Last summer, United States men’s national team member Christian Pulisic left camp early to attend his high school prom. The next day, he became the youngest scorer in USMNT history. This summer, he’s expected to lead the team to qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Pulisic, who has risen from promising prospect to consistent star in a startlingly short amount of time, is now at the center of the American soccer world and likely a vital member of the team for years to come.
He was phenomenal for his club team, Borussia Dortmund, in the 2016-17 season, and his large number of appearances for Dortmund’s first team contributed to his meteoric rise. He became the fourth youngest goal-scorer in Bundesliga history, and finished the season with five goals and nine assists in all competitions. Pulisic’s success for Dortmund is especially impressive considering their high standing among European clubs — they finished 2016-17 third in the German Bundesliga and made it to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. Due to a few injuries on the Dortmund roster, he was able to break into a star-studded team of Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Andre Schurrle, Ousmane Dembele, and others.
Pulisic started 22 games for Dortmund this past season and appeared in 23 more as a substitute, including six starts and four substitute appearances in the Champions League. Pulisic primarily played on the wing for Dortmund, but he recently saw more time in the middle of the pitch as a distributor and playmaker. He scored on a wonderful chip in a Champions League matchup with Benfica while playing centrally and also added an assist in that game.
Dortmund’s head coach for the 2016-17 season, Thomas Tuchel, said that Pulisic took advantage of his early chances and never looked back. “I’m very happy with his development this season. Of course, you can’t predict these developments… he’s a very important part of the team,” Tuchel said in January. Pulisic isn’t just a future prospect for Dortmund; he’s a key contributor right now. When Dortmund was trailing in the second half of both Champions League legs versus AC Monaco in April, who was their chosen substitute to invigorate the Dortmund offense when they needed a goal? Christian Pulisic.
It’s rare for an American to have so much success for a top-flight European team, and even more surprising given that he’s only 18 years old, with a full career ahead of him. Considering American attackers such as Julian Green and Freddy Adu, who haven’t lived up to the hype placed on them as teenagers, some USMNT fans were skeptical of placing too much hope on Pulisic’s shoulders moving forward. That skepticism should no longer exist.
Pulisic is clearly on a different level than Green, Adu, or any other previous USMNT prospect in recent memory. He has proven himself as a major asset to one of the best clubs in Europe, and therefore is expected to take an increasingly more involved role with the USMNT.
Former USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann opted to play Pulisic on the wing during his tenure, but over the past few years, the United States has struggled to find a reliable number 10 — an attacking midfielder who could create chances for himself and others from the middle of the pitch. Klinsmann often tried to play midfielder Michael Bradley in that role, but he was always better suited for a deeper, more defensive midfield position. When current USMNT head coach Bruce Arena took over for Klinsmann in November 2016, he signaled that Pulisic would shift from the wing to the number 10, and Pulisic has thrived since his switch in roles for the USMNT. Their 6-0 romp over Honduras in March felt like a Pulisic highlight reel, and he assisted on the USMNT’s only goal versus Panama and scored the team’s only goal versus Venezuela in early June. Pulisic has three assists and two goals after three games in his new central role.
Some of Pulisic’s greatest contributions can’t be found on the stat sheet, either. He always seems to be open for a pass and is constantly giving defenders fits on the ball, drawing fouls and opening passing lanes to teammates. The weight on his passes is almost always perfect. He consistently outruns and outmaneuvers defenders, even though they are often faster and stronger. To put it simply, he has the “it” factor that coaches seek in playmakers.
In a short amount of time, Pulisic has gone from prospect to borderline irreplaceable for the USMNT. His talent and competency for his position is unmatched by any teammate in the USMNT’s player pool. Pulisic’s performance in upcoming World Cup Qualifiers versus Trinidad and Tobago in Colorado and Mexico in Mexico City will be critical in securing favorable results for the USMNT.
Looking into the future, though, Pulisic must maintain steady growth as a player. Rumors are swirling of a potential move to the English Premier League, but no matter where he ends up, it’s important that Pulisic continues to get first-team minutes in a high-caliber league. People are comparing Pulisic to Landon Donovan, but don’t sell him short — he can be even better.