Being Christian Pulisic: the pressures of life as American football’s chosen one

In America, the French actor Isabelle Huppert once said, Europe is disappearing: “They have everything. They don’t need anything. Deep down, for them, we are a kind of elegant third world.” The history of American sports reads like a repetition of this blazing autonomy: from the development of baseball as a derivative of regional English games such as stoolball and tut-ball to the development of rugby union into American football and the creation of basketball from the manipulation of an indoor soccer ball, the United States has specialized set out to create its own kind of sporting modernity from Europe’s cultural raw materials, often consigning these older sports to the scrap heap of national memory.

But globalization—the great success story of American free-market economics—and soccer’s unstoppable rise have in recent decades forced the United States to confront an unpleasant reality: in the world’s most popular sport, the global hegemon remains a middleweight at best. The country that has it all now finds that it doesn’t: coming (almost) every four years from an average confederation into the glare of the World Cup, the spotlight is turned for once on other countries, the US that wants nothing – so self-assured, so culturally self-sufficient – is now in distress. It needs to prove that it has football muscles that are equal to its muscles in all other areas. It has to show that it belongs. And it needs, perhaps more than anything else, to convince the world that it can produce a player in the men’s game equal to Haaland, Neymar, Salah or Mbappé.

For the past five years, American hopes of producing a world-class player have largely centered on one man: Christian Pulisic. To be sure, many fine footballers have emerged from these shores in recent times: Clint Dempsey is a folk hero at Fulham, Landon Donovan – although he struggled to build a club career in Europe – was never better than when he appeared in national colours. And the stock of the country’s shot-stoppers – including such fixtures of recent English Premier League history as Brad Friedel and Tim Howard, a player once so determined in goal that he is now impenetrable wood as a pundit on NBC – has historically been particularly Rich.

But outside of the women’s game, where America is now an incomplete conveyor belt of top-flight talent, the United States has yet to produce a player with that tenacious specialty — that exuberant mix of skill, strength, personality and will to win — that can win. transcends national borders. Even players of a below-the-top caliber continue to elude the United States, which is a genuine curiosity when you consider the country’s size and financial resources and soccer’s domestic popularity as a participatory sport. Australia, a temperamentally similar country with a much smaller population and not one but three rival football codes to siphon talent from football, has arguably produced three top-class players in the Premier League era: Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell. America has yet to produce one.

In this context, the expectations that have been placed on Pulisic are enormous. A sense of all-American destiny has attracted him seemingly from birth. Born in the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania – home to the famed Hershey Company, the largest chocolate maker in a country that runs on sugar – Pulisic grew up in a football-mad family (his parents both played college football and his father later became a professional indoor player) and made quick progress through the national ranks.

A performance against Brazil in 2013 for the US Under-17 team shows just how good he was as a teenager – pulling the strings from the outside, darting into space, timing his runs, burying his chances. All the speed, courage and control of his mature game was already there at the age of 15, with none of the self-doubt that has crept in in recent years. The story from there is well known: the move to Borussia Dortmund, the first-team debut at 17, the string of impressive performances and the transfer rumours, the image of him slumped on the pitch with his head in his hands after the loss to Trinidad & Tobago that denied the USMNT a place at the 2018 World Cup. The passion, skill and commitment were there, and soon after the money on the table matched the scale of Pulisic’s ambition, now nicknamed “Captain America” ​​(a moniker he reportedly loathes) for his inspirational performances with the national team.

At Chelsea, however, the story of Pulisic’s career has begun to take a more complicated turn. Injuries and managerial changes have starved Pulisic of starting opportunities, and when he has been given a chance to strut his stuff, he has often seemed hesitant and unsure of himself, traits that are fatal to the game of a player who relies so much for his effectiveness on immediacy. and courage. Pulisic is now in his fourth season in England and has never managed to nail down a permanent place in Chelsea’s starting XI; Given the number of managers who have refused to believe in him, it seems reasonable to wonder if he will ever reach the pinnacle of the sport for which he has seemed destined for so long. Among Chelsea fans, his name is now a byword for missed chances and wasted potential, a dismal departure from the arc of his early career.

On the rare and increasingly remote occasions when he has put it all together – such as during Project Restart, the pinnacle of his Chelsea career so far – the results have been thrilling. The hat-trick against Burnley at the end of 2019 – the first goal scored with his left foot, the second with his right foot, the third with his head – showed the very best of Pulisic: the occasional two-footedness, the feather-light first touch, the willingness to take on his man, that surgical beat. In open space he is a dolphin breaking through the waves; he is a spider running free. Above all, he is one of the sport’s great lateral movers, trampolines across the court with the clear grace of a pianist as they command the keyboard. The sheer versatility of Pulisic at his peak is something that only half-baked metaphors can capture.

The beauty of Pulisic’s play on the pitch is all the more remarkable when you consider his blandness off it. Guarded, risk-averse, maybe even a bit square: Pulisic has none of Cristiano Ronaldo’s swagger, Erling Haaland’s uncanny immensity or Kylian Mbappé’s clever eloquence. In speech and demeanor, he seems less like a football player than a wealth management professional from a medium-sized regional city with some investment opportunities in municipal bonds and tech stocks he’d like to discuss. And yet. Despite all this – the weight of national expectations, his stop-start progress in the Premier League and a Lampardesque lack of charisma – Pulisic is liberated when he steps onto the pitch for the USMNT. Any doubts that eat into his play at club level melt away and he is reborn as America’s star, the player through whom all good things flow. Gregg Berhalter’s system – built on relentless pressing, quick transitions, attacks at all costs and speeding out wide – is designed to get the very best out of his No.10, and there is reason for US fans to feel real excitement at the prospect when he saw Pulisic, at his first World Cup, let loose in a team where he is the undisputed talisman.

Given the relentlessness of European club football today – its booming popularity, the money it attracts, the scale of its fixture calendar – there’s no doubt that in this day and age, truly great players must first be good for their clubs. While football is no stranger to late bloomers – look at the careers of Jamie Vardy, Olivier Giroud or Didier Drogba – and playing careers undoubtedly grow longer, Pulisic has been hyped since his teenage years, which carries its own kind of psychological burden, and at 24, time can be short for him to give full expression to his talent at club level. But in the coming weeks, the question of whether Pulisic can claim his country’s footballing potential and become truly “world-class” does not matter. The boy from the chocolate city just needs to be very good, and America will remember Qatar fondly.

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