Christian Pulisic, the 17-year-old soccer star, is the real deal.

Forget Cautious Optimism: You Have Permission to Get Excited About American Soccer’s Latest Phenom

Forget Cautious Optimism: You Have Permission to Get Excited About American Soccer’s Latest Phenom

The stadium scene.
Sept. 7 2016 3:51 PM

You Have Permission to Get Excited About Christian Pulisic

Forget cautious optimism. It’s now OK to fall in love with American soccer’s new 17-year-old star.

Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States drives past Joevin Jones #3 of Trinidad & Tobago during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier at EverBank Field on September 6, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Christian Pulisic drives past Joevin Jones of Trinidad and Tobago during a FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifying match on Tuesday in Jacksonville, Florida.

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The U.S. men’s national soccer team beat Trinidad and Tobago 4–0 Tuesday night in Jacksonville, Florida, securing first place in its group in the semifinals of World Cup qualifying. Jozy Altidore played great. Sacha Kljestan cemented his return to the fold. Honestly, everything—aside from a rough first 10 minutes—went swimmingly, and nobody cares because Christian Pulisic is (maybe, probably) the real deal.

Pulisic, a not-yet-18-year-old who plays for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, was the best and most exciting U.S. player in Jacksonville. He has been the Next Big Thing in American soccer for more than a year. He moved to Germany to train at Dortmund in 2015, became the youngest foreign player ever to score in the Bundesliga last April, and has made seven substitute appearances for Jürgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team since the spring. Tuesday’s 90-minute stint on the left side of midfield was his first start for the national team, and he made about as strong an argument as possible that he should continue starting for the U.S. for the next 15 years or until the end of time, whichever comes first.

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There are two interrelated but slightly different questions to ask about Pulisic. The first is, how good is he going to be? Not to dredge up old disappointments on what’s supposed to be a happy occasion, but American soccer’s history is littered with bright young things who didn’t make it, at least not on the timeline fans expected or wanted. Think Freddy Adu to Julian Green, who is a real person and not some Tim Howard–induced collective hallucination we all had at the end of that World Cup game against Belgium.

We’re hardly alone in this—the list of the best players from U20 World Cups past is a fascinating glimpse into myriad potential alternate realities—but that doesn’t ease the sting of disappointment in all the Josh Gatts, Joe Gyaus, and Juan Agudelos who looked so promising only to have their development curves interrupted by injury and inconsistent playing time.

Pulisic has a head start on these potential comparisons, getting real senior minutes and scoring real senior goals for Germany’s second-best team, and being deemed promising enough not only to attract record bids for an American player from Liverpool and elsewhere in the Bundesliga, but for Dortmund to reject those bids.

He is the best young player the U.S. has produced either since Landon Donovan or ever. He plays smart, clever soccer, is fast and appropriately daring, and every statement about his game and career carries the unspoken addendum “and he’s only 17!”

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Which leads to the second question: How excited should U.S. fans be about him?

The above, and non-exhaustive, list of U.S. players who didn’t live up to their early promise has conditioned us to expect disappointment and made us diligent about urging caution when hyping players. But with Pulisic, we’re back to something more akin to Everyone get excited, but ironically, just in case. Aside from the perpetual risk of injury—and Pulisic is a wispy 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds—that caution now appears unnecessary. We don’t know yet how deep the well of his potential goes, but what we saw on the field this week is already plenty sufficient to make a difference for the U.S.

Fans should be excited not just for his talent, which is copious, but for the hole he fills in the team. Pulisic provides something different than the well-intentioned but out-of-position flank play of Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin; the steadiness of Graham Zusi; and the stealthy reliability of Alejandro Bedoya, who does all the little things right.

Pulisic does big things, most obviously carrying the ball at speed through clusters of opponents who can’t square up to stop him. This is what the U.S. offense has sacrificed in favor of dependability on the wings and playing Clint Dempsey further forward. Pulisic is the kind of player who can drive into a defense, force it to collapse, and open up space for everyone else.

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There are lots of reasons attacking movement has been so staid in the last several years of Klinsmann’s tenure, from a conservative gameplan to the constant shifting of players into new and unnatural positions to an overreliance on giving the ball to Dempsey and waiting for him to do something. The introduction of a player like Pulisic is the simplest solution. He creates pockets of space that his teammates can attack.

Tuesday night, he had the right teammates to exploit that space. Kljestan’s short game is better than Michael Bradley’s or Jermaine Jones’, and he combined with Pulisic to great effect. The fully armed and operational Altidore led the team with four key passes, even if he and Bobby Wood spent much of the first half getting in each other’s way.

That alone would probably be enough to justify his continued inclusion in the starting lineup. But Pulisic, in his limited minutes, has proven to be dangerous in front of goal as well, even if on Tuesday that danger was limited to the structure surrounding the goal.

He scored twice on Friday against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which on the one hand, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and on the other, that touch! That finish! And he’s only 17!

There are minimum thresholds of physical reliability and defensive solidity that you have to pass to see the field under Klinsmann. Pulisic aced those tests as well, pestering the players on Trinidad and Tobago’s flanks on his side into turnovers. His best play of the game, and thus the best play anyone on either team made in the game, came when he split two defenders then stayed up through a hard challenge from a third just long enough to switch the ball from the center to a sprinting Bedoya in space on the right, like a quarterback in a collapsing pocket.

After spending much of the first half concentrating on closing down Bradley, Trinidad and Tobago brought out the Jordan Rules on Pulisic in the second half, knocking him down behind the play repeatedly but never rattling him.

The national team’s next competitive matches will be in November, at home to Mexico and away to Costa Rica—two of the three most difficult fixtures of the final round of World Cup qualifying. It’s easy to imagine Klinsmann, faced with difficult opposition, risking a mutiny of the fan base and refusing to start Pulisic. When he does play, whether in the starting 11 or coming off the bench, those teams will have done their homework. They’ll be more determined to close him down, more determined to put him on the ground, more willing to send additional defenders toward him faster. For the U.S. national team, that’ll work just fine. In Pulisic’s case, making more space for everyone else is part of the plan.