SAN JOSE, Calif. – Bruce Arena says Christian Pulisic reminds him of Landon Donovan, and it’s a natural comparison, really.
Sixteen years before Pulisic joined Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, Donovan blazed the same trail as a supremely-gifted, teenage soccer prodigy seeking a new challenge in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen. But that’s where the similarities end, says Donovan.
He thinks the 18-year-old Pulisic is way better than he ever was at 18.
“Christian is miles ahead of where I was at that age,” Donovan told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.
“I think we have similar qualities when I watch him,” added Donovan, the all-time leading scorer of the United States men’s national team. “But the difference for me is that mentally he’s been exposed to things that I hadn’t been exposed to yet at that age and it has clearly helped him. So I think the future for him is incredibly bright.”
Unlike Donovan’s first spell in Germany with Leverkusen, Pulisic quickly established himself as a key figure in Dortmund’s senior squad. And his star seemingly keeps soaring every week with each impactful performance for Dortmund.
In the three weeks before the international break, Pulisic scored in each of Dortmund’s three remaining competitions – the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League – giving him five goals and eight assists this season.
Donovan got to experience the training and accelerated learning at a Bundesliga club. But he didn’t get “real games” like Pulisic.
“So his learning curve is a lot steeper than mine and he’s able to soak that in and progress every step of the way,” Donovan said. “Because of that, he’s going to be able to move forward in his career a lot quicker because he’s learning things a lot quicker than the rest of us ever did. That’s why I think people are so excited about Christian and his potential.
“In speaking to him, he knows that there is hype here [in America] around what he’s doing, but he’s grounded, he has good people around him. And he understands – because of the environment he’s been in – that it can all change quickly. He’s been remarkably well-rounded and well-grounded throughout this rise to stardom. And there’s no indication that that’s going to change. And there’s no indication that he is going to slow down in his progressions.”
Before the USMNT held its final practice at Avaya Stadium on Thursday in preparation for Friday’s crucial World Cup qualifier against Honduras, Pulisic was informed of the Donovan comparison, which he considered “an honor.”
“He was an idol of mine,” Pulisic revealed.
Donovan says he hasn’t sought out Pulisic to offer advice. And he wouldn’t want Pulisic to seek him out, either. Because for Donovan, that’s not a negative. It’s a sign of progress in American soccer.
“It shouldn’t be that generation after generation has to talk to former players,” he explained. “It can be that way, but ideally our soccer culture is progressing in a way where kids understand at an early age what this is all about. And that’s what happens in the rest of the world and it’s finally happening here.”
There’s been talk of Pulisic playing more centrally in the U.S. midfield, a shift he’s experiencing now at Dortmund under manger Thomas Tuchel. Donovan thinks Pulisic is talented enough to shine in any spot in the American attack.
“I personally believe that Christian can play anywhere along the front line based on his quality,” said Donovan, who’ll provide analysis for Fox Sports 1 during the USA-Honduras game. “So if he played in the central midfield or if he played wide in a 4-4-2 or wide in a 4-3-3 or even up front as a forward at times, I think his qualities would allow him to do that.
“Where he plays isn’t so much of an issue,” Donovan continued. “What’s important is that he is on the field and being productive. Who knows where he plays [against Honduras], but he’s certainly capable of playing in a different number of positions.”
Pulisic says he doesn’t mind where Arena puts him. “Wherever I am on the field, I’m just trying to help the team,” he said. “I’m just trying to be an attacking presence and constantly be on their back four and just try to make a difference. It doesn’t matter where I play for club or where I am here. I’m just trying to do the same things when I’m on the field.”
All signs point to Arena starting Pulisic and giving him as much responsibility in the attack as he can handle.
“He has very little experience at the international level, and he’s going to need to get a taste of it to continue to grow as a player,” the coach said. “He has all the tools to become a very good player. I look forward to seeing how he reacts in these next two games.”
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.