The Fox Sports analyst Ian Joy shares his love for the Bundesliga, what we can expect from all the Americans playing there, and whether or not this year anyone will actually challenge Bayern.
Ian Joy has had an unconventional journey through the world of football. Born in San Diego, Joy was raised mostly in Scotland and became a journeyman footballer, playing for 10 professional teams in a 12-year career.
Joy spent the latter part of his career bouncing between German leagues and MLS. That knowledge of American soccer and the German game helps him bring insight and analysis as a studio analyst for Fox Sports’ Bundesliga coverage.
Joy considers the Bundesliga to be the best league in the world, and thinks you should, too. With the fresh season upon us, we talked to Joy about the direction of the league with more Americans per capita than any other top league in Europe, whether Bayern might leave the door open at the top of the table, and Christian Pulisic’s possible future as a true No. 10. The conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.
Eight by Eight: We just had our first Bundesliga weekend. What teams have impressed you so far, and what teams have been a little underwhelming?
Ian Joy: For me, there’s a couple of teams that stood out for impressive performances. Borussia Mönchengladbach was probably the most impressive performance this weekend. They got an excellent win, Fabian Johnson obviously involved in that win as well. He’s a talented player. They were going up against one of my favorites to challenge for the top four in Leverkusen, so that was an outstanding performance from them as a team.
Borussia Dortmund were very impressive without being at their very best. They got a terrific win over Leipzig. After going a goal down 30 seconds into the game, you questioned whether or not it was going to go horribly wrong for them, but they turned on the style and a lot of their new signings made an impact.
On the opposite side of things, Leipzig I think will struggle for the top four, but they’re such a big club that to lose in that fashion on opening weekend, and especially with Jesse Marsch now on the bench there, I expected a lot more from them. In the first half they played well, in the second half they just collapsed and couldn’t break down Dortmund. So I was surprised by that second half performance and especially by going down four goals to one, that was a shock to me.
Leverkusen were disappointing. Couldn’t get going, couldn’t create too many clear cut chances. They were unfortunate not to score in the first half; they hit the crossbar with [Leon] Bailey, but I expected a lot more from them. And even if that was a derby game, I thought Leverkusen were going to do a lot more damage than they did. So those were the shocks for me the opening weekend.
88: I’m sure the question that you get asked all the time is “Can anyone catch Bayern?” I’m going to break it down to two parts: Can anyone catch Bayern, but also with the other major leagues also looking like one horse races, is that even a knock on the Bundesliga anymore?
IJ: It’s been a one horse race for a while now. We haven’t seen anyone really challenge Bayern for a good four, five seasons and I think it’s been disappointing for me to see that money not being spent for the second place fight to try and potentially challenge Bayern at the top of the year.
This season, I see teams spending money. I see teams investing in youngsters. I see teams recognizing that if they can get into the top four, they have every chance to challenge Bayern for the title.
I’m looking at Schalke, I’m looking at Dortmund, I’m looking at Leverkusen. I think those three clubs should absolutely be there or thereabouts in challenging. And if there’s going to be a time to challenge Bayern, it’s when they’re going through a transitional period: new coach coming in, not spending a lot of money, got Champions League to deal with, lost one of their key players on opening matchday for three months Kingsley Coman. So there’s a lot of unrest there that maybe a team can challenge. If there’s a year, it’s this year.
88: So you would say the coaching transition and the fact that players like Robben and Ribery are a year older might just open the door for a couple of the other top four teams.
IJ: Absolutely. Bayern Munich have got those older players that they rely heavily on, and they play a lot in Robben and Ribery. I think if you look at the new players they’ve brought through the door, there’s some excitement there. I’d like to see a little bit more of Serge Gnabry in the first team.
But again, these guys are unproven at Bayern. So if they lose if any of their top players they rely on, the experienced players like a Lewandowski, like a Robben or a Ribery or a Javi Martinez, the players who are stepping into their shoes are not necessarily the ones who are proven at the top flight. But at the same time, when all those players are fit, they’re one of the best teams in Europe and they can still do damage not only in the Bundesliga but also in the Champions League.
88: So you hit on some of the American players a couple times earlier, and obviously you’re broadcasting the Bundesliga to an American audience who care about seeing how the Americans are doing. What do you think accounts for the fact that there are so many Americans in the league, aside from the fact that some of them were born in Germany?
IJ: Understand that obviously some of them were born in Germany, but for them to dedicate their lives and international careers to the U.S. national team says a lot about them and what they think of U.S. soccer in general. For me, I count them as Americans.
I was blessed as a former player to have played in Germany for five years, and I recognize the importance and the respect that Germans actually show towards the American player. And this goes all the way back to [Paul] Caligiuri, to Eric Wynalda, these guys who had an impact. That reputation is still there, and if anything it’s getting stronger.
I love the fact that we’re seeing a lot of these young kids getting their chance now. If you’re switching on this weekend, you’re watching Christian Pulisic play for Borussia Dortmund in front of 80,000 people. And not only playing, he’s one of their best players. It’s outstanding to me. It makes the hair stand up on my arms, it’s just incredible to watch. And then Weston McKennie, this is a kid who finished second in the Bundesliga last year, who’s still yet to prove himself as a kid. He is absolutely U.S. American through and through, he loves the national team, clearly loves the Bundesliga, learns the language. That’s why we have such a big reputation in Germany, because kids like Weston McKennie go over there and they do the business.
88: You talked a little about Christian Pulisic, he’s obviously the headliner of this American group at the moment. This is third full season with the first team since he broke through. What do you expect from him this year and what do you think the next step that he has to take is going to be?
IJ: I spent some time with their CEO this preseason in Pittsburgh, and he told me that they absolutely love this kid and clearly he’s one of the world’s best youngsters out there. There are offers on the table for him already at such a young age, and I’m sure that’s from the biggest clubs and the best clubs in the world, and not forgetting that Borussia Dortmund is a big club, it’s also a renowned selling club. So understandably, Bayern Munich will be sniffing around this player. Real Madrid and Barcelona will be sniffing around this player, the Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools will be sniffing around this player.
But, he still has a lot to prove. This kid is so talented, his ability is frightening. He needs consistency. Last year, the stats he got were a little disappointing. I mean, let’s not forget that he went through a difficult time with four coaches in the last two years and obviously lost [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang and [Ousmane] Dembélé, two key players. But for him to not be able to produce the stats that he has been able to do with the national team has been a little disappointing. Five assists and four goals for Christian Pulisic, in my opinion he’s a lot better than that. This season I expect more from him.
I had the opportunity to speak to their assistant trainer recently, and he spent preseason with Pulisic for the first time. He knew who he is and what he is all about and was so excited to work with this kid. He said he’s blowing him away with his ability. They’ll start him on the right hand side for Dortmund this season, like he did [Sunday] in that attacking role running at full backs, trying to come inside when he can, but they don’t think he’s going to finish in that position. He might finish as a No. 10 for Dortmund, playing in behind the striker. That’s where I see him as the biggest threat for Borussia Dortmund. I think you’ve got to to give this kid the keys and let him play his game. Not on the right hand side, not on the left hand side. Let him go anywhere he wants. In behind that striker, on the left, on the right, wherever he want to play, let him do his business. And I think Dortmund will thrive with that.
88: There’s a group of younger players who have followed Pulisic into the league, like Weston McKennie. Of this group, is there anyone who you think is under the radar? Do you think we might see any of Josh Sargent in the Werder Bremen first team?
IJ: I think there’s every opportunity. Josh is obviously a very young player, he only just turned 18. So we have to be patient with him, and maybe not necessarily throw him into the deep end so quickly because he is so young. But he is already proving to us that he’s got an immense talent. One of my closest friends and a former St. Pauli player as well Max Kruse is the captain there, and I had an opportunity to speak to him about this kid, because I wanted to know what the players in the locker room think of him. They think he has immense talent and immense potential, but it’s going to take him some time to get used to the soccer style in Germany, to the tempo of the game, the aggression of the game. I think one thing that just might hold him back at Werder Bremen is that they will rely on experience this year. They’ve brought back a legend in [Claudio] Pizarro for his 20th season. But that’s where Josh Sargent can learn from players like that, these types of experiences. Play with the under-23 team and score goals. Train with the first team week in, week out and learn from the best players you possibly can. The Max Kruses, the Osakos, the Klaasens. I mean these are talented players. Augustinsson who was at the World Cup is an outstanding full back. These Americans can learn from those world class players and I think Josh Sargent is a player to keep your eye on moving forward.
Obviously, we want to see Americans be successful. Weston will play, Christian Pulisic will play, Bobby Wood is back in the Bundesliga after getting relegated. So we’ve got to keep our eye out and see what goes on. I definitely think at some point this season Josh Sargent will get his chance if he scores goals for the youth side.
88: So it’s been around 15 years since your first stint in Germany, and now you’ve been broadcasting it for three years. How have you seen the Bundesliga change since you first got involved in the German game?
IJ: You know, I went over a long time ago. I was young myself, I think I was 22, 23 when when I went over. And I was in love with the German game early on. It was players like Paul Lambert and obviously Jovan Kirovski who were playing at Dortmund who caught my attention. I went over for the U.S. national side to play some German teams, that was at the under-20 level, and I fell in love. I went to watch Dortmund-Bayern and I was blown away by the quality of the game. So I followed Dortmund and Bayern very closely from then on out.
I can tell you: Not much has changed about this league, except for the fact that it’s now a world-recognized league and they’re starting to open up to the world rather than being German-focussed on the German media and German television. The German mentality back then was, “This is our league and we don’t need anyone else. We’re going to do what we want to do.”
But now that mentality has completely changed because they recognize that other leagues around the world, the Premier League and La Liga, are now starting to step out and trying to branch into international television markets and corporations to try and get those sponsorships. And it’s been working pretty well for them.
The Bundesliga for me is the best league in the world. I watch it closely because I have a passion for it having played in Germany for five years, but at the same time there’s more goals in the Bundesliga than any other league, every single stadium is sold out in the top flight and the second division, so the atmosphere is absolutely bouncing. And of course for me the product at the end of the day is the most important thing. The product on the field, the entertainment value, the players who are there, the coaches who are there, how they play. It’s a very attack-minded game, it’s not a defensive approach. It’s high energy, high tempo.
But I’ve got to be honest, it’s always been there. The German league was always that way. We’re now just opened up to the league. They’ve accepted the fact that the U.S. market, the Asian market, the South American market is a huge market and great potential for the Bundesliga. And for me, having played there, I’ll always be the person to try to push that forward as much as I can. I love the league with all my heart, as I’m sure you can tell, and I think it’s the best in the world.
88: Is there anything else that you think is an important narrative for the Bundesliga this season or something else that we should be keeping track of as the season progresses?
IJ: I think most importantly for me with the Bundesliga in the big picture, I work very closely with the Rookie of the Year award. This is an award that is sponsored by Tag Heuer but is obviously working closely with the Bundesliga. They focus on players who are coming into the league for their very first year who are under the age of 23 and it’s mind blowing to me how many players get their opportunity in the Bundesliga. We’re obviously blessed because we get to see our American players getting a chance in the top flight, in my opinion in the best league in the world. We’re seeing our young Americans, the next generation, the future players of our national team playing in the Bundesliga week in, week out on our TV station. So for me, that’s the huge selling point.
But this also happens with players from around the world. You look at the Premier League right now: The kids are not getting the chance to play. You see last year, Lookman, Jadon Sancho, players getting their chances in the Bundesliga. they’re leaving Spain, they’re leaving France, they’re leaving England to go to the Bundesliga because they recognize that the clubs give themselves a chance to earn a lot of money, but more importantly give themselves an opportunity to play top flight soccer.