The Ramstein Air Base, headquarters of the United States Air Force in Europe, is located in an area of Germany known not only for vineyards and historic architecture, but also for its football hotbed that has produced generational talents such as Fritz Walter, Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose. The local powerhouse 1. FC Kaiserslautern, four-time German champions, have yet to fully embrace the local American community that boasts a population of 53,000, but 2023 might be the year they start to become America's team.
Kaiserslautern have been through plenty of rough times and near-financial collapses, but they recently returned to the 2. Bundesliga and regularly attract 40,000 spectators to Betzenberg, which was at one time one of the most feared stadiums in Europe. Arguably the face of the current team is former United States international Terrence Boyd. Likely more than anyone else in the club, Boyd wants Kaiserslautern to form a bond with the local Americans.
"[Kaiserslautern] could be more active to get Americans excited," said Boyd, the Bremen-born striker who briefly lived in the New York City borough of Queens. "The stadium is perfect to turn first-time spectators into fans instantly. When I go out on the town, I meet soldiers from time to time who like to watch football at Betzenberg."
Still, Boyd argues the club have not seriously exploited the fact that so many American families live in the area. "That is even the opinion of Kaiserslautern fans," he says.
But they're working on it, with some of their most visible efforts bearing fruit this summer.
Summer training camp in Minnesota
It was announced earlier this year that the club will tour the United States this summer, traveling to Minnesota for their summer training camp.
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"Because of the many Americans that live in areas surrounding Kaiserslautern, we at FCK have always had a special relation to the United States," Kaiserslautern spokesperson Stefan Roßkopf tells ESPN. "We hope to gather new experiences and the friendlies against Louisville City and Minnesota United also present a challenge from a sporting perspective."
"It is a first step to get the people over there excited," Boyd says, adding that he has never been to Minnesota before and is looking forward to exploring that part of the States. Born to an American serviceman and a German mother, Boyd is not an anomaly in German football. Over the past two decades, more and more sons of service members have emerged at the professional level. From Fabian Johnson to Timothy Chandler to John Brooks, these players share similar paths in that they were born in Germany, often graduated from reputable academies of Bundesliga clubs, and chose to play for the United States men's national team.
Throughout the years, Boyd, who has 14 caps for the United States, kept an eye out for young Americans who would try to make it as professional footballers.
"I'm really happy when I see Americans playing here," he says. "I'm happy to see more talents, and I'm always open to helping the young Americans to adjust to football in Germany."
Asked whether he is surprised that gifted athletes would choose football over sports that have a higher notoriety at home, the 32-year-old said, "The reason is that most grow up on the football grounds here." He spent his childhood in Bremen and, according to him, there was no alternative to joining a football club if one was serious about pursuing an athletic career.
Closer to the end of his career than the start, after back-to-back cruciate injuries in 2014-15 and stops at eight previous clubs, Boyd managed to find a home in Kaiserslautern and become a fan favourite thanks to his qualities as a goal scorer and his outgoing personality. Making him the face of Kaiserslautern's push toward America seems logical.
Four previous trips to the U.S.
While Kaiserslautern take their first serious shot at exploring ties to the local American community and their home country, the scheduled training camp in Minnesota will not be Kaiserslautern's first extended stay on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, the club has made four trips to the U.S. to date, with the first taking place in 1957. A year earlier, the team around famed captain Fritz Walter had already played two friendlies against a team of an American anti-aircraft artillery unit stationed in the region.
In 1957, Kaiserslautern then traveled to the United States on an invitation by the German American Football Federation (DAFB), an organisation formed by immigrant clubs in 1923, that later tried to help foster the relationship between the two countries through sports in post-war times. During the 1957 tour, Kaiserslautern played a series of six friendlies across three weeks and were able to attract decent crowds ranging from 6,000 in Detroit and Philadelphia to 25,000 in New York.
At the time, Kaiserslautern were one of the most successful clubs in West Germany, having won two domestic championships and finished second twice in the previous eight years. Beyond that, Kaiserslautern also built the backbone of West Germany's World Cup-winning team in 1954, with Walter, his brother Ottmar Walter, the two hard-nosed defenders Werner Kohlmeyer and Werner Liebrich, and the crafty wing-back Horst Eckel. All five of them were born either in or close to Kaiserslautern and spent the majority of their lives there.
While American troops captured the city in the late stages of World War II, the players were held captive. Fritz Walter was picked up by American soldiers in Bohemia, but the U.S. generally refused to accept the surrender of German troops in Bohemia and handed them over to the Soviet Union instead. Fritz and his younger brother Ludwig, who also was a football player, were deported to the Soviet prisoners' camp in Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania, where the two would play football with Hungarian and Slovakian guards. As the story goes, the guards recognised Fritz Walter and thus prevented the brothers from being sent to Siberia.
Still, Walter and his teammates took part in the 1957 tour to the U.S. The German-speaking newspaper "New Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold" reported in detail how the Big Apple's skyscrapers left an impression on Kaiserslautern's team once they had landed at John F. Kennedy Airport, then known as Idlewild Airport. "We are especially happy that with 1. FC Kaiserslautern, we have one of the most prominent clubs here," August Steuer, chairman of DAFB, said in his welcoming remarks to the team.
Despite the success of the first tour, it took Kaiserslautern more than 20 years to repeat the journey. In June 1979, Kaiserslautern decided to visit the United States and Canada again for a six-game series. The team who had just finished third in the Bundesliga won games against Columbus Magic and San Diego Sockers, but also suffered losses to Chicago Sting and B.C. Select in Vancouver. An undisputed sporting success was the next trip in 1992, although Kaiserslautern played only two friendlies, beating Dallas Rockets 5-0 and San Francisco Bay Blackhawks 1-0. The next year the team returned to the U.S. again, this time to Denver, where Kaiserslautern beat Colorado Foxes and the recently founded Danish club FC Copenhagen.
The 1993 two-match series was the team's last journey to the United States.
Kaiserslautern went on to write another chapter of German football history when an Otto Rehhagel-led side managed to win the German championship in 1998, less than 12 months after they'd been promoted to the Bundesliga. Around the turn of the century, though, Kaiserslautern sank into a state of constant unrest with routine changes in coaches and board members, as well as financial trouble. Only in the past few years has the club managed to ensure stability, finally putting them in a position to explore the possibility of building stronger ties with America.
Betzenberg can attract American fans
Historian Eric Lindon has conducted extensive research on all of Kaiserslautern's previous trips to the U.S. When asked for his assessment of the relations between Kaiserslautern and Americans, one factor Lindon emphasised relates to the stadium.
"The large U.S. military bases with almost 50,000 Americans who constantly rotate through this area, and many soccer-loving Americans learn and experience the Betze feeling," Lindon said. "The best way to explain that feeling is to compare it to a high school basketball rivalry where the basketball games are in halls that have a very intense atmosphere with lots of chants, scarves and flags."
The USMNT experienced that special atmosphere twice in 2006. In preparation for the World Cup in Germany, the United States Soccer Federation scheduled a friendly against Poland in Kaiserslautern, marking the first time in history that the USSF hosted a game outside American territory. That 1-0 win for the U.S. was only a taste of what was to come later that year, as the national team played one of their three World Cup group stage games at Betzenberg.
On June 17, exactly four years after the death of Fritz Walter, who was commemorated in a minute of silence, the USMNT drew with Italy in front of 46,000 spectators. The game is remembered for its intensity, resulting in red cards for Daniele De Rossi, Eddie Pope and Pablo Mastroeni, a stellar performance by goalkeeper Casey Keller and the electric atmosphere inside the packed stadium. If you ask Boyd, he'll tell you he's convinced that Betzenberg is the perfect place to couple an intense football experience with the right amount of entertainment to attract many more Americans.
"The typical American family wants entertainment when they attend sporting events," he says. "They arrive as a group, maybe have a tailgate party, and then have fun inside the arena."
The atmosphere can not only impress stadium goers, but also financial investors like Chien Lee, a Chinese-American entrepreneur and multiclub owner who, together with Pacific Media Group, acquired an almost 10% stake in Kaiserslautern a year ago.
"I was at the stadium. Amazing, 46,000, a full stadium," Lee said about his experience at Betzenberg shortly after the acquisition. "Kaiserslautern is a giant in German football history. It is one of the legendary clubs in Germany. I know that people say the giant has fallen from the top tier in the past few years, but the giant is waking up now -- he is back and continues to fight."
When asked whether their planned trip to Minnesota later this year is also meant to advertise Kaiserslautern to other U.S.-based investors, club spokesperson Roßkopf replied, "No, this is not the goal of the training camp." Instead, he emphasised that Kaiserslautern intend to represent German football and, of course, the club as a partner for U.S. soccer.
For now, the idea of 1. FC Kaiserslautern becoming America's team remains just that: an idea. But many things favour the revitalised club to become a little more red, white and blue.