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Soccer’s First American Superstar

I get asked every once in a while, “who is the best soccer player you’ve ever played against?” Having played Division 1 soccer at Georgetown for five years, semi-professionally with DC United U23’s as well as stints on trial with DC United and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, I’ve certainly played against several elite players. I’ve played against Herman Trophy winners Joseph Lapira and O’Brien White, International heroes like Andre Blake and Jaime Moreno, and MLS all-stars like Charlie Davies and Dwayne De Desario. The answer, however, is clear as day … that is, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic.

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Myself and Jaime Moreno (MLS’ All-Time Leading Goal Scorer) challenging for a header

At the time I played Pulisic, he was merely 15 years old … and needless to say it was a humbling experience. He was playing with the U17 US Men’s National Team down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL against my amateur men’s team, the St Petersburg Kickers, a perennial men’s amateur powerhouse and national champion contender. Despite our Kickers team being made up of ex D1 college guys and ex pro’s in their “prime” (20’s and early 30’s), we lost to Pulisic and their group of 15 and 16’s year olds by a score of 4-1, with Pulisic leading the way with a few goals to his credit.

 

As difficult a score-line that is for me to admit; at the time, I’m not sure I would have readily said that the little 15-year-old center midfielder was the best player I had ever played against. He wasn’t running by anyone or muscling people off the ball (given his age and physical maturation), but his technique, vision and ball control were unquestionably the best on the pitch (despite being half the age of many).  And with a hat-trick and an assist in the stat sheet, he was clearly the man of the match.

United States v Colombia: Group A - Copa America Centenario
Christian Pulisic played on both the U15 and U17 US Youth National Teams while training down at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. 

Fast forward to today, about four years later. Before having turned 19 years old (which he did on September 18th), Pulisic has had 9 goals in 60 club games (regular starter for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s 1st Division) and has 7 international goals in 18 games to his name for the US National Team. In comparison, before Lionel Messi turned 19, he had a similar 9 club goals in 34 club games but only 2 international goals in 9 international games. Nor was Christiano Ronaldo as dominant as Pulisic at that age, with only 6 club goals in 53 club games before the age of 19 and 0 international games to his credit.

 

Featured on CBS’s national “60 Minutes” last Sunday night, Pulisic has already become a celebrity and the face of American soccer. In fact, US Men’s National Coach, Bruce Arena, calls him soccer’s “first American superstar.” Despite the lofty words, it’s hard to argue. Earning $8 million a year with one of Germany’s top clubs, performing better than any other US National Team member at the moment, and having just turned 19 two weeks ago, I tend to agree with Coach Arena’s proclamation as the first American soccer superstar.

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Why is he different? What has allowed Pulisic to stand out this much in a country that is continuously ridiculed across the world for their lack of homegrown soccer talent. Before we talk about the play, I think it’s actually more important to understand the environment he has been put in (as well as removed from) to allow him to grow and mature as a player.

 

  1. US National Team Early – Pulisic started playing with the US Youth National Teams at the age of 14 where he played with both the U15 and U17 teams. He was a captain of the U17 team and scored 20 goals in 34 games through his 2-year cycle with them. This exposure at international events like the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile where he had a goal and an assist put him on the radar for top international clubs and paved the way for him to Dortmund.
  2. No College Soccer – Despite both his parents playing collegiate soccer at George Mason, Pulisic did not go that route. While collegiate soccer is a great route for most (myself included), for the top 1-2% players in this country who will go on to play professionally and internationally, the game is oversaturated with under-talented players. For the most part, collegiate soccer promotes a direct, physical style of play that severely hinders the development of the more technical and skillful players and stunts their overall growth.
  3. Overseas – As much as the MLS has grown over the course of its 20+ year existence, the best soccer is still played overseas in Europe. Yes this is changing, but the reality is there is a reason why more people in this country choose to watch the EPL over the MLS … the quality.

 

As much of a team game that soccer is (more than any of the top 4 American sports – baseball, football, hockey and basketball), the importance of the playing environment a youth player acclimates too, is exponentially magnified.

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Pulisic’s combination of low center of gravity and speed allows him to dribble at a level that Americans ever never witnessed at his age. 

In looking at Pulisic’s actual game, there are really three attributes that he possesses that have allowed him to transcend the rest of the talent pool in the United States. And quite frankly, after Pulisic, should be weighted heavier when evaluating youth talent in this country. The first is God-given, and that is the combination of his low center of gravity (5’8’’) and speed. This allows him to dribble the ball more aggressively and effectively at defenders than any other player we’ve ever seen in this country at his age. Second … his technique. This may be his greatest asset. His touch, two-footedness, and range of pass, are the things that are immediately apparent when watching him play. His last attribute is largely environment-driven, and that is, his decision-making and vision. Pulisic plays as though he’s been playing at the international level for years (which he has, just not for very long with the US Men’s National Team). His 7 goals in 18 international games speak to his composure on and off the ball, ball speed, and decision making in the attacking third at the game’s highest level.

 

Hyping youth talent seems to have become a sports media cliché in the modern era. But numbers don’t lie … this kid has been better than the best in the game were at his age. And on Friday night, the United States plays in their most important game since their 2014 World Cup elimination game against Belgium, when they take on Panama in a World Cup Qualifier in Orlando, FL. The United States currently sit at fourth in World Cup Qualifying while Panama sits at third, with only the top 3 advancing to the 2018 World Cup. A win secures the US greater than a 90% chance of qualifying, while a loss would dramatically decrease their chances to 44%.

SPI Chance to Qualify

 

We’re at an incredibly pivotal time for the game of soccer in this country and the US National Team. We’re at an equally pivotal time in Christian Pulisic’s career, as he attempts to qualify for his first ever World Cup.

 

The country will be watching on Friday night.

Jurgen Klinsmann & US Soccer in the Perpetual Hot Seat

There are several high-pressured positions in the vast world of sports; however, few are surrounded by more scrutiny than that of the Head Coach of the US Men’s National Soccer Team. Jurgen Klinsmann was the highly sought after man from Germany that the U.S. had to wait for but eventually got, back in 2011.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was the coveted man for the US Men's National Team head coaching job.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was the coveted man for the US Men’s National Team head coaching job.

This past summer Jurgen and the Yanks saw the highest of highs (beating the #1 and #3 teams in the world in Germany and the Netherlands) simultaneously with the lowest of lows (a penalty-kick defeat to Panama in the CONCACAF Gold Cup 3rd place game). Things only got worse a few weeks ago when the US suffered an agonizing 3-2 overtime defeat to their arch-rival Mexico eliminating any hope of them qualifying for the Confederations Cup in 2017.

The US U17 MNT failed to record a win in the qualifying round of the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile.
The US U17 MNT failed to record a win in the qualifying round of the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile.

Moreover the youth National teams have not faired much better recently. The U17 Men’s National Team did not record a single win in their three games in the U17 World Cup this October in Chile (2-0 loss to Nigeria, 4-1 loss to Chile and a 2-2 draw to Croatia). The U20 Team is winless in their last three contests, including an 8-1 drubbing in Germany.

 

And yet many think Klinsmann’s job is safe. Sunil Gulati, the President of the US Soccer Federation, hired him and extended his contract through 2018 after his performance in the 2014 World Cup. He is the highest paid coach in U.S. soccer coaching history by a wide margin. His salary is rumored to have surpassed the $3 million mark after getting a hefty raise following the 2014 World Cup.

 

In looking at the US Men’s National Team’s body of work over the last 6 years it’s hard to argue with their consistent presence. Only 9 countries have been to 4 out of the last 6 World Cup knockout rounds, and only 8 have been to 3 out of the last 4 knockout rounds… the US are in both of these groups. The US can also boast being one of only 7 countries to qualify for each of the last 7 World Cups. A third place 1999 Confederations Cup finish, a 2nd place 2009 Confederations Cup placing and several Gold Cups, it is actually relatively easy to argue that the US is in that upper tier of countries.

 

But it is difficult to say much more than that … as the US still has yet to cross that threshold into the elite that Americans have come to expect from their national teams. You still cannot mention US soccer in the same breath as Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain. And until that day comes, the position Jurgen Klinsmann holds as Head Coach of the US Men’s National Soccer Team will continue to be a tumultuous one.

The US loss to Jamaica in the Semi-Finals of the Gold Cup was the beginning of a very disappointing stretch of results for the US Men's National Team.
The US loss to Jamaica in the Semi-Finals of the Gold Cup was the beginning of a very disappointing stretch of results for the US Men’s National Team.

Combine the summer’s Gold Cup debacle with their most recent 3-2 loss to Mexico, and a second straight failure in CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying, and it’s clear that Klinsmann is in the most tumultuous part of his four-year era.

 

The US Women’s World Cup Win

On Sunday the US Women’s National Soccer Team won it’s third FIFA World Cup emphatically over Japan by a score of 5-2. The game broke television records as it was the highest metered market rating ever for a soccer game in the United States on a single network (FOX). Sunday’s game averaged 26.7 million viewers, with 25.4 million watching the English telecast on Fox and another 1.3 million viewing the Spanish telecast airing on Telemundo. In fact, the audience was larger than that of every NBA Finals basketball game since 2010 as well as every World Series baseball game since 2004.

Morgan Brian #14, Carli Lloyd #13, and Alex Morgan #10 celebrate an early goal in the US' victory over Japan on Sunday.
Morgan Brian #14, Carli Lloyd #13, and Alex Morgan #10 celebrate an early goal in the US’ victory over Japan on Sunday.

The previous soccer television viewing high in the US was 18.2 million on ESPN last year for the United States-Portugal group stage Men’s World Cup contest. While, the previous high for women’s soccer in the States was 18 million set in 1999 for the World Cup final on ESPN between the US and China. Moreover, Sunday was a 77 percent jump from the 2011 final that also featured the US and Japan on ESPN. I’m not sure anyone truly expected the numbers to be as high as they were. However, given the holiday weekend, and without any major competing sporting events, the US Women did exactly that, and they delivered.

 

And while the US women receive an additional $2 million for winning the World Cup (a mere fraction of the $35 million the men are awarded), the players will receive supplemental earnings in endorsements. Players like Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo will certainly capitalize on their sponsorship and endorsements deals with companies like Nike. Team apparel sales went up 3,000 percent on Sunday.

Jul 7, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; United States forward Alex Morgan at 2015 Womens World Cup champions celebration at Microsoft Square at L.A. Live.
Jul 7, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; United States forward Alex Morgan at 2015 Womens World Cup champions celebration at Microsoft Square at L.A. Live.

The US demographic tends to be a “big event” audience, as Americans tend to support their National teams in big international competitions. So the question remains will these shockingly high rating numbers transfer over to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). All but one of the women on the US World Cup team currently play in the NWSL which gives the league great exposure.

 

In the last 20 years, there have been four professional women’s soccer leagues: the W-League, the WUSA, the WPS, and now the NWSL. The first three folded after no more than three seasons due to poor league management and a general lack of interest. However, it seems like the NWSL is going to be here to stay this time around due to the significant investment US Soccer has made into the league. The timing of the 1994 Men’s World Cup being hosted in the States prior to the launch of the 1996 Major League Soccer on the men’s side is very reminiscent to the timing here with the NWSL. In aligning the sports largest event around the launching of the league helps build momentum for fan interest and ticket sales.

Carli Lloyd became an international hero overnight after scoring a hat-trick in the US' World Cup win.
Carli Lloyd became an international hero overnight after scoring a hat-trick in the US’ World Cup win.

There has already been a significant uptick in ticket sales, as the Houston Dash expect a record attendance of 15,000, as they only average 4,500. The Portland Thorn expect their first ever sell-out crowd of 21,000 next Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Seattle Reign host Western New York this weekend and expect to double their average attendance of 3,000 to 6,000. The question remains though, will the league be able to maintain these ticket sales through until the final week of the season in September.

 

Sunday proves that the United States is becoming more and more of a legitimate soccer nation. We will see if the Women’s luck on Sunday carries over to the Men’s side as they continue their Gold Cup run tonight against Haiti in Foxboro, MA. Meanwhile, the US Women will be celebrating in a parade four hours south in New York City.

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