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Malik Tillman speaks softly, but carries a big potential with the U.S. men’s soccer team

The 20-year-old versatile attacker has fit in well with his new teammates off the field, and fit in well in his recent senior national team debut.

Malik Tillman (center) working out during a recent U.S. men's soccer team's practice.
Malik Tillman (center) working out during a recent U.S. men's soccer team's practice.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Malik Tillman arrived at the U.S. men’s soccer team’s summer gathering, it was the first time he had set foot in this country.

At the rate things are going, it will be far from his last.

Tillman is the latest member of a long lineage of soccer players born to American military members stationed abroad, especially in Germany. The 20-year-old’s father is from Detroit, and his mother is German. They separated when Malik was 4 years old, and the son grew up in Nuremberg with his brother and their mother. Tillman said he hasn’t spoken with his father for a long time.

Back in 2016, Tillman played for a U.S. under-15 team, but once Germany wanted him, he went that way through the under-21 squad. Amid a rise at his club team, German power Bayern Munich, he reopened the door to play for the Americans. A few weeks ago, manager Gregg Berhalter walked through it.

“He told me about his plan with the team, and he convinced me to play for the U.S.,” Tillman said.

‘The team has a lot of potential’

Of course, the sales pitch was a bit longer than that. But Tillman is pretty soft-spoken, at least in English since it isn’t his first language.

That’s just fine in the U.S. team’s diverse locker room. More than a dozen players on the current squad have multinational backgrounds, and others aren’t here who could be: Sergiño Dest, Daryl Dike, Jordan Pefok, and Ricardo Pepi, just to name a few.

» READ MORE: USMNT rising star Yunus Musah always brings a smile, and a lot of skill when he plays

So it’s nothing new when another such player joins the party, for insiders or outsiders alike. Nor is it new for a U.S. manager to drop a hint that a player is more likely to play in a World Cup for this country than a European giant.

“I would say that I have a chance to play in the World Cup this year,” Tillman said. “With Germany, I think I wouldn’t be with the team for the next two years. If I have a great career, the next two years, maybe I can have a chance with the German national team, but I don’t really see the chance with them like I see it here.”

When Tillman chose to play for the United States, some longtime national team watchers recognized the family name. Malik’s brother, Timothy, was recruited by the U.S. program in 2018. Timothy was to join the under-20 men’s team at the time, and then-coach Tab Ramos said so publicly. But Timothy ended up not actually making the move and stayed with Germany’s program.

Familiar faces

It was natural that Malik consulted his brother about this switch. He also talked with two American friends who’ve been at Bayern, Chris Richards and Taylor Booth.

“They told me it’s a great group of guys, the team has a lot of potential, and, yeah, they also convinced me,” he said. “With Chris, I have a good relationship, and I really trust him. I would say he’s a good friend of mine. So to hear something like that from him is very important for me.”

When Tillman arrived, he found two people he knows: George Bello, a teammate on that under-15 team back in the day, and Yunus Musah, an opponent on the field a few times. They and the rest of the squad gave him a warm welcome, including a birthday cake to celebrate his turning 20 last Saturday.

» READ MORE: The dream has come true for Brenden Aaronson, with Leeds United and the U.S. men’s soccer team

“It was easy to start talking to him, because he’s a cool guy,” Musah said, later adding that he could “really relate to him. So it was easy to get to talk to him and show him places and just feel his experience as well.”

You haven’t read about Tillman’s position on the field yet because he can play a few of them: as a No. 10, or an attacking midfielder, as a winger, or as a striker. In his senior debut Wednesday against Morocco, he took the left wing spot as a second-half substitute for Christian Pulisic.

Fitting in

Tillman said his vision is his best skill and noted that Berhalter told him the plan is to deploy him as a No. 10 and said, “that was one of the points to convince me.”

But he sounded plenty American when he said at another point: “I don’t really care where I play. I will play where the coach tells me to play.”

» READ MORE: Gregg Berhalter liked what he saw in Malik Tillman's debut

So did he when he spoke about getting to know the American culture and lifestyle. Asked for his first impressions, he said: “It’s huge,” and the crowd of reporters laughed with him.

“Almost every single street has four lanes, and in Germany there are maybe two,” he said.

Tillman is a fan of some American sports, including football and basketball. He doesn’t have a favorite NFL team, but in the NBA, he said he roots for the Heat because of Jimmy Butler and the Bucks because of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It’s not a coincidence that he roots for Giannis, who has a similarly multinational story.

“I would say that I look up to him,” Tillman said. “He’s from Greece [born to Nigerian parents] and made his way to the U.S., and got [to be] a big star out here. So, yeah, I would say he’s kind of a role model for me.”

Now Tillman will have the chance to write his own story in this country.

“It took me a lot of time to make the decision, but in the end, I listened to what my heart told me,” he said. “I hope it’s the right decision. I’m happy to be here — and, yeah, I like it.”