Christian McFarlane: could England gain a US-raised star? (2024)

Down the years, it has been common for US Soccer to track young English talent who also hold American passports. From Fulham’s Antonee Robinson to Milan’s Yunus Musah, the US has benefited from players gaining an education across the Atlantic. But New York City’s Christian McFarlane looks set to do the reverse, a sign of the growing influence of MLS academies.

The left-back was born in England but moved to New York at three years old. Over the past 18 months, McFarlane has represented the USMNT and England at youth level, keeping his options open before committing to any one country. The 17-year-old also has the option of playing for Jamaica, but why complicate matters more?

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“The more he can adapt, the better for him,” says New York City FC II head coach Matt Pilkington. “He has done well when he has had those opportunities. To play for any national team is a special opportunity but to play for such a high calibre team with top, top talent, I think he’s really embraced the challenge and stepped up to it and done well. Different environments can create different talents and there is something he is quite strong at which the national team has taken a liking to. We are really proud of his achievements so far and hopefully he can continue to push.”

The teenager is yet to appear in MLS but he was selected in the first-team squad four times last season, although he is yet to make it on to the pitch in a competitive game. NYC FC only have one senior left-back, Kevin O’Toole, meaning if anything should happen to him, McFarlane could be next in line.

Born in Basildon, Essex, when his mother was working for Goldman Sachs in London, McFarlane left England behind when his family moved to New York. Living in Queens and Long Island, he was spotted by the NYC FC academy and signed for them at the age of 11. Three years later, such was his potential, he was given a first-team contract, becoming the third-youngest player in MLS history to sign such a deal – NYC FC broke their own record a year later by inking Máximo Carrizo to a full-time contract on his 14th birthday.

McFarlane’s accent is more Studio 54 than China Whites, but he has shown his openness to playing for England, scoring in a recent Under-17 international against Hungary. In fact, he’s not the only MLS teenager in the England setup, with New England Revolution midfielder Noel Buck representing the Under-19s. Like McFarlane, Buck will probably be a target for Premier League clubs in the summer transfer window.

McFarlane was originally a winger, but City were eager to test him in a number of different positions. He learned the roles up and down the left side, in addition to centre-back before the club settled on full-back. The skinny on McFarlane is that he’s dynamic, quick and good in one-on-one situations. As a youngster, he regularly played above his age group, representing the Under-17s as a 14-year-old in a bid to accelerate his development.

“He had a lot of experience playing [in older age groups] and dealt with it quite well,” Pilkington says. “We often measure talent by how well they adapt to the level of intensity and speed of play, and he was able to do that quite well and has a really good physical profile that also allowed him to play up as well. It was all part of his journey. As a relatively young player he plays and trains against people that are much older than him.”

The feeling at NYC FC is that McFarlane will eventually end up across the Atlantic at Manchester City. There has been interest from Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich but once City Football Group (CFG) have such a talent in their midst, they are unlikely to relinquish their hold. CFG own numerous clubs where the teenager can gain experience – perhaps Girona in La Liga if the coveted Miguel Gutiérrez departs this summer – or head somewhere outside their family tree.

Academies in the US are becoming targets for European clubs who recognise the increased level of professionalism they have brought to North America – CFG have agreed a deal for 14-year-old Cavan Sullivan to move to Manchester from Philadelphia Union’s academy once he turns 18.

Since its implementation in 2015, New York City’s academy has produced a number of first-team players, including James Sands, who recently made his 100th appearance for the club. USMNT’s Gio Reyna spent time with the club as a teenager before moving to Borussia Dortmund. Alphonso Davies may be the most successful graduate any MLS academy has so far produced. He rose through the ranks at Vancouver before moving to Bayern Munich in 2018 – and will soon be on his way to Real Madrid.

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“I think the academies in the US and US soccer in general have taken massive strides in the past decade,” says Pilkington. “Since they mandated academies within the MLS clubs and increased the level of competition and professionalised it – not just with the professional academies but with other high-level youth academies. With the demographic of the US, it is such a large landscape that they opened it up to top level clubs. US Soccer created this academy system and really evolved this level of coaching, level of professionalism and the daily environment players can train in and really focus the ability for players to compete.

“We see players matriculating from the US system into Europe, and it has continued to evolve. Look at the US national team, there is a lot of young talent and the majority are plying their trade in Europe but have grown up in US academies and US systems.”

NYC FC are helped by that fact that they are owned by CFG, helping bring a Premier League-like structure to their academy. Global staff ensure a smooth operation, bringing expertise from Manchester City, whose youth setup is one of the most envied in the world. New York City age-group teams have travelled to England to help with their development and where coaches can share knowledge.

McFarlane is next in line for New York City, and the conveyor belt shows no sign of slowing down.

Christian McFarlane: could England gain a US-raised star? (2024)
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