USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic presents unique problem for American soccer
If we’re being honest, we, as a soccer country, don’t know how to talk about Christian Pulisic.
We don’t quite know what to make of him, how to treat him, what to do with him. We’ve never had anyone like him before. Or anything remotely like him.
Pulisic isn’t yet 18. On Tuesday, he made his first start but his eighth appearance for the United States men’s national team. He came close to scoring his fourth USA goal against Trinidad and Tobago several times. A few good shots were saved and another caromed off both posts and somehow stayed out. He was the best man — boy? — on the field, for either team. It wasn’t really close. He cut up the Trinidadian backline, set the rhythm for a rejuvenated American attack, built most every worthwhile attack and had a heavy hand in three of the four goals in the 4-0 shutout in World Cup qualifying.
This presents a problem. A problem of optics and a problem of procedure. An issue of precedent, or lack thereof.
History, such as it is, tells us to be cautious. Remember Freddy Adu? Juan Agudelo? All the others? Even Jozy Altidore, who has put together a fine career but never scaled the height of our expectations. Teenage phenoms all. Disappointments, too — save for Altidore.
We’re scared of calling a player of promise promising. We’ve done it before. We’ve been burned. We’ve been hurt. We don’t want to jinx it. And, more practically, we don’t want to pressure. Because pressure is bad and destructive. Or so we’ve convinced ourselves. Never mind that playing on the national team at that age, or any age, is its own kind of pressure. Just as breaking into Borussia Dortmund’s first team, as Pulisic already has, brings along with it a searing scrutiny the likes of which we could never pretend to emulate stateside, even if we wanted to.
Regardless, Pulisic flashes his boyish grin and carries on. He spends time off with his childhood friends in Hersey, Pa., and trying to score tickets to the Justin Bieber concert. And the rest of his days he makes world-class midfielders uncomfortable at his club, and seasoned professionals appear pedestrian by comparison for his country.
We’ve never known a Christian Pulisic. No American has done what he’s done at that age.
His second and third World Cup qualifiers delivered two goals and two assists — he set up Altidore for a goal on Tuesday and got a pair of goals and an assist against St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday. He was heavily involved in the first and the fourth goals against T&T as well. Altidore probably should have scored when Pulisic sent him away late on.
Yeah, the Vincy Heat is a pretty putrid team, and the Soca Warriors aren’t very good right now either. The fact remains, however, that Pulisic has already accomplished far more than anybody his age has for this country — at club and international level.
And so we arrive at our conundrum, which applies to the fans, the media and the national team staff alike. How are we supposed to talk about Pulisic?
The FOX Sports 1 crew gushed over him at halftime on Tuesday but quickly moved on to other players, as if to edit the exposure. On Friday, the beIN Sports announcers hadn’t been so restrained. Within a few beats, an analyst claimed that the No. 10 jersey put too much pressure on Pulisic and then declared that he might well become one of the best American players ever — an assertion that somehow feels like an unnecessary hedge just now.
So how do we handle Pulisic — presuming that the wider public exerts any influence at all over him?
Carefully? Do we shield him by speaking only in hushed tones, as if we’re trying to keep from jinxing a perfect game while a pitcher is still busy throwing it? Do we contain ourselves and preach moderation? Or does that just attempt to protect a teenager from things we can’t really shield him from? Learning to cope with the heft of our collective aspiration is intrinsic to becoming a star, after all.
Do we go the opposite route and take an aggressive stance? Do we assume the “If you’re old enough, you’re good enough” mantra and expect the same things from him as any other player, demanding production and results? On the basis that handling Pulisic with kid gloves will make him stay, well, a kid?
What about a sparing approach? That’s for Jurgen Klinsmann to decide, of course. And the U.S. head coach has been slow and systematic in introducing Pulisic. But now that he’s plainly the best attacking option on a team that has been starved of them for several years, is there really any sense in keeping him sidelined just for the sake of it? When Pulisic dazzles the way he invariably does when he eventually gets on the field late in games, that defeats the purpose of introducing him into the fray, and spotlight, at the end. The hype builds regardless.
We, as a soccer community with all of our fear and loathing, are afraid to have nice things. Because we feel responsible for those who didn’t pan out, figuring we spoke of them too much, too loudly, too confidently, and too soon. Never mind that even the development of prodigies is a numbers game — plenty won’t work out, no matter how you treat them.
Our actions, as a soccer-watching nation, might be entirely divorced of how Pulisic’s career pans out. Or maybe they aren’t. “I just try to act like nothing’s changed at all,” Pulisic told ESPN this week. “I feel like people put pressure on me and that makes me put pressure on myself, which isn’t needed.”
It isn’t. It likely won’t stop us, for all the hand-wringing. We’re all in uncharted territory here.
. @TimHowardGK, on @cpulisic_10's skill set: "It reminds of the other guy who used to wear No. 10." #usmnt
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) September 7, 2016
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.