CARSON, Calif.—Jerome Kiesewetter was 13 when the World Cup came to Germany in 2006, and he doesn't remember much except one thing: watching the US play on the big screen constructed at the Brandenburg Gate in his native Berlin.
That was the day Kiesewetter proudly wore his US jersey for the first time, and if things didn't go so well for the Yanks – they didn't win a game in a difficult group – it hardly shook his allegiance.
The son of an American serviceman and a German woman, Kiesewetter (who took his mother's last name) grew into a fine soccer player. When US Soccer, alerted by his childhood friend John Brooks, came knocking 5 1/2-years ago, Kiesewetter didn't need a moment to contemplate the offer.
The 22-year-old striker has deeply identified with his American half all his life, even if he'd had, until his mid-teens, no contact with his father.
“I always did [feel like an American],” Kiesewetter, a US Under-23 standout who made his debut for the senior national team with an impressive late stint in Sunday's 3-2 win over Iceland at StubHub Center, told MLSsoccer.com. “My mom always told me about my dad, about the things they did. I grew up around American people -- her friends were American.
“The Feeling was There.”
Kiesewetter called getting his first cap the “greatest feeling in the world,” but it might be even better Friday night, when the Yanks take on Canada at StubHub Center. His father, Robin Riley, will be in attendance.
Riley, who lives just outside Austin, Texas, tracked down his son after he'd joined the US program, and they quickly built a relationship. Kiesewetter has since visited his dad, his half-brother and half-sister – he has another half-sister in Berlin – on several occasions.
“We didn't have much contact when I was little, like 7 or 8 years old,” Kiesewetter said. “But right now we talk to each other, like, every week. Twice a week … I always knew about him, but USA and Germany is far away, and it's not easy for a child. You can't travel, you have to go to school, and if you have off [from school], you're with your friends.”
He insisted that he never felt deprived of having a father before building a relationship with his dad.
“I didn't notice it, really, to be honest, because I was just paying attention to school,” Kiesewetter said. “I was just a kid. I didn't pay much attention to it. But right now it's great. It's great that we have our relationship getting better every week, every day.”
Kiesewetter is a rising star within the US youth national teams, advancing from the U-20s to the U-23s, whom he hopes to help overcome Colombia in a two-game March playoff for a berth in the Rio 2016 Olympics. And if his performance against Iceland is any indication, he might soon pay dividends for the senior team.
U-23 head coach Andreas Herzog says Kiesewetter “could be a huge part for US Soccer in the future.”
“I know him for a long time,” said the former Austria national team star. “He's a very physical player with a lot of speed up front. Honestly, through the whole year [in 2015], he was one of my best players overall.”
Kiesewetter, who plays for VfB Stuttgart, grew up in Berlin's Tempelhof neighborhood, where he and Brooks, a fellow German-American who is just two weeks older, started palling around when they were barely out of diapers. They grew up playing soccer together, and Brooks was the best player in the neighborhood.
“He was, I would say, a famous player in my little area in Berlin,” Kiesewetter said. “He was very famous, a good player, and I always looked up to him. He used to play striker and I used to play striker, too, and I was like, 'Yeah, I want to play like this guy.' ”
Brooks, who was converted into a defensive player and developed in Hertha Berlin's academy before signing a pro contract with his hometown club nearly five years ago, was called into a US camp by former U-20 coach Thomas Rongen in summer 2010. The center back quickly alerted Rongen to check out his buddy.
Kiesewetter, then 17, has been part of the scene ever since.
“It was great for me,” he said. “Always as a kid, I said I wanted to play for the US national team. It's funny that we're standing here right now.”
He played with the U-20s through his teens and made his U-23 debut last year, when he scored six goals in 16 games while usually teamed up front with fellow young striker standout Jordan Morris. He moved from Hertha Berlin, where he started about the same time as Brooks, to Stuttgart four years ago and has played primarily for the club's second team.
Kiesewetter made two Bundesliga appearances last spring and has trained with the first team but has not played a first-team match in quite some time. His playing time has been affected by an unstable coaching situation at Stuttgart, due to poor results. Huub Stevens was succeeded in July by Alexander Zorniger, who was then replaced in November by Jurgen Kramny.
Herzog says “he [Kiesewetter] didn't grow” during the first half of this season because his playing time diminished, and the player acknowledges that he’s considering other options, including MLS, when his contract expires this summer.
“I don't know [if I'll stay]. I'll see what happens,” he said. “Right now, I didn't get that much playing time. I just want to go out and play, that's about it, and if I have a chance to play someplace else, I'd do it.”
Despite being a natural forward, Kiesewetter has proven his versatility by playing wide. He was on the right wing for his 15-minute stint for the US Sunday, when he brought a spark to the attack, setting up a couple of chances with fine crosses, then drew the foul that led to Steve Birnbaum's 90th-minute winner.
“I think he's better as a winger, because then it's a different game,” Herzog said. “If you play in the center, then there's more pressure from different sides. As a winger, he kills most of his defenders because of his pace and his power.”
US midfielder Lee Nguyen, who has watched Kiesewetter the past month during the January camp, likes that the youngster is “not scared.”
“He gets the ball, and he goes right at you,” the New England Revolution star said. “He wants to attack, wants to score, and it's good to see that kind of confidence in a young guy like that.”
Despite being born in Germany, wearing the US jersey just feels right for Kiesewetter. He admitted that he's happy when Germany does well: “If they win the World Cup, it's nice for them, but it doesn't gave much to do with me,” he says. But like 2006, Kiesewetter's always leaned toward the Yanks.
“I bought my first jersey at Niketown,” he said. “I don't remember much [about that World Cup], I just remember I brought my first shirt – a US jersey – and I saved all my money for that that, like 50 euros.
“It was a lot of money for me. We didn't have that much money, so my first jersey was an expensive one, and I wore it every day.”