Christian Pulisic is already at one of the biggest soccer clubs in Europe. Borussia Dortmund are perennial Bundesliga challengers, consistent performers at Champions League level and average crowds of just under 80,000 fans per game, but still, this is only viewed as a rung on the young American’s ladder to the top. That says a lot about what is expected of Pulisic. He is a superstar in-waiting.
Indeed, the 19-year-old’s upward trajectory is predicted to swing even higher than Dortmund, with Europe’s elite perpetually reported to be interested in the attacker. Transfer speculation has become part of Pulisic’s day-to-day life over the past two seasons, with Manchester United the latest to be linked with a move for the teenager this week. The Old Trafford side, it’s reported, are ready to go up against long-time suitors Liverpool for Pulisic as Jose Mourinho looks to add something different to his attack.
Any big money move to the Premier League for Pulisic would send a familiar narrative into overdrive. You’d read countless takes about the ‘American Messi’, about the biggest untapped soccer nation in the world finally producing its first genuine great. If Pulisic thought the pressure, which this week he admitted can get “too much”, weighed heavy at Dortmund, just wait until he ends up at a Man United or a Liverpool.
Of course, this narrative is grounded in an element of truth. Pulisic might already be the best American soccer player in history, becoming the face of the US men’s national team as a teenager. But his rise, which would reach meteoric proportions with a move to the Premier League, has coincided with an extremely volatile time in the American game. There is a compelling contrast to be made.
The temptation is to credit Pulisic’s success, at least in part, to US Soccer. But at a time when the sport in the country is tearing itself apart following the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, with a presidential election being contested, this presents something of a paradox. The rise of America’s best player to date coinciding with US Soccer’s existential crisis doesn’t quite fit.
That’s because Pulisic has succeeded in spite of the American game, not because of it. It’s true that Pulisic was given his elementary grounding in the game stateside, only leaving Hershey, Pennsylvania for Germany at the age of 16. He was part of the USSF’s US Soccer Development Academy, representing the States at under-15 and under-17 level. But Pulisic reached fruition and maturity elsewhere. As he wrote himself in a Players’ Tribune article, “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.”
How many times have you read or heard someone ponder a scenario in which the USA’s best athletes played soccer over basketball or football? It’s a thought uttered so frequently, it has become the subject of derision. Ignoring the lack of nuance in such a point, though, and the central argument comes down to a perceived lack of talent in the American game. A lack of talent for US Soccer to mold. Pulisic’s success suggests this is a moot point.
It’s not so much that the American game failed Pulisic, it’s that it cannot take credit for his success in a way that would conveniently counter the less than positive discussion being had by many right now. US Soccer as a governing body finds itself at a critical juncture and youth development must be a primary focus of whoever wins its presidential election. In fact, it should form the basis of every candidate’s manifesto.
Rather than championing Pulisic as the embodiment of American soccer potential, lessons must be learned from the teenager’s specific case. For starters, a more effective path from youth to senior soccer must be established Stateside. Pulisic was likely lured to Germany by all the prestige and romance that comes with playing for a team like Borussia Dortmund, but he also probably saw a clear career route.
Going back to that Players’ Tribune article by Pulisic, he summarized his feelings on this fundamental flaw in the structure of American soccer. “I’ve gotta say…” he wrote, “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?”
Perhaps US Soccer shouldn’t beat itself up too much. This is a common theme across all sports, not just soccer. Look at Lionel Messi, the greatest player in history, who left his homeland of Argentina for Spain as a 13-year-old. Or Andy Murray, Britain’s first Grand Slam champion in 76 years, who made the move to Barcelona to train at a similarly young age. The best young talent will always look to the best programs, and for Pulisic that could be found in Germany.
The point isn’t necessarily that US Soccer should have a better youth infrastructure than Germany, a country that sets the standard for the sport as a whole, but that the example of Pulisic shows just how much more could be achieved. It’s a sporting tragedy that Pulisic won’t get a chance to play at next summer’s World Cup. The teenager is one of the brightest young talents in the game right now and deserved a platform to show that to the world. But he will get other opportunities, particularly if Man United or Liverpool come calling. Opportunities will be scarcer for others, though, and US Soccer must be in a better place to help those players take them.