Christian Pulisic will eventually be crowned the USMNT’s best player ever.
This hot take is backed with circumstantial evidence in the form of raw talent, technical superiority and a nurturing environment for tactical growth.
The current GOAT of U.S. Soccer and recent un-retiree, Landon Donovan, represents the outdated version of Pulisic. If U.S. soccer were Apple, Donovan is the first iPod. Like the device, Donovan was a revelation — the crowning jewel of an institution that would experience unprecedented success. That success was reaching the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.
But Pulisic is the iPhone. He’s the component of U.S. soccer that can help it reach never-before-seen heights. His on-field look is reminiscent to Donovan — quick, a bit on the smaller side, an attacking midfielder with a knack for creativity and a fondness for the No. 10 shirt — but once you get past face value, the soon-to-be 18-year-old is already ingrained with a soccer sense that is far more advanced than what Donovan possessed during his formative years.
Let’s take a look at Pulisic’s assist to Jozy Altidore in the USMNT’s victory over Trinidad and Tobago earlier this month. It’s a great representation of the youngster’s mix of talent, technical ability and tactical awareness.
Before Michael Bradley plays a lofted ball toward Pulisic, the teenager starts to break away from the scrum being formed in the 18-yard-box and moves toward the left touchline. From there, he has three seconds to wait for the ball to reach him. When it does, he cushions it off his chest, away from the oncoming defender and onto his favored right foot. That small sequence in itself highlights Pulisic’s uniquely brilliant technique for a player of his age.
Next comes the give-and-go with Sacha Kljestan. At that point, Pulisic is operating unconsciously. There’s not enough time to pre-plan the act of luring a defender in, quickly releasing the ball and turning on a dime. It’s the perfect example of Pulisic’s innate skill of creating space with and without the ball.
Then comes the clean first touch from Kljestan’s return pass, followed by the tactical awareness to play the ball across the face of goal – with his weaker foot, no less.
The fluidity and lack of hesitation within the move is mesmerizing. U.S. soccer fans have every right to expect the world from the kid, especially since theses flashes of genius have been commonplace since he made his debut for Borussia Dortmund last season.
But back to the Donovan comparison: there have been many players before Pulisic who have entered the mainstream of U.S. soccer conversation with similar phenom-type hype. Think Jozy Altidore, Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo and Freddy Adu. They were all supposed to rival Donovan. Each showed snippets of greatness, but none started their professional careers at an established and highly successful European club — one known for fostering talented young players. And that’s one of the main reasons why none of them fully panned out. The fact that Pulisic is on Dortmund’s books means he is being exposed to one of the world’s most advanced brands of soccer. That’s priceless experience for any player, let alone a teenager.
Pulisic’s Bundesliga game time has enabled his level-headedness in the midst of much less sophisticated CONCACAF matches. While the aforementioned underachievers have all had a shining moment or two against North and Central American opposition, none have been able to put in similar displays against higher-tier competition. While the question of consistency won’t be answered until Pulisic becomes a regular starter, he has already proven that he can eat at both the kid and adult tables — a rare trait for USMNT players.
Donovan is the best player in U.S. soccer history not just because of his goal and assist records, but because he was able to consistently put in high caliber performances at club and international level. But, in the context of world soccer, the American legend will never be seen as a “great” player. Mostly because his clashes with the world’s best were so few and far between. Pulisic, on the other hand, is being bred in an environment where it is commonplace to face off and train with the cream of the crop.
The United States Men’s National Team has its next No. 10 in Pulisic, but the kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania will end up being so much more than a replacement for Donovan. He’s going to be US soccer’s first world class player.