 million Euros, which makes him the most valuable US footballer ahead of Gladbach’s Fabian Johnson (7m€) and BVB starlet Christian Pulisic (5m€). While Brooks might be the most valuable United States player of all time, according to USWNT legend Abby Wambach Brooks isn’t even a “true American”.

The Wambach Controversy: How „American“ is Brooks?

Abby Wambach isn’t too fond of „naturalized citizens“ playing for the USNT

While researching for this piece, I came across an interview with female US football player Abby Wambach, where she questioned the motives of dual citizen USA players and openly accuses them of taking advantage of the US Football Federation:

„It feels a little bit odd to me that you have some guys that have never lived in the United States that play for the United States because they were able to secure a passport. To me, that just feels like they weren’t able to make it for their country and earn a living, so they’re coming here. But do they have that killer instinct? I don’t know. […] I’d love to understand how much they love their country.”

Young JA Brooks playing for SV Blau Weiss Berlin

Well in the case of German-Americans like Brooks it’s not hard to understand at all why they play for America. If Wambach had paid attention in school during history class, she would know that parts of Germany were occupied by the Allied Forces after WWII. This meant that a high number of US servicemen were stationed in Germany for decades. Obviously those soldiers didn’t stay on their base 24/7, they went to local bars and clubs where they met “Fräuleins” and one thing led to another… A few US soldiers fathered kids and returned to the states for various reasons shortly after. Their sons and daughters often stayed in Germany, where they were stigmatized as „GI Kind“ or “Besatzerkind”. Cold War era Germany wasn’t as diverse and tolerant as it is today, German single women with dark-skinned kids had to deal with even more adversity, there is even a Wikipedia article on that topic

Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Timothy Chandler are some of those “GI Kinder”. If you know the background story of Brooks and “GI Kids” in general, it makes Abby Wambach’s comments sound dumb and despicable, which is probably not a first given her history.

That picture will make Wambach’s head explode: The Team USA coach playing for Germany against the German-born captain of the USMNT

First of all, at France 1998 the USMNT was led onto the field by “GI Kind” Tom Dooley, therefore the inclusion of German-born players on the American team isn’t some recent trend. JAB himself was fathered by a serviceman from Chicago but raised by his German single mother in a suburb of Berlin called Mariendorf. To me being the son of an American soldier is as „American“ as it gets, no matter where you grow up. Brooks also never forgot about his US roots and attended an American school in Berlin where classes were held in English. During the summer, young John Anthony spent time with his dad in Illinois. Brooks also had an American passport since birth, he didn’t need to join Team USA to get one. In fact life could be much easier for Brooks if he didn’t play for Team USA.

Playing for a CONCACAF nation takes away from Brooks’s regeneration time and hurts his value quite a bit, since he’s on planes more often than European players. Playing for the USMNT means travelling to exotic Caribbean islands like Jamaica. Well, a trip from Berlin to Kingston takes 18 hours (one way) with layovers in Madrid and Miami, jet lag issues included.

Yes, Brooks does get paid for his trouble but according to the New York Times USMNT players make 5000$ per call up and another 3000$ if they win. At Hertha, JAB makes 1.5 million Euros a year in base salary. Does Abby Wambach really believe Brooks regularly gets on a 15+ hour flight, just to collect an extra 5000$? No, of course not, Brooks is an American citizen who was born into a complicated situation he didn’t ask for. His dual citizenship status granted him the opportunity to make a choice and he made it.

From a German perspective, I have no problem whatsoever with Brooks picking the USA over Germany. He will always be a Berlin native in the eyes of Hertha fans, whether he sits on the couch or plays for the USMNT makes no difference. Because as long as Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are around, Brooks’ chances to make (let alone start for) Die Mannschaft are basically zero. And even if Brooks turns out to be the best defender in world football, I still have to respect his decision. As long as FIFA regulations and immigration laws aren’t violated I fail to see what Abby Wambach’s problem is.

John Anthony Brooks: The Player

Brooks has all the tools needed to become one of the better center backs in Europe. He is built like an NBA power forward but quick enough to hold his own against Bundesliga attackers. His passing and on ball skills are only slightly above Bundesliga average, but in the air Brooks is up there with the best. It’s almost impossible for strikers to outjump or outmuscle Brooks on defense. On the offensive end he’s a wrecking ball that either clears the path for teammates or is a scoring threat himself.

Even though Brooks is only 23 years old, he’s already appeared in 72 Bundesliga and 29 second division matches, so the days of calling Brooks a „talent“ are over.

Transfermarkt ranks Brooks as the 16th most valuable central defender in the Bundesliga. Despite starting just six matches so far this year, he is sixth among all defenders on Kicker’s 2016/17 ranking, so he’ll probably be in the Top 10 when tm.de updates the valuations during the winter break. Sadly for me and my fellow Hertha fans, scouts of bigger and better clubs have already noticed how good Brooks is, which leads me to the next topic.

The Elephant in the room: Which English team will snatch up Brooks?

England is the only top-tier league in Europe, where physicality is the most appreciated trait

If you look at Brooks’ strength and weaknesses, the English Premier League is the most suitable environment for his skill set. This summer Watford tried to buy him, but Hertha GM Michael Preetz didn’t even bother to enter talks with the EPL side.

For the time being, Brooks is on a contract that runs through 2019. Therefore Hertha isn’t under any pressure to sell Brooks to a Bundesliga rival (Schalke remains interested) or accept offers below market value. But if the rumors are true, an exit clause was built into Brooks contract that can get triggered if the right offer from the right team comes in. England has always been Brooks’ dream destination, and to be honest a Premier League move would make the most sense for all parties involved. Hertha receives a huge transfer fee thanks to the inflated prices in England, while Brooks gets to play in a league that is (still) dominated by set pieces and long balls over the top. On top of that he would get to play in America’s most watched „soccer“ league which would definitely increase Brooks’ name recognition across the Atlantic.

But not so fast, Berlin is still JAB’s hometown and Hertha is doing pretty well right now, I guess it would take an offer in the 20 to 30 million range from a club in the Arsenal/Tottenham/Liverpool tier to lure Brooks away in January. But we all know how the business works, injuries or transfer domino effects (should Ömer Toprak switch to Dortmund next summer, Leverkusen might take a good look at Brooks for example) can change the marketplace in a heartbeat. The most realistic outcome right now is that Brooks stays put at Hertha until 2018, then he either extends his contract or Hertha cashes in before Brooks becomes a free agent in July 2019.

Best case career scenario: The American John Terry

Barring any injuries or bad lifestyle choices, Brooks’ future looks bright. To be fair I don’t believe he will ever be mobile enough or develop the passing skills to become the next Alessandro Nesta. It remains to be seen, whether Brooks can play the „free safety“ role like Jerome Boateng, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos have to do at their teams. The conservative schemes at Hertha and Team USA shield Brooks from chasing down speedy attackers, since both sides rarely use high defensive lines.

But I don’t see any reason why Brooks shouldn’t enjoy a long and productive career at a Champions League caliber club. John Terry has been one of the best defenders in Europe even though he wasn’t good with his feet and had a limited defending radius because of his sheer size. Terry made up some for some of his limitations with great positioning and Mourinho’s system at Chelsea was the perfect fit. JT was a rock at the back, didn’t screw up too often and smashed in a couple of set pieces here and there. If Brooks continues to show decent speed and passing coupled with outstanding physicality and aerial capabilities, he could have a career similar to John Terry’s. In that case, Brooks would also be the automatic choice for Team USA captain and will go down as the best American “soccer” player ever.

Worst case scenario: We’ve already seen all that John Brooks can be (which isn’t a bad thing at all)

It is kinda harsh to call this scenario „worst case“. All in all Brooks has already earned 101 appearances in Germany’s pro leagues and scored at a World Cup. But there are definitely some concerns that need to be mentioned.

Health could become an issue down the road. Last season Brooks missed eleven Bundesliga matches due to injury. This year he already had to sit out four. „The bigger the player, the bigger the wear and tear on his joints and muscles“ that’s a sad truth in all sports. Let’s hope Brooks doesn’t develop any nagging issues.

I mentioned above that Brooks is 23 years “young”. Well, the average age of the current German national team is 24.9 years, so 23 years old isn’t considered all that young anymore, plus Brooks actually turns 24 in January. Everybody who expects Brooks to evolve into the next Sergio Ramos is setting himself up for disappointment. Hoffenheim’s Niklas Süle turned 21 in September and is linked with the likes of Bayern, Juventus and Atletico. Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah is on his second Champions League campaign at age 20. Shkodran Mustafi has made appearances in Serie A, La Liga and the Premiership, which is crazy since he turned 24 in April. Samuel Umtiti is 22 and secured a Barcelona move last summer. Raphael Varane is 23 just like Brooks, but the young Frenchman has been on Real Madrid roster since 2011. As crazy as it sounds, 23-year-old footballers are considered “finished products” these days.

Only a handful manage to break into the world-class tier at a later age. Unfortunately, most of those late bloomers are strikers (Luca Toni, Didier Drogba). So don’t be surprised if you have already seen everything Brooks can do. This might sound bad thing, but let’s not forget that he’s among the best 10 Bundesliga center backs right now. What JAB has shown for club and country so far is pretty damn good. So even if Brooks never becomes elite and „only“ wears the Hertha BSC jersey throughout his career, USMNT fans can rejoice. No disrespect to Geoff Cameron, Eddie Pope or Carlos Bocanegra, but Brooks is already the best central defender in American football history (by far) and is on track to go down as the best US player overall once he retires.

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