Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Before all this, before the United States men’s national team turned a corner, before droves of American youngsters began the great eastward migration across the Atlantic into the academies and first teams of the best soccer clubs in the world, there was Christian Pulisic. The team is now good and young and feisty, and in order to fully appreciate the magnitude of the change Pulisic ushered in, it is important to remember what the team was before.
Six years ago, the U.S. was in a fairly grim place. The team, having come one kick away from advancing past Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, was in desperate need of renewal without hardly any suitable candidates for it. The fantastic generation that did so well in 2010 and 2014 had gotten old. The following generation had shown itself to be remarkably useless. Juiceless guys like Aron Johannsson, Bobby Wood, and Edgar Castillo were getting serious burn in competitive games, and the team’s attacking corps was so anemic that second-division winger Miguel Ibarra got a few call-ups. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks had shown they were capable players, at times even good ones, but not true ceiling-raisers.
While this was happening, Pulisic was speedrunning through the German youth system. The same month Ibarra started for the U.S. against Panama, a 16-year-old Pulisic arrived at Borussia Dortmund and began destroying at the U-17 level. Within a year, he’d climbed all the way to the first team, breaking Bundesliga records along the way and forcing Jurgen Klinsmann’s hand. Pulisic made his United States debut in a March 29, 2016 World Cup qualifier against Guatemala.
Of the 23-man squad from that game, only Pulisic, Yedlin, and (sigh) Gyasi Zardes are still with the program today. Five years is not a long time for an entire team to turn over, yet the U.S. is going full-gas with a group that looks nothing like the one Pulisic broke into. The current USMNT has even weathered Pulisic’s absences without too much issue; Brenden Aaronson in particular has shown himself to be a more than worthy replacement. The gap between Pulisic and his USMNT teammates is no longer quite as enormous as it once was, and one could regard the team’s thrilling recent play and conclude that Pulisic is simply one more good, useful player among many. But that would be wrong. Pulisic was first into the breach and he’s still the best player on the team by a notable margin.
Tonight, the U.S. will host Mexico for a World Cup qualifier. It is the team’s most important game in four years, which makes it the single most consequential test this iteration of the USMNT has yet faced. While two different versions of the USMNT beat Mexico in continental tournaments this summer, World Cup qualifying is a totally different beast. The Americans got rocked a bit early in qualification but have since found their legs, while the more experienced Mexico squad has pretty much rolled everyone. Tonight’s game has major stakes, which is why a dinged-up Pulisic is here despite the protests of his club manager Thomas Tuchel, who said, “I hope that they don’t overuse him and are responsible enough,” before underscoring exactly why he wouldn’t be listened to, saying, “Hopefully everybody, including himself, is responsible and doesn’t get carried away by emotions and by helping his country to win a super important match.” The implication is clear: Pulisic’s short- and long-term club situation would benefit from him sitting on the bench, but some games are simply too big to play it safe.
It is not clear how much he will play in this window. Gregg Berhalter has already announced that Pulisic won’t start the Mexico game, but said he does hope to give the forward at least some game time there. The explicit reasoning for why the U.S. is risking its star is that this is the team’s most important game, and Pulisic is their most important player. The best version of the Pulisic-less USMNT is fast and dangerous, capable of being pretty damn good. But with Pulisic, something indefinable yet obvious changes. The team’s level of intensity is higher, its belief clearer, its attack more venomous. Consider the Nations League final, a iconic, interminable game of soccer. Pulisic was clearly exhausted after winning the Champions League a week earlier, and he didn’t have a great outing. The game built to a nerve-shredding crescendo of mutual animosity and reached a special level of pressure you only rarely see. Into this benthic atmosphere stepped Pulisic at the biggest moment of the game. He confidently buried the game-winning penalty deep into extra time, then immediately ripped his shirt off and sprinted to the corner to defiantly stare into the eyes of the opposing fans and shush them. It was as perfect a sports moment as you’ll see all year.
The U.S.-Mexico rivalry is nasty, more than any other in CONCACAF. If the team is going to enter into it at their peak, they will need their talisman. They will need Christian Pulisic.
Who Does He Play For?
Christian Pulisic plays for Chelsea, a club at the highest of soccer’s echelons. The Blues are the reigning Champions League winners and have allowed just four goals in 11 Premier League games this season. Their squad is ridiculously deep at every position. Pulisic hasn’t been healthy enough to establish himself in one of the most competitive XIs in the world, which is worrying for U.S. fans and for Chelsea execs who paid €64 million for his services. It is vitally important that Pulisic gets and stays healthy, or else he might find himself permanently buried deep in the depth chart and/or forced out of the club as soon as next summer.
Our standard-bearer crashing out of a tippy-top club and relocating to a club a tier or two below would be a huge bummer. If there’s good news, it’s that Pulisic’s problems have been almost entirely health-related. When he’s played, he has been important and productive. It is evident he has the ability to thrive at Chelsea’s level. Pulisic scored against Real Madrid in the Champions League, has goals against Manchester City and Liverpool, and, most crucially, brings an element to the Chelsea attack that none of his colleagues can.
As their stalwart defensive record hints, Tuchel’s Chelsea prefers somewhat conservative tactics that first and foremost prevent the team from being wounded. Most commonly, the team lines up with a three-man backline, a pair of wingbacks, and two (or sometimes three) defensively inclined midfielders behind a trio (or pair) of forwards. Therefore Pulisic is usually competing for one of three places. A fully healthy Chelsea probably has those spots reserved for Romelo Lukaku, Mason Mount, and Kai Havertz, though Pulisic brings an element of fuck-you speed that none of his direct competitors can match. He is too good to keep on the bench for an entire game, and with all due respect to Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi and a big LOL to Timo Werner, Pulisic is a cut above. He puts a different sort of pressure on defenders than his peers. Manchester City fullback João Cancelo, one of the EPL’s best players, even praised Pulisic as the most difficult winger he’s faced in the league, saying, “He is a very skillful and fast player with the ball with quick dribbles.”
Because he is an American player in relatively uncharted waters, he has faced skepticism every step of the way, yet he’s always answered back unambiguously. Sure, he broke into the Dortmund first team, but is he really a Bundesliga player? Absolutely. Okay, he’s a first-teamer, but can he do it at the Champions League level? Yep—even against Real Madrid. But can he hack it in the Premier League and earn his spot on a world-class team? Yes! Qualitatively, he’s shown he can be a vital contributor on the best team in Europe. The only uncertainty—and it’s a big one—is whether his body can hold up against the physical demands of the game. It is tempting to write his injury troubles off as bad luck, though Pulisic’s style is such that he draws a ton of fouls and is always getting thrown around. And he’s a little guy, so he’s tended to suffer for it.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
(Pulisic hasn’t played in Germany for two years, and there are way too many to choose from here, so I will merely show you Jürgen Klopp smirking in delight as his former pupil scores on him.)
How Does He Play?
Pulisic can play anywhere in attack, though his preferred spot is as a left-sided winger. He’s played all over, on both wings and as a No. 10 and even occasionally as a straight-up striker; Tuchel has even experimented with him at a very special position you can read more about two sections below. Wherever he starts, though, Pulisic is most comfortable when he’s running with the ball. Though right-foot dominant, Pulisic is remarkably strong with both feet, even in tight areas, and his good control and bursting speed make him one of the more dangerous dribblers in the Premier League.
A typical Pulisic highlight might look like this: he receives the ball on the flank or in one of the internal attacking channels, usually while running forward; a defender is on his hip, and the opposing team’s defense is nearby, ready to put out any fire; Pulisic starts said fire, usually by erasing the man on him; he is fast enough to maintain the advantage he wins, and something cool happens, seconds after everything seemed chill. Pulisic makes space where it didn’t exist before, then uses it to great effect. This skills highlight package shows a lot of what makes him special.
Pulisic isn’t really a creative player, though he is incredibly aggressive. He’s hardly ever the inventor of danger, but whenever he sees danger developing, he’ll almost always try to move himself or the ball in that direction. Our boy can sometimes get caught trying to do too much, which frustrates teammates but delights me. After all, if the downside of an audacious dribble is a turnover in the box, the upside is monumental. Goalscoring opportunities are so rare and valuable that I don’t mind Pulisic occasionally trying to dive into space that’s not there. He’s strong finisher in front of goal, and while he doesn’t smack in crazy goals from distance, he’s usually one to convert his chances.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Pulisic was the original Wonderteen, the standard by which all others are judged, and the only bummer here is that he scored his “perfect” hat trick against Burnley one month after turning 20. We’ve discussed his ceiling a bit already, though it’s worth spelling out here again: If Pulisic can stay healthy and play every week, he can be one of the best attackers in the world. He’s a real motherfucker and he’ll produce beautiful goals for your team. So he gets a 10 out of 10 as an emeritus Wonderteen.
Let us recount Pulisic’s list of firsts: youngest-ever USMNT captain, youngest non-German Bundesliga goalscorer, youngest hat-trick scorer in Chelsea history, and youngest-ever USMNT goalscorer. Also, while Jovan Kirovski was the first American player to win the Champions League, he didn’t even make the bench for the final, while Pulisic nearly scored after a great run.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
As the United States captain, he has almost certainly absorbed the ability to play right back. You may right now be like, “But his preferred position is left winger, isn’t that the opposite of right back?” A) Yes, but that just means he knows how right backs operates, and B) Thomas Tuchel used him at right wingback in the preseason, reminding everyone he used Pulisic there at Dortmund. So, not only can he play right back, he basically has already done so.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
I’ll show you a bunch!
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Let us return to Pulisic’s Mexico game-winner. The penalty kick didn’t take an outlandish amount of skill, though it’s elevated to an all-timer because of how comfortably and defiantly Pulisic stepped up and seized his moment. Nailing a tournament final penalty kick in extra time is a mentally demanding task, yet Pulisic showed no hesitation. This sense of leadership, confidence, and competitiveness is part of what makes him special to the U.S. team. Yes, he’s extremely good at the game, and can create opportunities nobody else can, but he also charges the team with a recognizable electric current.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
The U.S. is Pulisic’s team! If he’s healthy, things run through him. That’s a big if right now, but he’s the best player on the team and I’m always confident in his ability when he takes the field.