The Spot

Christian Pulisic, U.S. Soccer’s Next “Next Big Thing,” Is Worth the Hype

Christian Pulisic of the U.S. men’s national team attempts to chip a pass past Guillermo Viscarra of Bolivia on May 28, 2016, at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

With the Copa America set to begin this weekend, Jürgen Klinsmann sat down with the Wall Street Journal for an interview in which he blamed everything and everyone except Jürgen Klinsmann for the stunted development of this nation’s next generation of soccer stars. According to the U.S. national team coach, the forces conspiring to bring down American soccer include baseball (“We still have a culture here where people wait for someone else to solve your problem, and this comes from a reactive culture in other sports. … Baseball, it’s stop-and-go”) and the younger generation’s distaste for hard work (“[a] lot of our younger players struggle to understand that it takes a lot more work and determination and aggressiveness to really make it”). Klinsmann also called out individual players by name, saying that 20-year-old midfielder Emerson Hyndman, for instance, “disappeared” after getting his first national team cap.

Klinsmann’s not wrong when he says that “[t]oo many of the young players are stagnant at the moment or losing a year or two. That worries us.” But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Just as soccer has been America’s sport of the future since 1972, so too is there a decadeslong history of individual players getting anointed, wrongly, as America’s stars of the future. Jovan Kirovski, who signed with Manchester United’s youth academy in 1992, never made much of an impression in Europe or with the U.S. national team. Bobby Convey, who made his first national team appearance at age 17, scored a single goal in his USMNT career. Freddy Adu, the child star profiled in Sports Illustrated as a 13-year-old, was saddled with the biggest expectations of all. Now, at age 27, he’s playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the second-tier North American Soccer League.

Given our long history of burdening young and talented players with outsized expectations, it probably makes sense to tamp down the hype around 17-year-old Christian Pulisic. But the truth is, the exuberance around this particular teenage phenom is far more rational than the hype around any of Pulisic’s predecessors.

Players like Kirovski, Convey, and Adu were touted as American soccer’s Chosen Ones before they’d played any meaningful games at the senior level. We’re so hungry for someone, anyone, to carry our nation to soccer glory that we anoint players who score invites to prestigious youth academies, or make a good showing in training sessions, or draw praise from a famous coach. But no matter how well someone plays in a youth academy or on a reserve team, he’ll still have to overcome huge obstacles to earn minutes with a top club. At age 17, Christian Pulisic has already overcome those obstacles.

Pulisic, who grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, moved to Germany with his father in 2014. In January 2015, he signed with one of Germany’s top clubs, Borussia Dortmund. A little more than a year later, the young attacking midfielder played in his first Bundesliga match. This February, he started a game in the Bundesliga. In April, he became the youngest non-German to score a goal in the Bundesliga, displaying composure on the ball that American players so often lack.

When he scored his second goal a week later, Pulisic became the youngest player ever to score two Bundesliga goals. And last weekend, in the USMNT’s final tuneup for Copa America, Pulisic became the youngest player to score a goal for the U.S. men’s national team.

A wispy 5-foot-8 and 139 pounds, Pulisic relies on his speed to beat defenders. He also has a confidence that belies his years, playing an aggressive, attacking style that puts pressure on opposing players. In an interview earlier this year, Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel praised Pulisic by saying, “he dares to show up, and that’s the most important thing.”

Though Pulisic likely won’t start in Copa America, he did zoom past his contemporaries to make the U.S. roster—Klinsmann said in his WSJ interview that his potential is “just wonderful.” Both 20-year-old Julian Green—who scored a goal for the U.S. in the 2014 World Cup and is now playing for Bayern Munich’s second team—and 21-year-old Jordan Morris—who excelled at Stanford University before turning down a Bundesliga offer to play in MLS—were left off the Copa America squad. Klinsmann told the WSJ that Green needs to “put his stamp on the game” and reeled off a number of areas in which he says Morris must improve. The coach was slightly more optimistic about Arsenal academy product Gedion Zelalem, whom he characterized as talented, though he questioned the 19-year-old’s “vision” and “lifestyle.” Klinsmann also said some nice things about 20-year-old Matt Miazga of Chelsea, who he wants to play more like John Terry. But despite having more experience than Pulisic, Zelalem and Miazga both get passed over for Copa America, too.

Whether or not he pans out, Pulisic has earned his spot. No other U.S. player, past or present, has had so much success, so young, at such a high level of international soccer. “The only thing I can say to fans and people out there who have such high expectations for me is just give me time and let me be a human being,” Pulisic told the soccer website FourFourTwo last month.

Yeah, that’s good advice. We should all calm down a little bit, because we’re only hurting ourselves. If we put too much pressure on this 17-year-old, then American soccer’s best hope might flame out before he’s ready to carry the USMNT to international glory. “When it’s all said and done, you don’t want to put pressure on a kid like that, like Freddy Adu,” former American U-20 coach Thomas Rongen recently told the New York Daily News. At last, a voice of reason! Rongen continued, “But I really think that Pulisic is going to be the best player the United States has ever produced.” OK, that’s more like it. Help us, Christian Pulisic—you’re our only hope.

Read more Slate coverage of Copa America.