Christian Pulisic opens up on World Cup failure, U.S. soccer's developmental issues

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/christian-pulisic/" data-ylk="slk:Christian Pulisic">Christian Pulisic</a> celebrates one of his two goals against Trinidad and Tobago back in June. (Getty)
Christian Pulisic celebrates one of his two goals against Trinidad and Tobago back in June. (Getty)

Ever since that fateful night in Trinidad over a month ago, many of the players responsible for the U.S. men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup have been silent. Or at least reserved. At least with regard to that night and its ramifications. After all, what can they really say, other than they’re heartbroken? And that not going to the World Cup is terrible?

Christian Pulisic was one of those players. On Monday, he broke his silence.

In an honest, thoughtful Players’ Tribune essay, Pulisic rehashed that now-infamous October night, and concluded with what reads as a promise: “So let’s plan on it, then — 2022,” he wrote. “Get your basements ready, and mark it down. We’ll be there.”

The entire piece is worth a read – if nothing else, to understand that “get your basements ready” line. It’s full of some great personal anecdotes. But the most substantive part was when Pulisic delved into issues plaguing American soccer. As he admitted, he’s not an expert on the national team program, or on soccer in the U.S. as a whole. But he’s the best American example of development gone right. That counts for something. And it’s development that Pulisic wrote about.

Pulisic’s main points addressed the arguments over the merits of spending formative soccer years in Europe vs. in the United States. He introduced them by highlighting the importance of his Croatian passport, which allowed him to join Dortmund at 16 years old rather than at 18.

“For a soccer player … man, ask anyone and they’ll tell you — those age 16–18 years are everything,” Pulisic wrote. “From a developmental perspective, it’s almost like this sweet spot: It’s the age where a player’s growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way — and where, with the right direction, a player can make their biggest leap in development by far.”

He then went on to explain, and in some places opine about, the difference between spending those years in the U.S. versus in Europe:

“In the U.S. system, too often the best player on an under-17 team will be treated like a ‘star’ — not having to work for the ball, being the focus of the offense at all times, etc. — at a time when they should be having to fight tooth and nail for their spot. In Europe, on the other hand, the average level of ability around you is just so much higher. It’s a pool of players where everyone has been ‘the best player,’ and everyone is fighting for a spot — truly week in and week out. Which makes the intensity and humility that you need to bring to the field every day — both from a mental and physical perspective — just unlike anything that you can really experience in U.S. developmental soccer.

“Without those experiences, there’s simply no way that I would be at anywhere close to the level that I am today.”

Pulisic asks the question, Why can’t 16-year-olds without a European passport make a move similar to the one he made to Dortmund? The answer is a complicated FIFA rule – Article 19 – that prevents the transfer of youth players to foreign clubs. But it grants an exception to players moving within the European Union if specific requirements are met. It’s an exception many big European clubs have taken advantage of. Any player with European citizenship can move after his 16th birthday. Others – like 17-year-old American striker Josh Sargent, who’ll join Werder Bremen next year – must wait until they’re 18.

Pulisic’s opinion is not that every American youth player should jump to Europe as soon as possible. “Leaving the States might not be for everyone. Staying is fine, and I totally respect it,” he wrote. “But at the same time, I’ve gotta say: It really does frustrate me, when I watch MLS, and I see our best U-17 players — who, again, are so talented and so capable — being rostered … but then not being put on the field much to actually play. I watch that, and I just think about how I was given a chance … a real chance … and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?”

It’s a good point. Of course, the solution is not simple. And, in fact, some MLS clubs have gotten better at developing, promoting and actually playing their kids. But that improvement falls in line with the improvement of MLS academies. There are still dozens of young American players impeded by a lack of opportunity. In some cases, that’s understandable. A club has no obligation to start a 21-year-old homegrown player over an older, more experienced, more talented foreigner. But in many cases, the youngsters are blocked by players who aren’t more talented, and who aren’t producing. That has to change.

“Anyway, I’m not sure what the answers to all of these questions are,” Pulisic continued. “But I still think they’re worth asking. And I am sure of this: The path to the U.S. winning a World Cup — it doesn’t start with having ‘more talent.’ It starts with developing the talent that we already have, in the right way.”

He had earlier written about how the problem is not talent. “I’m not a prodigy — or a ‘wonderboy,’ as some have put it,” he wrote. “I was always, you know, a decent player growing up. And yes, I was born with a certain amount of so-called ‘natural ability.’ But I also worked and sacrificed a lot to try to maximize what I was born with — which I think is important to point out. I think it’s important to make clear, you know, that the problem with American soccer … it isn’t talent. In fact, I’m sure there are kids who are going to be reading this article who are more talented at their age than I ever was.”

Pulisic also criticized the ridiculous view that American players who grow up abroad aren’t as committed to the U.S. national team. “They’ll talk about how we’re somehow less passionate about U.S. Soccer, or less American about it,” he wrote. “That we’re these ringers or something — these outsiders brought in as, like, a cheat code to beat European sides. And it couldn’t be further from the truth. … That’s just a dangerous attitude in general: Having a closed-minded view of what does or doesn’t constitute being an American. And I hope it’s an attitude that we can keep out of this conversation in the years to come.”

Among the other highlights of Pulisic’s essay:

– He recounted his personal story of watching Clint Dempsey’s goal against Ghana in 2014: “I remember watching the 2014 tournament in my cousin’s basement in Virginia. We threw this big party for the first U.S. match against Ghana — and before I could even sit down with my food, I’ll never forget it: Clint made that sweet cut to the right, put the ball on his left foot, and went post-and-in. We went crazy. … It was like the entire country was with us in that basement, running around with our hands in the air, screaming out, ‘Gooooooooaaaaaaaaaaal! Gooooooooaaaaaaaaal!’ … It was this amazing realization of, like, ‘Wow — American soccer can do that. We can do … that.'”

– He explained why he wrote this piece, what he wanted the message to be, and why he waited until now: “I do have a lot of thoughts on American soccer — and I have definitely wanted to get them out. But I also wanted to make sure that I had enough time, first, to pause and reflect. And that when I did write something, it wouldn’t be to look backward. It would be to look forward.”

– He highlighted the 2014 World Cup, a few MLS markets, the Save The Crew movement and the atmosphere at the Panama qualifier last month as examples of a growing American soccer culture. “It was unlike anything that I’d ever experienced in the U.S. before,” he wrote of the Panama game in Orland. “Those fans were unreal. … It really felt like we were all working together that night to make something special happen.”

– He closed with anecdotes about his competitiveness, and his obsession with winning: “I’ve really been like that my whole life. Obsessed with winning. No matter what I’d be doing — whether it was a game of H-O-R-S-E with my dad, or capture the flag as a little kid, or FIFA with my friends, or a match with Dortmund … the idea of needing to win … it would just eat at me. Which isn’t to say that I’d even win all the time. Like — I’m not even that good at FIFA. But I’ll just get so angry about it, so consumed by it. If I’m doing a thing, then I want to be the best at it. I’m not sure what that means … but it’s just who I am.”

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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