From College to Europe: Top 10 NCAA players to make it to top-tier European clubs

Believe it or not, the NCAA has been home to some of the brightest stars in the soccer world. Here, we take a look at NCAA soccer players in Europe, with a focus on college athletes who made the top flight.

The NCAA has long been a proving ground for budding soccer talent, fostering skills, and nurturing athletic prowess on fields across the United States since the start of competition in 1959. The journey for many of these standout players hasn't culminated in America. The competition has served as a springboard to the top flight in Europe in leagues like the Premier League, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and more.

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Over the past several decades, the NCAA has become a showcase for top talents who have made their way to playing in Europe, where the world's most competitive leagues and players coincide.

Let's take a look at some of the former NCAA players who have managed to take their careers from the collegiate fields of the United States to some of the best leagues. Here is our top 10 with more context on each player in the full article below.

The top 10 NCAA soccer players in Europe (past and present)

  • Clint Dempsey: Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur (Premier League)
  • Brad Guzan: Aston Villa (Premier League)
  • DeAndre Yedlin: Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland, Newcastle United (Premier League); Galatasaray (Süper Lig)
  • Daryl Dike: Barnsley FC (EFL Championship); West Bromwich Albion (EFL Championship)
  • Shaka Hislop: Reading FC (Football League); Newcastle United, West Ham United, Portsmouth (Premier League)
  • Tajon Buchanan: Club Brugge (Belgian Pro League); Inter Milan (Serie A)
  • Jack Harrison: Leeds United, Manchester City, Everton (Premier League)
  • Cyle Larin: Beşiktaş (Turkish Süper Lig); Mallorca (LaLiga)
  • Zack Steffen: Freiburg II (Regionalliga); Fortuna Düsseldorf (Bundesliga); Manchester City (Premier League); Middlesbrough (EFL Championship)
  • Vedad Ibišević: Paris Saint-Germain (Ligue 1); TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, VfB Stuttgart, Hertha BSC, Schalke 04 (Bundesliga)
  • Tim Ream: Bolton Wanderers, Fulham (Premier League)

Clint Dempsey 

Rising from humble beginnings in Texas, Dempsey made his mark in NCAA soccer with Furman University before making his way into MLS with the New England Revolution in 2004. His skill, tenacity, and eye for goal quickly drew attention with the Revs — scoring 25 goals in 71 appeareances for the club — leading the American to a transfer to the Premier League with Fulham in 2007.

After a pair of years with Fulham where he managed to reach a UEFA Europa League final, a move to Tottenham Hotspur in 2012 further solidified the USMNT legend’s status as a versatile attacker capable of both creating and finishing for his team, with the American finishing his three-year stint in England with over 200 appearances and 57 goals. His return to MLS with the Seattle Sounders saw him continue to showcase his ability to score crucial goals, leading the Sounders to their first-ever MLS Cup in 2016 prior to his retirement in 2018.

Brad Guzan

Brad Guzan began his career at the University of South Carolina, turning into one of the best goalkeepers in the nation, and eventually going to MLS as the second overall pick in the 2005 SuperDraft. Starting in MLS with Chivas USA, Guzan's potential was evident early on and it took no more than a few years for the American to pick up a big move to one of the best leagues in the world. 

His move to England in 2008 saw him join Aston Villa in the Premier League, where he established himself as a formidable shot-stopper throughout his nine-year career in English soccer. Guzan now plays with Atlanta United in MLS.

DeAndre Yedlin

Rising through the ranks in his hometown of Seattle, Yedlin's breakthrough came at the University of Akron, where his lightning-fast pace and defensive prowess earned attention from all over the world. His standout performances propelled him to MLS as one of the most promising young talents in the country, further showcasing his world-class athletic abilities when he was drafted to the Seattle Sounders in 2013.

Yedlin's success in Seattle led the American to a transfer to the Premier League with the Spurs in 2014, with eventual stints at Sunderland, Newcastle United and Galatasaray until 2022. The full-back now plays with Inter Miami in the MLS.

Daryl Dike 

The forward, originally from Oklahoma, made his mark in college soccer with the University of Virginia. His breakout performances in two years, named as Third Team All-American by United Soccer Coaches, College Soccer News and Soccer America, earned him the Generation Adidas contract, facilitating his eventual move to the MLS with Orlando City SC as the fifth overall pick of the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. 

Dike's standout striker qualities in MLS earned him interest from clubs in Europe, leading to a loan spell with Barnsley FC in England's Championship in January 2021. His six-month stint with Barnsley was one of instant impact, scoring nine goals in just 19 games for the club. This half-season performance earned him a move to EFL’s West Bromwich in 2022.

Shaka Hislop

Born in London, the legendary Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper began his soccer career attending Howard University in Washington D.C. In his first pair of years at the collegiate level, Bishop managed to lead the Bison's to a NCAA runner-up position as well as the quarterfinals the following year. His performances earned him a draft to the Baltimore Blast in 1992, an indoor team that competed in the now MASL.

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His early career with the Blast, touring in Europe and playing against Aston Villa, ultimately showcased him to other clubs and landed him a tryout with Reading FC. Not much time passed until Bishop signed a contract with the club, making the start to what would be a 13-year career in England, playing for Newcastle, West Ham and Portsmouth across his 222 league appearances until 2006.

Tajon Buchanan 

Buchanan honed his skills at Syracuse University in the NCAA, showcasing his speed, technical ability, and remarkable skills on his debut seasons at the college level. The Canadian’s performances in his first two years with the Orange, scoring 12 goals and tallying six assists in 33 games, earned him a spot in MLS with the New England Revolution as the eight overall pick in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft. 

Buchanan had a sensational breakthrough with the Revs, making him standout player in the MLS and catching the eye of Belgium giant Club Brugge for a transfer in 2022. Now, after a pair of seasons in the Belgian Pro League, Buchanan is now set to play with Italian giant Inter, club that acquired the winger in a deal worth over $7 million.

Jack Harrison 

Hailing from England, Harrison's path to professional soccer — one that entailed a move from Manchester United’s youth academy to high school soccer in Massachusetts — lead the midfielder to a stint at Wake Forest University in NCAA soccer. After just one year with the college, the Stoke-on-Trent-born earned a move the MLS with the Chicago Fire as the number one overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft. Harrison was quickly traded to New York City FC, where he quickly emerged as a dynamic winger known for his speed, technical ability, and vision on the ball. 

Harrison's breakout performances in MLS in his first two years caught the eye of clubs in Europe, and a transfer to NYCFC parent club Manchester City, though without being able to break into the first team. The Englishman had a number of loan spells, notably with Leeds United in the Premier League. Harrison currently plays with Everton in the Premier League

Cyle Larin

The Canadian began his soccer career in the NCAA at the University of Connecticut. Larin scored 14 goals in his freshman season, and was named American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year in his sophomore year, catching the eyes of teams around the country. After two years at the college level, the forwards drafted to  Orlando City SC as the first pick of the MLS SuperDraft in 2015. Larin's time in MLS showcased his ability to find the back of the net consistently, becoming the first-ever rookie to score 17 goals in a season, earning him attention from European clubs. 

His move to Turkey’s Besiktas in 2018 marked a significant step in his career, where he continued to excel and score goals in Turkish Super Lig. Larin's knack for scoring crucial goals, coupled with his physical presence and technical ability, solidified his reputation as a potent striker for both club and country, becoming one of the most prominent players at the international level with the Canadian national team. Larin now plays with Mallorca in LaLiga.

Zack Steffen 

Steffen began his career in the NCAA with the University of Maryland. The American played every minute in goal for Maryland in his pair of years with the college, tabbed Most Valulable Defensive Player of the Big Ten Tournament and helping the his team advance to the title game on penalty kicks against Michigan State in his 41-save sophomore season. His stand-out performances with the Terms earned him a move to Europe with Freiburg to play with the reserves, but didn’t take long to return to the U.S. to play in MLS with the Columbus Crew in 2016.

Steffen's incredible performances in MLS led to a big move to Europe, signing with Premier League champions Manchester City in 2018. He was quickly loaned out to Fortuna Düsseldorf in the Bundesliga, and after a pair of season’s as City’s backup goalkeeper, the former Crew player was loaned out to Middlesbrough in the second tier of English soccer. The 28-year-old American has now returned to the MLS, signing a contract the Colorado Rapids.

Vedad Ibišević

The Yugoslavia-born, forced to fled his home country at a time of war, moved to the United States and became perhaps the most promising player in all of St. Louis during his youth. His skillset became a reality when he began attending Saint Louis University and scored 18 goals in his first 22 games for the Bilikens. He was named NCAA Freshman of the Year and included in the All-American first team. 

After this marvelous season, Ibišević signed with Paris Saint-Germain in the French Ligue 1. However, after two seasons of little to no playing time, the Bosnia and Herzegovina international took a trasnfer to Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, scoring 18 goals in his first 17 games before picking up an injury. He went on to play the rest of his career in Germany, making moves to VfB Stuttgart, Hertha BSC and Schalke 04 — club where he retired.

Tim Ream

Tim Ream attended Saint Louis University and was as a stalwart defender for the Billikens. His impressive contributions to the program led to the center back receiving multiple awards, including NSCAA first-team All-Region and second-team All-Conference honors. Ream also made appearances for the Chicago Fire Premier in the USL Premier Development League during his time in college. Following his successful stint at the collegiate level, Ream made the move to MLS after being drafted in the second round (18th overall) of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft by the New York Red Bulls.

Ream would only go on to play two seasons with New York, making a transfer to Premier League’s Bolton Wanderers for $2.5 million after just 58 games in Major League Soccer. After two and a half seasons with Bolton where he played a whopping 114 games, the USMNT defender made the transfer to Fulham in 2015. The 36-year-old remains with the club and has cemented himself as one of Fulham’s all-time greats following his 280 appearances in London.

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