The weight of expectation is sometimes best placed on the young.
Yes, with youth there is the raging hormonal situation, the questionable hair decisions, and the bad poetry (dear god, the bad poetry) — but youth, especially among athletes, also comes with a certain blind confidence: a self-belief. It’s a feeling of invincibility, of being able to carry the world.
This Friday night the United States men’s national team will take on Panama in a vital World Cup qualifying match that is, more or less, a game that the U.S. needs to win to keep its 2018 tournament hopes alive. (The U.S. can technically lose, but things get really hairy if it does.)
To win this game the U.S. will turn to 19-year-old Christian Pulisic — an attacking midfielder and emerging star for European powerhouse Borussia Dortmund who was the subject of an only somewhat embarrassing 60 Minutes feature this week and is already being hailed as the greatest young soccer player in American history.
It’s perhaps unfair that the hopes of a soccer nation are being placed on the shoulders of a young man who was born in 1998 (!), but USMNT head coach Bruce Arena has few other options. Pulisic is surrounded by a roster that is lacking in quality, an injury-ridden backline, and an aging core group that stands at a crossroads. There are many, many questions about the USMNT heading forward, and only one certainty: Pulisic will be at the heart of the team.
The question right now remains: Is that enough?
Before anything else, yes, Pulisic is a brilliant young soccer player. He’s a brilliant player, period.
Blessed with quickness and vision, Pulisic can play out wide and in the middle, a versatility that’s rare in attacking players of any age. His development at the club level over the last year has been a revelation. Each game, he seems to add something new to his arsenal in service of his larger goal of picking apart defenses.
When he was initially called up to Dortmund’s first team, Pulisic used the same tactic that Jesus Navas used to carry himself to the top of the soccer world — he would receive the ball out wide, beat his man down the line, and whip in a cross. This is an important skill that, if you do it repeatedly at the elite level, can take you far. And Pulisic, at just 17, was quite good at it.
But that wasn’t enough for Dortmund, and it wasn’t enough for Pulisic. As games continued on, Pulisic began trying new ideas. First, there were the darting off-ball backpost runs, executed at the exact right moment to receive the ball behind the defensive line. Pulisic started dribbling the ball inside more, looking to get into the center of the field. This development kept defenders honest. They couldn’t expect Pulisic to try to push the ball to the endline every time.
Pulisic then began taking more daring chances off the ball, using Dortmund’s moments of possessions to try and find pockets of space. At first he would drift out wide, but soon he was wandering all over the field. He was still working within a system, but within it he found spaces to express himself creatively. It led to goals like this one, which he scored against Benfica in the Champions League:
Look at how Pulisic finds that slight gap in the defense. By the time he sees it, he knows he’s in. He times the run, points for the ball, and receives it. The finish is only the final touch of brilliance. In those early playing days, he was already starting to become a complete player.
Pulisic is incredibly lucky to play with a Dortmund team that, A) could hold possession and let him develop these attacking instincts, and B) had managers in Thomas Tuchel and Peter Bosz who were willing to let him express himself on the field. When you try shit, you sometimes fail. Actually, you fail a lot, and Pulisic was never afraid to try shit.
Plenty of club managers would have snuffed out that instinct instantly. They would have given him a role — take the ball wide, cross it in, track back on defense — and he would have played that role. And had that happened, as it might have at many clubs in the world, we would not be having this conversation.
But all of Pulisic’s talent overshadows the fact that, no matter how good you are, it’s hard to be the man who carries his national team to international glory. This is especially true when your teammates just don’t have the talent to hang with you.
Gareth Bale, who is a much more accomplished player than Pulisic, showed perhaps the limit of one man’s ability to lead a team to greatness when he helped Wales reach a European Championship semifinal appearance, which was frankly miraculous. If you rate the U.S. much higher than Wales, well, consider this: Lionel Messi has never won a World Cup with Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to a European Championship but has never made a World Cup Final. Both Messi and Ronaldo, arguably the two greatest players to ever live, have and have had considerably more talent around them than Pulisic does.
International soccer is hard. It’s exceptionally hard. Yes, Christian Pulisic is a staggering young talent. Yes, he can create from nothing. Yes, he will lift the Americans up and make them better than they would be without him. But look around him: There’s a wonky roster, a suddenly shaky goalkeeping situation, and, once again, for the hundredth year running (or so it seems) the United States can’t find any depth at goddamn left back.
How much can he really do?
What’s good news for American fans is that Pulisic seems to want this responsibility. In every game he’s played for his country, the young midfielder has seemed to not only handle big moments, but actively embrace them. Just a short time into his USMNT tenure, he’s already demanding the ball from teammates, looking to take on defenders, and seems eager, as always, to make something happen. For a national team that has long had an identity of hard work, tenacity, and togetherness, Pulisic is a bright, individual light. Again: He isn’t afraid to try shit, a quality among top players and one the United States has rarely produced.
That confidence at such a young age can’t be overlooked. Clint Dempsey was in his 20s before he broke into the national team picture after years of being overlooked and second-guessed, an experience that left him with a chip on his shoulder. The greatest young American talent before Pulisic, Landon Donovan, was always uneasy in his role as supposed Savior of American Soccer. He rejected it at times and embraced it others. He was and is the best soccer player the country has ever produced, but he was only truly comfortable in the context of the team.
Pulisic was starting for a Champions League team at 18. He was given the No. 10 jersey to the United States team that same year. This Friday, with the nation watching and a World Cup appearance in the balance, the team will be built around him. He seems to want this. He seems to like this. And at every step, I’m steeling myself for the blowback: the moment where it all creeps up on him, and he decides it’s all too much.
Maybe that moment will never come. Maybe he’s a one-in-a-million type person who enjoys having the weight of a soccer nation on his back.
But it’s important to remember that while Pulisic is still forming as a player, he is also still forming as a person. Right now he’s all confidence and possibility and bright light. We believe, and he believes. But there will be disappointment ahead. He will miss easy chances in big moments and argue over stupid things with teammates and disappoint us, because he is a human being and because soccer is an incredibly difficult game. Things, at some point, will go bad. What remains to be seen is what happens when they do.
You could make the argument that we shouldn’t pressure him, or that actually we should demand greatness from him, or whatever, but it’s all irrelevant. The water is over the dam. Pulisic is the hope of a soccer nation. He is the best young player we’ve ever produced, by a good margin, and the best chance we’ve ever had for greatness at the international level.
He will feel the pressure of a country that demands excellence and isn’t used to being an underdog at anything. He will be asked to be the symbol of a sport which, once again, for the umpteenth time in this country, seems ready to cross over into the big time. American soccer has always needed a star, the pundits have told us. He’s here now. Wish him luck.