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The Next Next Big Thing

Christian Pulisic is well on his way to becoming America’s first world-class soccer player. Is he an outlier? Or a sign of things to come?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

American soccer might finally have its first superstar.

Christian Pulisic has been a revelation for the United States men’s national team. The 18-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, inspires breathless tweets every time he starts for his club team, Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, and he’s already earned the most important mark of approval for any promising young player: the YouTube highlight video with awful background music.

“USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic presents unique problem for American soccer” is just one of many headlines detailing what he’s accomplished in his young career, including becoming the youngest player to score two Bundesliga goals and the youngest to score in a World Cup qualifier for the U.S. He’ll be playing for the U.S. when they kick off the final round of qualifying on Friday against Mexico. And if that’s not enough, the world’s best and most selective club, Barcelona, is reportedly tracking his progress.

Despite countless examples of The Next Big Thing in American soccer falling short, this time the hype isn’t unwarranted: Pulisic has been on world soccer’s radar since dominating England and Brazil at the 2013 Nike International Friendlies, a premier under-17 tournament. Before signing with Dortmund in 2015, he also visited Barcelona, Chelsea, Porto, PSV Eindhoven, and Villarreal. In its most recent list of under-21 phenoms, FourFourTwo magazine ranked Pulisic 15th, one spot behind Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho. Simply put: Pulisic is possibly the best 18-year-old soccer player on the planet.

Getty Images
Getty Images

At the very least, he’s already by far the most accomplished teenager in the history of the U.S. system and boasts one of the program’s most impressive résumés. He learned the game during a year he spent in the village of Tackley, eight miles north of Oxford, England, where his family lived after his mother received a Fulbright scholarship. Pulisic got further into the game in Michigan while his father, Mark, a former star in the National Professional Soccer League, coached the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Detroit Ignition. And he mastered the sport, as much as a young teenager can, while with Central Pennsylvania’s PA Classics, one of the first United States Soccer Federation (USSF) Development Academies, from 2008 to 2014. (In 2013, Pulisic moved to the U.S. U-17 Residency program in Bradenton, Florida, but continued to play sporadically with the Classics.) The club has an excellent track record, producing Hoffenheim midfielder Russell Canouse (currently on loan to VfL Bochum), Houston Dynamo forward Andrew Wenger, and Portland Timbers fullback Zarek Valentin, but Pulisic is better than all of them.

In addition to his talent and aptitude for the game, his mentality helps him succeed.

“What impresses me most about Christian, looking at him as a player rather than a father, he never makes excuses,” said his father, Mark, speaking from Germany, where he coaches 10- and 11-year-olds. “I’ve coached a lot of players. And when the going gets tough for a lot of players and the level increases, some players get scared. They find ways out. They find ways to make excuses. Christian would always fight.”

In a similar vein, American goalkeeper Tim Howard called the teenager “fearless.” And you can see it in how he relentlessly attacks Real Madrid’s defenders after coming on as a late substitute in a September Champions League match. Pulisic dribbles at the opposition with pace and skill and helps create André Schürrle’s game-tying goal in the 87th minute.

A combination of Pulisic’s pedigree and mind-set propelled him a long way up the soccer ladder in a short time. Of course, plenty can happen to derail even the most promising of career paths, but for the first time, American soccer seems well on its way to producing a world-class outfield player. Pulisic is starting and contributing to one of the top club teams in Europe. The rate at which he produces goals puts him in elite company. We’re not waiting for his arrival; it’s already happened.

So that raises another question: Is Pulisic a prodigy? Is his success a one-off, freak occurrence? Or is he more indicative of a new type of American footballer, one who can make an impact on the international stage? Put another way: Is Pulisic a sign that American soccer is getting its act together, that one of the richest countries in the world, the one with the most youth soccer players on the planet (per FIFA’s last count), might be able to produce Champions League–level talent on a regular basis?

The truth is somewhere in the middle. U.S. head coach Jürgen Klinsmann isn’t going to wake up one day in the near future with 11 Pulisics to deploy in his starting lineup. But after decades of flailing around, U.S. soccer might finally be building a program that’s capable of turning out talent in a more structured and effective way than the ad hoc manner they’ve relied upon in the past.

There’s no perfect way to develop young soccer players. For every Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, there’s a handful of players with similar ability who fall well short of reaching their potential. Although American soccer has its fair share of unfilled potential — the Freddy Adus, the Luis Gils, the Juan Agudelos of the world — it does not corner the market on missed opportunities. The internet is littered with top-10 lists of players from traditional soccer powers who shone brightly and briefly, and then disappeared, names like Sonny Pike, Wayne Harrison, Keirrison, Federico Macheda, George O’Callaghan, and Michael Johnson. In fact, it’s not reasonable to expect the U.S to produce a player of Messi or Ronaldo’s caliber. After all, only two countries have done so.

For all of its resources, the U.S. faces plenty of unique development issues. For one, it’s huge — almost as large as all of Europe — which makes identifying talent and instituting countrywide reform difficult. This isn’t a new problem. It’s one that the USSF has been trying to solve since instituting Project 2010 in the late 1990s. The latest, and most comprehensive, iteration of the plan is the Development Academy initiative. The initiative, which launched in 2007, currently has 152 youth clubs, including one linked to each Major League Soccer team (except for Toronto FC), that pledge to follow a USSF-mandated developmental curriculum with rules about the number of training sessions versus games per week, the size of the field, and other guidelines designed to build technical ability. It’s a start, but finding skilled coaches in what remains a developing soccer country is hard.

“I think it’s great to set the rules and it’s all positive steps, but you need people on the sidelines implementing all of these things properly,” said Tab Ramos, U.S. U-20 coach and the man who oversees the youth program. “There just aren’t enough quality coaches yet.”

Too many kids are coached by dads and moms with the best intentions but little skill or knowledge. The Development Academies added a U-12 level only this fall, and there’s little if any overarching curriculum at younger ages. Compare that with Europe, where knowledgeable, experienced coaches oversee even the earliest levels. The disparity is striking.

In addition to the lack of coaching, younger players in the United States aren’t in position to be as single-minded as some of their European counterparts. Mark Pulisic sees this with his young players at Dortmund.

“All they talk about is the Dortmund game on the weekends,” he said. “They are trading player cards. They are talking about certain plays in the game in the beginning of training sessions. It’s all football. And tactically they are so much more aware because of how much they watch. They are driven to become a professional soccer player and nothing else.”

There are the distractions provided by other, more popular sports, and American youth players just aren’t in environments that are devoted to soccer 100 percent of the time. (Whether being in that environment is healthy is another matter entirely.) They can have long commutes, uncooperative school districts, and the knowledge that the median MLS salary is $117,000. The life of a child in a top European academy much more closely resembles that of an American football player at IMG Academy, where his entire life revolves around succeeding at sport.

Then there’s the American college system, which has a short, three-month season. It siphons off talent and puts players with professional ambitions in an environment where they’re not playing as much as they would for a club in Europe. (Of course, choosing to get an education isn’t a bad choice, but it does limit most players’ abilities to improve.)

Lastly, there’s the issue of money. In most of the world, soccer clubs develop players in part because it’s a means to a financial end. When the youth player is sold to a larger club, the original team is entitled to recoup training costs and other fees. They can continue to receive money when the player is sold again, as in the case of Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose first club, TSV 1860 Rosenheim, got $42,000 when the German moved from Bayern Munich to Manchester United in 2015. In the U.S., however, that’s not the case. An ongoing class-action lawsuit is addressing the issue, and the rules could change in the near future, but the current financial incentives to develop players don’t exist. “I think owners all across [Major League Soccer] are looking at this model and deciding whether investing in developing players is worth it,” said Chris Hayden, vice president of youth at FC Dallas, which has one of the domestic league’s most successful development academies. When FCD Academy product Weston McKennie moved to Schalke, the MLS club received no compensation in return because he wasn’t signed to a Homegrown Player contract.

It’s even worse for Development Academies that aren’t affiliated with MLS clubs, because they don’t even have the option of promoting players to their senior teams. The financial barriers lead some clubs to adopt a pay-to-play model; it decreases diversity and limits opportunities for lower-income families, but the clubs also wouldn’t be able to exist without the fees paid by the players. The academy model is attempting to move away from pay-to-play, but it’s a long, slow process, hampered by the financial constraints and the inability of clubs to economically benefit from developing youth players.

Combine these factors and the result is a host of young players who are unprepared for professional soccer. “We have had challenges with young players coming into our first team because there’s a gap developmentally,” Hayden said.

L.A. Galaxy manager Bruce Arena, who coached the U.S. national team at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, agrees. “We still have this gap out of the academy,” he said earlier this year.

Younger players play fewer minutes; players under 22 received less than 6 percent of the available playing time during the 2016 MLS season. This creates a vicious Catch-22, where young players don’t play because they aren’t prepared, which means they don’t get opportunities to improve.

The Development Academy clubs, especially the teams affiliated with MLS sides, are trying to change that fact. At FC Dallas, the strongest academy players have an opportunity to train with the first team, and the club recently signed 16-year-old midfielder Paxton Pomykal from its academy in part based on his performance during these sessions. That creates an obvious path from the youth ranks to the professional one.

“There aren’t many places in the U.S. where the best U-18 player can play way over his head,” Hayden said. “We have that.” The hope is that every other MLS club will soon be able to say the same thing.

Fred Lipka is the man the domestic league tasked with overseeing its development program. The former head of Le Havre’s academy in France, which has produced talents including Paul Pogba, Dmitri Payet, and Lassana Diarra, he now has the unwieldy title of technical director of player youth and development, player personnel at MLS. He developed a 52-week Elite Formation Coaching License, which takes the best practices from Europe and teaches them to American coaches. So far, two groups of academy coaches have gone through the process.

Additionally, the U.S. Soccer Federation contracted Belgian company Double Pass, which is credited with revamping the German youth program, to “assess and analyze what is happening in the developmental academies, both MLS and non-MLS,” said CEO and cofounder Hugo Schoukens. He and the USSF are talking about the next phase, which would include clustering and ranking the academies and making recommendations for improvement.

These are all positive steps for the future of U.S. Soccer. But youth development is a slow process. An obvious but important fact to consider: It takes six years for a 12-year-old to turn 18. That means that even if the training philosophy is correct — if USSF’s mandate to move from two trainings a week to four, for example — is right and the coaching follows suit, it will still take more than half a decade to see that progress manifest itself on the professional level.

Schoukens thinks it will be an even longer process. “We talk about 10 years before [a youth player] can become a product that is ready to go into senior football,” he said. “That’s when he’s ready, when he has the skills, the technical information, the physical strength, and the mental strength.”

Gedion Zelalem, left (Getty Images)
Gedion Zelalem, left (Getty Images)

Ramos, who is in the middle of his third two-year cycle as head coach of the U-20 team, sees an improving talent pool. He’s excited about the prospects of players including Gedion Zelalem, who was born in Germany but moved to the U.S. at 10, developed in the Washington, D.C., area with the Olney Rangers before joining English Premier League power Arsenal; Rubio Rubin of Beaverton, Oregon’s Westside Metros; FC Dallas’s Kellyn Acosta; and his former teammate Emerson Hyndman, who played for FCD, then moved to England’s Fulham at 15 and is now on the books at Premier League club AFC Bournemouth.

“Their youth careers have been a little bit harder than they have been for any of the players in the past. It wasn’t this easy ride,” Ramos said. “They had to earn their way all the way through. In the past it was like every three weeks you won a tournament or a trophy or a medal. You were the MVP of this and All-American that. I’m not saying that some of that stuff isn’t good, because it’s nice to reward players who do well, but I think we had gotten to this reward for every type of environment. I think it was counterproductive. Now players earn what they get, and I think that has helped them.”

Later, he continued on the same theme: “These are all guys who are coming along who are just a little bit better than they were before. I do see the players being much more prepared in every category.”

For now, the most promising players will still move to Europe in their mid-teens. At Dortmund, Pulisic is in one of the best development environments in the world. Most of the biggest names on Ramos’s projected U-20 2017 World Cup team play overseas: Zelalem, McKennie, Villarreal’s Mukwelle Akale, Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, Liverpool’s Brooks Lennon, and Fulham’s Luca de la Torre (not to mention Pulisic). Each cycle, however, the impact of the Development Academies increases, both through players who began their careers at one before moving across the pond and through players still training at programs in the U.S. While the Ben Ledermans of the world will always be better served by going to Barcelona, the gulf between the best training in Europe and the best training in the U.S. is shrinking.

Pulisic is just one player, and a young one at that. There’s a lot of excitement about a teenager with fewer than 10 appearances for the American squad. He might be the first American superstar, the guy who helps the U.S. play how Klinsmann wants them to, or he might get injured or stop improving. Plenty can go wrong — no matter the amount of already-realized talent.

It has in the past. “Our problem is that the label [of next big thing] gets put on too many players,” said Steve Klein, Pulisic’s coach at PA Classics. “It gets unfairly placed on players when they are young.”

The difference with Pulisic is that he both has the ability and is in the right situation. In American soccer’s very recent past, that place didn’t exist in such a formal manner. Pulisic is the best example of how the U.S. program is improving at turning potential and promise into playing talent, but he’s far from the only one. The future, long promised, is maybe, finally, just around the corner.