It doesn’t take much to get Americans excited about one of their own becoming a star in Europe. Twitter explodes whenever Christian Pulisic steps onto a Bundesliga pitch, and every time a Premier League management spot opens up, many insist Bob Bradley is the man for the job. Yet few people stateside are paying attention to the American who is potentially closest to breaking through in England’s top flight.
Maybe it’s because of his German accent.
When former U.S. international David Wagner took over Huddersfield Town A.F.C. last November, the Terriers were flirting with relegation to the third division. Ten months later they sit at first place in the Championship, in admittedly early pole position for promotion to the Premier League.
An American manager breaking into the English top flight would be a watershed moment for United States soccer, but the hype around Wagner is focused on his German roots. A dual citizen born to an American father and a German mother, Wagner’s footballing DNA most closely resembles that of his good friend, giddy Teutonic genius Jürgen Klopp.
Wagner’s 15-year playing career, during which he won a UEFA Cup with Schalke and earned eight U.S. caps, included a stint at Mainz from 1991-1995. There, the young striker eventually replaced local hero Klopp, who transitioned to a defensive role for the good of the team he would go on to manage. The two formed a close bond—Wagner served as Klopp’s best man in 2005.
After hanging up his boots, Wagner worked as a teacher for a spell before getting into coaching. He was managing the U-19s at Hoffenheim in 2011 when Klopp, by then manager of Borussia Dortmund, asked him to lead Die Schwarzgelben’s second team.
As Klopp’s star rose at Dortmund, Wagner had great success with Dortmund II, implementing the same gegenpressing philosophy and helping to make Dortmund one of the world’s best developers of young talent. Many expected the German-American to join his friend at Liverpool when Klopp took over last fall, but both men felt it was time for Wagner to lead a team of his own.
Wagner was ready to make his mark somewhere, and Huddersfield happened to be in the market for a complete overhaul. Feeling that something had to change after four years of treading water at the bottom of the table, the club took what its own director of football operations called “a massive risk” by bringing in its first coach from outside the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The Terriers quickly embraced the gegenpress, which Klopp had employed to such great effect at Dortmund, and surprised Wagner with their enthusiasm for his double training sessions. The results showed as Huddersfield finished 11 points clear of the relegation zone last year, and over the offseason Wagner made it clear he was upping the ante.
Wagner’s experience and connections were evident in his transfer policy. Current leading scorer Elias Kachunga was one of five players to join Huddersfield from Germany, and starting keeper Danny Ward is on loan from Klopp’s Liverpool.
Kachunga, also half-German, caught Wagner’s attention while playing for Paderborn.
All in all, thirteen players joined the team this summer. Feeling they could use some good, old-fashioned male bonding, Wagner took the entire squad camping on a tiny Swedish island for four days before the season. They had no football gear, no phones, and no toilets, he said, but they came away with invaluable bonds.
“They changed their borderlines over those three days,” he told The Guardian. “I can say now, three months later, that it was 100% success, and that is the feedback from the players, too.”
Embracing the mentality of their mascot, which Wagner says is perfect for a club of their stature, the Terriers have gotten off to a ferocious start. Playing with aggression and a verve that is fast becoming Wagner’s trademark, they stayed atop the Championship table with a 2-1 victory over Rotherham on Tuesday.
It’s perhaps too early to talk about promotion. The Championship season is longer than that of the Premier League, and the numbers indicate that Huddersfield are unlikely to keep up their current striking rate. Nevertheless, plenty of Yorkshiremen are celebrating what the club’s PR team has deemed #WagnerRevolution, and Wagner has put himself in the best possible position to reach the Premier League. American fans might want to take note.