From Bayern Munich to USMNT: How 19-year-old Malik Tillman got into the World Cup picture

Born to a German mother and an American father, Malik Tillman’s loyalties have always been torn between two countries. The disappointment in Germany after his decision to play for the USA shows how high the 19-year-old’s reputation is.

Tillman caused a stir two years ago when he scored 13 goals in 17 games for Bayern Munich U19s. He then enjoyed similar success for the Germany U21s in recent months, scoring three goals in four games since his debut in October 2021.

According to his own statements, he is not a born goalscorer. Tillman has repeatedly insisted that he is more comfortable playing slightly deeper in roles #8 and #10. At 6-foot-2, he’s strong on the ball and difficult to dispossess. Youth coaches have praised his intelligent distribution and Tillman himself has said he aspires to play like Paul Pogba – but then again, who doesn’t?

In his few appearances for Bayern’s first-team this season, Tillman has been used as both a central midfielder and a makeshift winger, but the odds have been slim at a club where academy players almost never make the leap into the first-team. His only start was a 2-1 defeat by Borussia Mönchengladbach in January, at a time when Bayern’s squad was being decimated by COVID cases.

Coach Julian Nagelsmann had hinted in April that there would be chances for the younger players once Bayern clinched the league title, but Tillman’s only cameo appearance in the final weeks of the season was 90 minutes on the bench against Wolfsburg.

Like so many Bayern talents before him, Tillman needs playing time to reach his full potential. His older brother Timothy returned to hometown club Greuther Furth two years ago after his failed breakthrough at Bayern and Malik could yet follow a similar path. In terms of international football, meanwhile, choosing USA could prove to be the wiser choice in terms of time on the pitch as well.

In Germany, Tillman could suffer from comparisons with similarly versatile players who broke through earlier. Jamal Musiala, a Bayern Munich compatriot, already has 11 caps for the side after rejecting England, while Karim Adeyemi has settled into a forward role and will swap RB Salzburg for Borussia Dortmund this summer. Tillman hasn’t reached the same potential world-class heights as this pair, but he still had the opportunity to earn a regular place in Germany’s youth national teams.

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The timing of this specific commitment eerily parallels another German-American prospect. In the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup, Jürgen Klinsmann secured a one-off move from Julian Green. As a Bayern winger, Green featured on each side of five games with the US U-18 in the U-16, U-17 and U-19. Called up in the final 23-man squad, he only played in extra time in the 2-1 round of 16 thriller against Belgium and scored a consolation goal with his first touch of the tournament. As fate would have it, Green hasn’t had a cap since 2018. He now plays with Timothy Tillman at Greuther Furth.

Time will tell if Tillman’s move ahead of those crucial summer training camps will help him create the US squad for the World Cup. Before rooms can be booked under his name, he will seek to assert himself in a US program that has much more depth and youth quality than the 2014 outfit Green attended. Being the youngest team to qualify for Qatar, this rising group of players was seen as a potential golden generation prior to Tillman’s arrival.

In contrast, the 2014 group was led by a core of top veterans who were far closer to 30 (or older) than 20: Tim Howard at Everton, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones in Germany and Turkey respectively, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley fresh from their move to MLS. Moving from the “Green has taken Landon Donovan’s place” narrative had less to do with Green himself (any team can be forgiven for having at least one chance to gain experience) and more to do with expectations for this year’s team : the last chance of a strong generation with everyone around or at their peak.

Returning to the present, Tillman won’t carry the same burden of instantly becoming the country’s new hope that Green faced. With still only 28 professional league games to his tally — all four in the third division or below — when talking about Tillman, one has to talk more about “potential” and “tools” than about past performances. It’s up to Gregg Berhalter to quickly assess Tillman a list of established regulars and find out how best to contribute.

“I think he’s an attacking midfielder in a 3-4-2-1, he could be a pocket winger in a 4-3-3, could be a central midfielder in a 4-3-3, depending whether he can do his defensive work for that,” Berhalter said of the squad from that camp in a press conference last week. “But he’s really talented between the lines, very natural in scoring, good and calm in the box. Good technique, good with both feet, so a really interesting player.”

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Berhalter played his team almost exclusively in a 4-3-3 after the first qualifying window and it should be the team’s main focus for the World Cup. The front three most commonly worked with an inverted left wing (usually Christian Pulisic or Brenden Aaronson) and a right-footed option on the right (like Aaronson or Timothy Weah). Despite missing all but 196 minutes of qualifying, Gio Reyna is also a right-footed player and Berhalter sees him as a progressive midfielder within that central trio or as a right winger.

If the question were as simple as “What position could Tillman get onto the field quickest?” A crowd of thousands of USMNT fans would yell “At Striker” in unison. Qualifying became more difficult in part due to frequent misses from the centre-forwards’ revolving door, which increased the pressure on the wingers and midfielders to take their chances as the game progressed. However, Berhalter made it sound like he saw Tillman in a role behind the No. 9. So there goes this fantasy of his up as a solution.

Despite the coach’s preferred formation, it’s not worth doing without the 3-4-2-1 comment, because Berhalter certainly needs a trusting second look before the tournament. The pair behind the striker would have plenty of viable candidates, mainly Pulisic, with newly minted Leeds signing Aaronson and Reyna. Tillman would look different from Pulisic or Aaronson (who play more directly and run for the ball just as comfortably as they do with it at their feet), but could resemble Reyna, whose dribbling and movement with the ball may be the best the program has ever seen .

Still, it would be a massive shot in the arm for the pool of players to have another player with similar skills as Reyna on the ball who could get around the goal even more confidently. Reyna’s ongoing injury woes kept him from playing a leading role in qualifying, leaving the spotlight to Aaronson and Weah to further claim World Cup squad spots. Neither was comparable for Reyna and given the Borussia Dortmund winger’s huge potential and unique tools, Tillman would be an ideal understudy.

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Within the 4-3-3, Tillman would either play on the right as a strong-footed option with the occasional cross responsibility, or inverted on the left when Pulisic plays a different role. In midfield, he could also play the more progressive, creative role entrusted to Yunus Musah. The Valencia man had some fantastic plays in qualifying but was still easily neutralized by the region’s best midfielders. If Tillman was in the role, it’s easy to see that his knack for finding space in the penalty area meant the shape of US midfield was stretched a bit – not necessarily a big issue when Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are behind stand by him, but still one factor to remember.

Wherever he fits in, that positional versatility is in itself an asset as he seeks to make the World Cup roster. While Reyna is his closest match in terms of technique and height (Tillman is reported to be 6’2″ while Reyna measures 6’1), Tillman’s scoring chances make him a unique figure in the pool. He needs to familiarize himself with Berhalter’s system and demands verticality, but if he can, he could offer the United States an ace up his sleeve – a capable and sought-after young player with a thin scouting record for opponents to study.

(Photo: Fabian Strauch/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

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