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Christian Pulisic, and How He Helps Disprove the "Best Athletes" Myth About American Soccer

+10 HS
MiamiBuckeye's picture
August 10, 2020 at 12:18pm

If you follow European football (soccer to us Americans) even casually, or just follow the fortunes of the United States Men's National Team (USMNT from here on out), there's a very good chance you know who Christian Pulisic is. Even if you don't watch soccer at all, there's a decent shot you've at least heard of him. Christian Pulisic is, quite simply, the most talented American soccer player who's ever lived, and even at the young age of 21 this is a debate that's more or less settled. We've had players who had long careers in top European leagues, the likes of Tim Howard, Claudio Reyna (whose son, Gio, is following in Christian Pulisic's footsteps by playing at Borussia Dortmund), and Clint Dempsey. We also had Landon Donovan, who many fans have fond memories of, and who until recently was widely considered our greatest player, and is still considered the GOAT by some. 

Pulisic at 21 is already better and more accomplished than any of them. The United States has never had a male player who could be considered one of the best in Europe. We've never had a player who can do what Pulisic did to Liverpool. Pictured below is Pulisic dribbling through four of the best defensive players in the world to set up Tammy Abraham, including Trent Alexander Arnold (interestingly, TAA was eligible to represent the United States but chose England, to no one's surprise) who many consider the world's greatest rightback. 

Donovan at his apex was plying his trade in MLS, and when he did go to Europe on short loan spells showed that he was an average level player by European standards. Clint Dempsey was the best player on his Fulham team, and was serviceable for Tottenham, but he was never really rated by the English as more than a competent professional. By contrast, Pulisic is getting rave reviews in the English press and by his supporters in the Chelsea fanbase. Pulisic is the first American who isn't "good for an American." He's just good. 

Now then, what does this all mean? It means we finally have a world class player. It bodes well for the future of the sport in this country. But Pulisic's emergence into stardom has other implications beyond giving young players a role model to aspire to. Pulisic also helps dispel one of the oldest and most stubborn myths about US soccer. 

I'm referring to the "well, the US would be the greatest soccer country in the world if all our best athletes were soccer players." 

At first glance this always seems self-evident. After all, the USA has a huge sports-loving population. Our sports leagues are the largest in the world, and our basketball players are global superstars. If we can produce Lebron James, the logic goes, why couldn't we produce our own Lionel Messi? 

Well, the reason why that doesn't work is the same reason Pulisic is such a good soccer player, and why he never thought of choosing another sport, even though he loves American football and plays basketball in his spare time. There is a big difference between Lebron and Messi, because while both are supremely talented in their respective games, Lebron is a freak athlete, while Messi is simply a freak. Messi is not an athletic superman, he's not going to set any sprinting records or leap five vertical feet or leg press a thousand pounds. Messi will beat you with his brain and his finesse. Pulisic, while not as good as Messi (no one is, to be fair), has many of Messi's best traits. He's smart, he's hard working, and he has a low center of gravity (in soccer, unless you're a goalkeeper, central defender, or target striker, being tall is generally a liability, which is why most basketball players would actually make lousy soccer players). Pulisic would never have made it in football or basketball, because he's too short and too fragile. He has the speed, smarts, and dexterity to play as a slot receiver, but if he's already getting injured by colliding with guys 20-30 lbs heavier than him, how the hell would he ever hold up against guys 100 lbs heavier? 

Now then, because this is such a popular myth you'll see a lot of articles like this trying to pump up our imaginations about what "could have been." https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1269391-usa-soccer-if-americas-best-...

In this article the author lists a starting XI of American athletes who could have potentially played soccer. As cool as it is to imagine a soccer team with the likes of Charles Woodson, Russel Westbrook, and Troy Polamalu, there's little to no reason to think their physical talents and skills would have ever transferred to making them top class soccer players. The reason why is because, as Messi and Pulisic show*, soccer is more about talent than it is about athleticism, though of course athleticism never hurts. Athleticism is necessary but not sufficient to making a good soccer player. Of the players listed, the only ones I'm pretty sure would be great players are Chris Paul as #10, Ed Reed at CDM, Larry Fitzgerald in goal, and maybe Westbrook at striker. The rest are entirely speculative. 

(*At this point some of you may be saying "What about Christiano Ronaldo? Isn't he an athletic freak AND talented?" Yes, that's a very good point, CR7 is one of the only athletes in the world who compares to Lebron James, he's also incredibly talented. The fact though that many still rate Messi above Ronaldo despite Ronaldo being ten times the athlete Messi is reinforces that talent is more important than athleticism.)

Here's another thing with the "best athletes" myth and why it's more than just an annoying talking point: it's actually detrimental to American soccer development at the youth level. Why? Because American youth coaches are brought up thinking that soccer, much like basketball and football, is the sort of sport where the most athletic kids can shine by being bigger, faster, and stronger than their peers, and that *eventually* their skills will catch up to their athleticism when the competition becomes stiffer. Unfortunately, this doesn't really happen in soccer. In football if a 19 year old defensive end is "raw but athletic" he can generally improve and become a top player, but in soccer if you're still "raw but athletic" at 19, it's probably already too late for you. As a result, lots of American youth leagues will have teams that are built around a single star who can outrun, outmuscle, and outhustle everyone else. The rest of the team is told to pass it to the 6' 12 year old, who's fast and strong enough that he doesn't need to worry about skill or talent, he can simply bullrush through the opposition and score. The result of this is that young players with potential are overlooked in favor of kids who are simply bigger, and those big kids don't learn the fundamentals they need to succeed. 

Christian Pulisic wasn't a big kid. In fact he was small for his age group, and his size was made more apparent when he started playing with kids 2-3 years older than him. What Pulisic had that those big kids didn't have was determination and a sharp footballing mind. And that's what American soccer needs--we don't need Lebron James or Gronk or OBJ to give up their sports and play soccer, we need coaches to start coaching for skill and the right mindset rather than getting trapped in the box of "better athletes means better players." 

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