First published in October 2017.
Saturday night was arguably one of the most important nights in recent USMNT history. Under huge pressure with World Cup qualification in doubt, Bruce Arena’s side put in a convincing performance against Panama which leaves them in a strong position with one game left to play. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were strong at the back, Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe were tenacious in midfield and Jozy Altidore was at his best leading the line alongside Bobby Wood. But once again, it was Christian Pulisic who ran the show, reaffirming once again why everyone in America is so excited about his development.
For a nation finally beginning to embrace soccer, it’s one of the most exhilarating moments that can happen: the emergence of a genuine superstar. A young talent who can put you on the edge of your seat when he’s gliding forward with the ball. In an interview with Catalunya Radio last summer, Pep Guardiola revealed he still makes ‘appointment times’ to watch Lionel Messi play, the same way he used to get up at 4 a.m. to watch Michael Jordan during his NBA days. Guardiola does that, he said, because he wonders if their abilities are repeatable by any other human, both now or in the future.
Let’s be clear here: Pulisic has not and probably never will reach the levels of Messi or Jordan. But the 19-year-old has become ‘appointment viewing’, and not just for soccer fans but for general American sports fans as well. It’s impossible to predict what he could do next which is what makes watching him so exciting. In Orlando, he was the creative spark that changed the game, latching onto a flick-on from Altidore before rounding the goalkeeper for his first goal and setting up the second moments later after some wonderful wing play.
Naturally, like any young player bursting onto the scene, Pulisic has drawn comparisons to Landon Donovan – the U.S. soccer icon of old. But the problem here is that to compare Pulisic to Donovan is to limit him. Donovan was an extremely good player for the USMNT and for a lengthy spell, the face of U.S. soccer which Pulisic aspires to be. Both opted against going to college to join German sides and debuted for the national team at tender ages. Their playing styles are very similar as well, both quick, attacking players who can score and create in equal measure.
Where they differ, however, is away from home soil. Pulisic is the first American player to break through at a top European club – Borussia Dortmund – and at such an early age too, which is what Donovan couldn’t do at Bayer Leverkusen. But it’s not just his breakthrough in Europe that has won him plaudits, it’s also the manner in which he’s done it. Despite his slender frame, the agility Pulisic possesses, the silky first touch and his willingness to take players on make him impossible to defend against. As a youngster, he would often come up against boys two or three years his senior, and the tenacity needed to stand out back then can still be found in his game at present.
The Pennsylvania born midfielder has also rewritten history since his senior debut, by becoming the youngest non-German player to score in the Bundesliga, the youngest player to score for the USMNT and the youngest American player to score in the Champions League – just to name a few. But for all his achievements, Pulisic exudes an understanding and an awareness of a professional twice his age.
Following his influential performance against Panama, he told Soccer America: “For me, everything happened a little bit too fast. The past year has been a roller coaster. I’m just trying to do the best I can for myself and the people around me,” which speaks volumes about his character. From leaving home at 15, to learning a new language, embracing a new culture, breaking through at the highest level of European football and taking responsibility for his national team, it’s clear that this is a talent that U.S. soccer must build around for the future.
It’s still an open question of how much weight the 5-foot-8, 140-pound teenager can bear, and he’ll definitely need some help along the way, but this is a wise head on young shoulders that welcomes the extra weight.