No super-starlets, no trophies. What are Dortmund in 2024?

When you’re an American sportswriter visiting Borussia Dortmund‘s Signal Iduna Park for the first time, the first thing the folks at the club will do is thank you for coming. The second thing they’ll do is congratulate you for what you’re about to experience. Why? Because they know it’s going to live up to your expectations.

With 81,000 belting out “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before the match, with the 25,000-fan, free-standing Yellow Wall breathing and swaying for two hours, with the sheer volume that accompanies anything even remotely exciting (or anything the crowd feels should be exciting), you’re in for a treat, and they know it. The Westfalenstadion, as it was originally (and is still frequently) called, is the Lambeau Field of European soccer. It turned 50 this spring, and it is a destination for the sports tourist in a city that has the passion to overcome its lack of population.

Dortmund is much bigger than Green Bay, Wisconsin, granted, but it’s still only the ninth-most populous city in Germany and the third largest in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, making it an unlikely home for the country’s second-largest club. But even during a frustrating season, that’s exactly what Borussia Dortmund are.

BVB have firmly established themselves as a second-tier club in European football, typically somewhere between about 10th and 15th best. They spend within their means, having forever internalized the lessons of when ambition drove them to the brink of bankruptcy. Over the past decade, they have employed some of the best young players in the world — Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham, Ilkay Gündogan, Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembélé, Mario Götze, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Jadon Sancho, Ciro Immobile, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Christian Pulisic — and since reaching the Champions League final in 2013, they have reached the quarterfinals four more times. (They could advance further this spring, but it will take a comeback after a 2-1 loss to Atletico Madrid in Wednesday’s quarterfinal first leg.)

This season has gone a little differently than most. They did once again reach the Champions League quarterfinals, and their performance clinched a spot in next summer’s expanded FIFA Club World Cup in the U.S. But thanks to a dreadful turn of form in November, BVB finds itself in a dogfight with RB Leipzig for fourth place in the Bundesliga. And with Bayern Munich finally ceding the German crown for the first time in 12 years, it’s somehow going to go somewhere other than Dortmund. Bayer Leverkusen, the hour away rival run by the pharmaceutical giant, could clinch the Bundesliga title as soon as this weekend.

Could Borussia Dortmund ever be more again? More than the 11th-or-so best team in Europe? More than a Champions League quarterfinalist? More than the club that employs the bright young star before he moves on to somewhere bigger? Life is usually good at the Westfalenstadion, but could it be better?

What exactly is Borussia Dortmund in 2024, anyway?

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‘This region is pretty well-known for hard work’

“During his very first press conference, [Jurgen] Klopp said he couldn’t promise titles but would promise what he termed ‘full-throttle football,'” former ESPN contributor Uli Hesse wrote of the former BVB coach in his 2019 book, “Building the Yellow Wall: The Incredible Rise and Cult Appeal of Borussia Dortmund.”

“Then he said: ‘If games become boring, they lose their right to exist.’ It was almost as if he had read a manual on how to win black-and-yellow hearts.”

The urgency of the Signal Iduna crowd becomes most noticeable in two specific moments during any given match. The first comes when BVB wins the ball back from its opponent. If there is any hesitation from a Borussia player about pushing the ball immediately up the pitch and starting a full-fledged counterattack, a roar from the crowd urges him to do so. The second comes when a player has the ball with any space in the attacking third; another roar urges him to shoot the ball immediately. If the player doesn’t respond as directed, the roar almost turns into a moan. Do something. At all times, look to do something.

“Hard work, from the first to the last minute,” BVB marketing director Carsten Cramer said when asked what fans expect from the club. “Passion, emotion, energy, intensity, authenticity, closeness. Don’t separate the players from the supporters — get the feeling of being part of the club and part of the game [from them]. That is important.”

To some degree, this could be said of any fan base in any part of any country, but in the industrial North Rhine-Westphalia region, which is overloaded with clubs that boast shockingly passionate fan bases — it houses five current Bundesliga teams (BVB, Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Monchengladbach, Koln and Bochum), plus four teams in the second division (Fortuna Dusseldorf, VfL Osnabruck, Paderborn and the enormous but debt-stricken Schalke) — this idea is particularly true.

“It’s a special atmosphere in the stadium, and it’s not only about winning. We are not Munich, and we know how to suffer in some ways,” said sporting director Sebastian Kehl. And suffer they have, at times. For such a large crowd, it wears its emotions on its collective sleeve to the point that one can pretty easily see how such a crowd could turn a home advantage into a disadvantage in certain situations. One can also see how that might make the catastrophe of last season’s final matchday all the more devastating.

Last spring, Borussia Dortmund came back from nine points down to take the league lead into the final matchday of the season. All they had to do was beat midtable Mainz, or have Bayern drop points against Koln, to secure their first title in 11 years and end Bayern’s decade-long title streak. Instead, with star midfielder Jude Bellingham injured and missing his final game in black and yellow, BVB watched Mainz take a stunning 2-0 lead after 25 minutes. Sébastien Haller, as responsible as anyone for BVB’s spring surge, missed a penalty and in front of a panicked home crowd, BVB could manage only a 2-2 draw. They almost got bailed out by an equally shocking result in Koln, but Jamal Musiala‘s 89th-minute goal secured a 2-1 Bayern win and extended the Bavarians’ streak of league trophies.

Moving on from what longtime CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke called “the s— day of 27th of May” on a recent media call proved difficult. Early draws with newly promoted Heidenheim and local derby rival Bochum created a dour tone at the start of the 2023-24 season, and after a solid rebound — which included a first-place finish in this season’s most difficult Champions League group, featuring Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and Newcastle — the team stumbled into the Bundesliga’s winter break with just one win in its previous eight league matches and a resounding loss to upstart Stuttgart in the DFB-Pokal.

Over the break, with rumors of an impending sacking for manager Edin Terzic, the club instead made a different move, bringing in club legends Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender as his assistants. Sahin played for the club for parts of 11 seasons and had recently managed Turkish club Antalyaspor for two years. Bender played there for parts of eight seasons and most recently coached Germany’s U17s. It was easy to see Sahin as a particularly natural Terzic replacement if the team never rebounded, but their additions were also made with the hope of provoking such a rebound.

“We had a feeling that we need to react to the first part of the season, we need to bring some new inputs,” Kehl said. “We have to change a little bit the climate in the dressing room, the connection to players, but to bring in some new ideas as well. I think the connection between our head coach, Edin, who’s the boss, and these two guys is pretty good. Everybody has his role.”

As with last season, the team has indeed rebounded since the break. Borussia Dortmund are second in the table since the start of 2024, behind only the soon-to-be champions in Leverkusen. And despite some late wobbliness, BVB took down PSV Eindhoven to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals.

Even with the rebound, however, last fall’s wobble, combined with both Leverkusen’s brilliance and Stuttgart’s sustained quality, BVB have been left in a dogfight for a top-four finish and a spot in next year’s Champions League. They are currently tied with RBL on points; Opta’s power ratings give them a 50.2% chance of finishing in the top four.

‘It’s not easy to find these kinds of players every year’

In 2024’s “Data Game: The Story of Liverpool FC’s Analytics Revolution,” author Josh Williams described the difference between Klopp’s projects at Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool pretty easily. “The Reds would attempt to become an upgraded version of Dortmund,” he said, “by employing a comparable tactical approach without having to sell their stars at the end of every season.”

Indeed, there were two primary challenges for Klopp in Dortmund: His teams were always going to be extraordinarily young, and each summer they would lose one of their best young players. There was 22-year-old Sahin (to Real Madrid) in 2011-12; 23-year-old Shinji Kagawa (to Manchester United) in 2012-13; 22-year-old Götze (to Bayern) in 2013-14; 25-year-old Lewandowski (to Bayern again) in 2014-15. When BVB won the Bundesliga in 2011-12, 58% of its league minutes went to players 23 and younger — the only key players over 26 were goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller and Kehl in defensive midfield. They always fielded a young roster, and because of departures it never really got older.

This makes Klopp’s epic success in this period — two league titles (2011 and 2012), a DFB-Pokal win (2012) and a Champions League final appearance (2013) — even more impressive in retrospect, but the approach was driven by necessity. After the club’s financial crisis of the early-2000s, this was just the way it was going to be.

After winning the Champions League in 1997 and reaching the semis in 1998, Dortmund made bold moves in an attempt to continue dominating Europe, acquiring a number of veterans, going public in 2000 and overextending themselves in a myriad of ways. They won the Bundesliga and reached the UEFA Cup final in 2002, but fortunes quickly faded. Television revenue plummeted in Germany, a number of loans and investment deals backfired, BVB had to take a humbling short-term loan from Bayern in 2004 and by 2005, bankruptcy loomed.

Hesse’s “Building the Yellow Wall” tells the story of Watzke’s first few weeks as CEO in 2005 as he negotiated with creditors to keep the club in business. When the last creditor officially agreed to new terms and the club’s existence was confirmed on March 14, 2005, it was seen as a rebirth. “For the supporters, and also for the men who run the club, the events of 2005 are not only remembered as the story of how BVB came back from the brink, they are also seen as an obligation,” Hesse wrote. “[Watzke told me some years later], ‘There’s a headline above everything that we do. That headline is: we want to have maximum sporting success, but we will never again go into debt for it.'”

“Twenty years ago, we nearly went bankrupt because we tried to invest in players and weren’t able to refinance it by ourselves,” Cramer said. “We can just spend the money we earn by ourselves. That’s the Dortmund way. We don’t like to go to a bank in order to ask for a loan in order to buy a player that might help us to become successful in the future. To be solid, serious and authentic, that is our approach and our strategy, even if it means we might lose some competitiveness in a current season. We won’t do strange and curious things just in order to overtake Bayern Munich.”

It’s hard to get ahead in soccer while actually acting responsibly, but BVB have managed to toe the line between quality and prudence for quite a while. Still, since the transcendent Klopp left in 2015, they haven’t managed the same heights. They won the DFB-Pokal twice, in 2017 and 2021, and they’ve finished second in the league five times in the past nine seasons, but something greater has eluded them. And in 2023-24, they couldn’t even lay claim to the same level of great young talent.

The 2021 DFB Pokal run might have been the peak of the post-Klopp era. Injuries had dragged BVB down during a third-place finish, but they advanced thanks in part to four goals from 17-year-old Gio Reyna, and in the final, a 4-1 win over RB Leipzig, they got brilliant performances from Sancho (two goals and an assist), Haaland (two goals) and a 17-year-old Bellingham.

Following the departures of all three in consecutive summers, however, and dealing with stunted development for the injury-prone Reyna, they headed into 2023-24 with a squad lacking those same levels of young star power. With money from Bellingham’s move to Real Madrid, they acquired 22-year-old midfielder Felix Nmecha from Wolfsburg, but they also brought in 30-year-old forward Niclas Füllkrug from Werder Bremen, 29-year-old midfielder Marcel Sabitzer from Bayern and 28-year-old left-back Ramy Bensebaini from Borussia Monchengladbach.

“We follow our guidelines,” Kehl said when asked about this run of veteran signings, “and the goal will of course be to [acquire] young top talents. But it’s hard to find them every year. We try to manage experienced and young players. I think both directions can help each other and support each other.”

“A team doesn’t work by just hiring 20 talented players,” Cramer said. “It’s a very complicated puzzle. The pieces are different, and if you have so many young players, you also need a right mix of experienced ones as well. We decided after giving up Bellingham that we needed some substitution in the midfield, and we decided to invest in two players, Nmecha and Sabitzer, in order to compensate the loss. We decided to make a different approach, but it doesn’t mean that we give up the strategy to look for talented players.”

‘You will see him for sure in two years playing on a level you won’t believe’

In all competitions this season, 13 players have logged at least 1,500 minutes for BVB in all competitions this season. Incredibly, 24-year-old defender Nico Schlotterbeck is the youngest of the bunch. Five of the 13 are 30 or older, and the only 22-and-under player with even 1,300 minutes — left-back Ian Maatsen — is on loan from Chelsea.

In theory, a heaping dose of veteran influence should raise a team’s floor even if it lowers the ceiling, but this is shaping up to be BVB’s worst league finish since either 2017-18 (the last time they finished fourth) or 2014-15 (the last time they finished lower than that). The results have been maddeningly up-and-down, something that has continued even as their overall level of play has improved in recent months. They would still be ahead of RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga table had they not suffered crippling breakdowns and allowed two goals in four minutes in a 3-2 home loss to Hoffenheim. And less than two weeks after their first win in Munich in a decade, they absolutely no-showed for 30 minutes against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, ultimately lucky to escape with only a 2-1 loss.

In a desperate search for missing upside during the winter break, BVB not only brought in Maatsen on loan in January, they also brought back Sancho. After falling desperately out of favor and feuding publicly with Erik Ten Hag in a third frustrating season at Manchester United, Sancho returned on loan and has contributed two goals — including one against PSV in the Champions League round of 16 — plus one assist from 21 chances created and 118 progressive carries, a Sancho specialty, in 909 total minutes.

“We know Jadon for a long, long time,” Kehl said of the player who averaged 16.3 goals and 17.7 assists across all competitions during a brilliant three-season run with the club. “When I did the first calls with him in December, I could feel that he’s very optimistic, that you could feel his fire, that he wants to show the world that he’s still there and that Jadon Sancho is still one of the best players. When he came in January he was very, very good in training, very motivated, of course. He was lacking playing time, but we tried to give him 25 minutes, 45 minutes, 75 minutes. If he gets the ball everybody knows something magical can happen. We are pretty happy that we brought him back. Jadon in this club is a really good connection. He’s home.”

How long he will remain “home” is up in the air. You can find plenty of German media outlets that insist Sancho should return on a full transfer this coming summer, but whether that’s in the realm of financial possibility remains to be seen. The same goes for Maatsen, who has a goal, two assists and a level of poise on the ball that has completely transformed BVB’s buildup play. He has a €40 million release clause from Chelsea this summer.

“Of course if I could buy a player, or if I could loan a player with a buy option, I would rather do it,” Kehl said. “But [with Sancho and Maatsen], it was unfortunately not possible. It was the only chance to get these players under these circumstances. For that reason, it’s like this, but we will follow them and of course do everything, perhaps if we have a chance [to acquire them permanently in the future].”

The success of the Sancho and Maatsen loan deals, the poor odds of both remaining with the club after May, the desperate race for a Champions League bid and the old age of the 2023-24 squad have all created a unique level of uncertainty for the club at the moment. It feels like the club has skewed off-course a bit. Then again, it might only feel that way because of injuries.

Karim Adeyemi, 22, was one of the major difference-makers in last year’s title push, but after a long spell on the sideline, he didn’t even top 1,000 minutes until mid-March. He was BVB’s best player in the team’s recent 2-0 win at Bayern, its first in Munich in a decade. Nmecha has shown value as a press-heavy box-to-box midfielder, but has managed only 1,097 minutes. Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, 19, is, like Sancho, a duels-hungry winger with major potential, but he’s played only 1,022 minutes, in which he’s scored twice with four assists.

Reyna, struggling for minutes on loan at Nottingham Forest after playing just 361 minutes for BVB this season, is somehow still only 21 years old. If he can ever get on the right side of both the injury bug and his manager at the same time, his recent national team performances were a pretty clear reminder of his upside. Youssoufa Moukoko, 19, has struggled for playing time this season behind Füllkrug and others up front, but he’s still scored four goals in 498 minutes.

Those five players could easily turn into major contributors for a great team in the future — others, like 25-year-old Donyell Malen (13 goals and three assists in all comps) and the 24-year-old Schlotterbeck have only recently entered their prime years, though Malen is rumored to be potentially departing this summer. BVB also hold the rights to 18-year-old forward Paris Brunner, the player of the tournament at least year’s U17 World Cup, and 18-year-old midfielder Kjell Watjen, who has combined 10 goals and eight assists for the club’s U19 team this season.

The highest upside of all might belong to 17-year-old winger Julien Duranville. Acquired from Anderlecht in January 2023, he nearly saved BVB’s title hopes in the final moments of the “s— day of the 27th of May,” creating two excellent scoring chances with eight progressive carries in a desperate 28-minute appearance against Mainz. He has missed almost all of 2023-24 with injury but recorded two assists in a U19 match on Sunday, one of his first matches of the season. “You will see him for sure in two years playing on a level you won’t believe,” Cramer said.

‘The more you are based in the market you are talking about, the more you will reach’

Even during a frustrating season, the brand-building never stops. On Feb. 29, BVB became the third German club (following Bayern Munich and Eintracht Frankfurt) to open an office in the United States, choosing a spot with longtime marketing partner Sport Five on New York’s Madison Avenue. “To be honest, if [COVID-19] wouldn’t have arrived, I’m sure we would have opened this office earlier,” Cramer said. “It was just a question of time.” The club has 32 fan clubs in the United States, along with 18 youth academies. “I think the learning from all our other international activities” — they also have offices in China and Singapore — “is that the more you are based in the market you are talking about, the more you will reach.

“If you are always thinking you can manage markets from Germany, just by Germans, you will fail. If you want to be more present in the U.S., in the Americas, you have to be there and you can’t run it from Germany.”

The opening of the office, complete with a glitzy reception atop One World Trade Center, was certainly timely, considering how much of a spotlight soccer will be shining on America in the coming years. The U.S. will host the Copa America this summer, an expanded, 32-team FIFA Club World Cup — for which BVB recently qualified — in 2025 and, along with Canada and Mexico, the World Cup in 2026. Watzke recently told media that he was even hoping for a Bundesliga-specific preseason tournament in the States during the 2025-27 range as well. “There is big momentum for soccer in America,” he said.

That he actually used the word “soccer” indirectly emphasized the point.

So what is Borussia Dortmund in 2024?

Opening a U.S. office and attempting to broaden the reach of a club with such a clear brand makes perfect sense. But on the pitch, the club is in an interesting moment of transition. Watzke — for so long regarded as the face and, in some ways, savior of the club — is retiring when his contract expires in 2025. How his responsibilities are divvied out and who replaces him is uncertain. Meanwhile, Bayern is finally on the brink of losing its title streak, but it’s Bayer Leverkusen, with a thrilling young manager (Xabi Alonso) and a batch of thrilling young talent, doing the deed. (Watzke: “One eye is laughing and one eye is crying” about this development.)

The club has huge decisions to make this summer, regarding both the future of Terzic and how much it can rely on its base of young talent. Can you trust that injuries will let up enough to allow your brightest young talents to develop and prosper? Can you afford to keep Maatsen and/or Sancho in house? (Can you afford not to?) And in an environment in which other German clubs like Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt are all attempting to thrive with younger players, and even super-heavyweights like Real Madrid are stockpiling youngsters, can you continue to stand out when it comes to landing the next Haaland or Bellingham?

“The fight for talents is becoming a more and more important issue for all the clubs because the number of talents is not increasing,” Cramer said. “We all sail on the same sea.”

In an age when the sport’s financial heavyweights continue to separate themselves from the pack, what are the realistic ambitions for a club that consistently develops young talent, is definitely one of the top 15 clubs in Europe … and is, on average, definitely not one of the top 10? It’s an odd place to be. But for Borussia Dortmund, you always have the Westfalenstadion family to fall back on.

When I was congratulated for making my maiden Dortmund visit in early February, I was there to watch BVB’s 3-0 win over Freiburg. Malen scored two goals, including an early laser beam, and Füllkrug assisted both of Malen’s goals and scored a third. Young Maatsen and Bynoe-Gittens were brilliant as BVB built most of its attack through them on the left side. But the hero of the match, according to both Terzic and the fans in the stands, was Mateu Morey, who played just two official minutes.

Acquired from Mallorca in 2019, Morey was just cracking the first team after some injuries when, in the 2021 DFB-Pokal semifinals, he suffered a serious knee injury that forced him out for more than a year. On Feb. 11, after more than 1,000 days with the club, he was finally able to play in front of, and celebrate with, the Yellow Wall.

“Mateu is our hidden hero,” Terzic said after the match. “He is here now for more than four years. Every player that we sign, we try to convince them by showing him this stadium, with 80,000 people in it. Mateu was here for four and a half years, and for three years now he has been doing his rehab to get back, and he never played in front of the spectators in our stadium. He worked so hard in the gym, and it was a very long way from the hospital to the pitch, and if you want a hero of the day it has to be Mateu Morey.”

Watching Morey finally getting a chance to share a moment with the home crowd was a special thing. And regardless of whether they will ever close the gap on soccer’s superpowers or sign the next Haaland, Borussia Dortmund will always have Signal Iduna Park and 81,000 family members to visit every few days.