It stands to reason that when Christian Pulisic burst onto the international scene, an attacking phenom good enough to start games for Bundesliga titan Borussia Dortmund at 17, soccer types back in Pulisic’s native United States — and even a few fans — preached caution.
“Look, nobody is more excited about this kid than I am,” Michael Bradley, then the captain of the U.S. men’s national team, pulled me aside to say in the spring of 2016 after I’d written that Pulisic should challenge for serious minutes during that summer’s Copa America Centenario. “But how many games has he played? Let’s not get carried away just yet.”
A little more than four years later, it’s time to say with certainty and conviction what has become increasingly obvious, as Pulisic’s spectacular first season with English Premier League power Chelsea draws to a close: Pulisic, at the ripe old age of 21, is already the best American male to ever play the world’s most popular sport.
This is where you point out that Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan were still producing for their country and clubs into their 30s. That both men retired with 57 international goals and well over 100 caps for the USMNT. That both scored in multiple World Cups. It’s a fair and valid argument.
It’s also true that it will be years before Pulisic gets the opportunity to equal those accomplishments. And of course, there’s no guarantee he ever does. Every athlete in every sport is one unlucky injury away from the end. Pulisic’s slight (but quickly filling out) frame and desire to torch foes off the dribble makes him a magnet for rough play. And if there’s been any knock on Pulisic during his young career so far, it’s his tendency to miss matches because of muscle ailments.
Longevity and consistency do matter when crowning the king. By those measures, one could make a case for American goalkeepers Brad Friedel or Tim Howard, in addition to Dempsey and Donovan, as the best U.S. male player ever. Both enjoyed long spells as starters in the Prem. Both spent time wearing the No. 1 shirt with brand-name clubs.
Still, the hardest thing to do in soccer is to score and create goals. And the way Pulisic has utterly dominated the world’s best league since it returned from its three-month coronavirus hiatus in June with his blistering pace, balance, control in tight spaces and all-important end-product is flat-out unprecedented among his countrymen.
Pulisic has four goals and five assists in eight Premier League games since June 21. He’s scored or created a goal every 63 minutes he’s been on the field since Project Restart began. Add in his production from earlier in the season, when he was in and out of Chelsea manager Frank Lampard’s lineup as he adjusted to a new country, new team, and a new bruising style of play, and it’s 103 minutes per goal or assist. That’s a better rate of production than Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, Southampton’s Danny Ings or Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — the three leading scorers in the Prem — have managed during the 2019-20 campaign.
It’s not just one good season, either. When Pulisic arrived in London last summer at 20 on a whopping $73 million transfer fee, almost four times the next-highest price paid for an American, he was a proven commodity. He’d put up 13 goals and 18 assists in 90 Bundesliga games.
He has three goals — including a knockout-stage game-winner — and five assists in 26 career Champions League matches. His 14 goals in 34 games at the international level gives him a better strike ratio for the U.S. than Dempsey, Donovan or Jozy Altidore.
Should Pulisic’s age and lack of World Cup experience be held against him in the GOAT conversation? (The latter is no fault of his own; as a teenager, he was easily the USMNT’s best player during the failed 2018 qualifying cycle.) Does the lack of fans in the stadiums over the last five weeks take away from performances that seem to be getting better with each passing game? Should we wait a few more years before anointing him the best?
Maybe. This is subjective exercise, after all. And given the way American soccer history is littered with cautionary tales of prospects destroyed by premature and/or unrealistic hype (Freddy Adu), or who saw their once-ascendent careers at the top level derailed when their bodies failed them (Stuart Holden, John O’Brien), the desire for patience and perspective is understandable.
“We have the tendency, and myself as well, to get ahead of ourselves,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter admitted on a conference all with reporters Tuesday, a day before Pulisic became the first U.S. player to score against Liverpool at Anfield. (He also collected an assist in the Blues’ 5-3 loss to the champions.) “If we would’ve made final judgment on Christian in the fall, we would’ve said, ‘Well, he’s not performing well.’ And now, all of a sudden, seven months later, we’re saying it’s the best signing ever.”
Berhalter’s point is well taken, as Bradley’s was all those years ago. But it’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that Pulisic is blossoming into a bona fide superstar before our very eyes. No American attacker before him has established himself as a key cog with one of the world’s truly elite teams, let alone its most dangerous player. On those cutthroat European proving grounds is where global reputations are forged.
Christian Pulisic is next level already, and he’s only going to get better from here. It’s OK to be excited about it. Stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
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