COLUMBUS, Ohio — Savior. It is a heavy title for anyone, but especially burdensome for an 18-year-old. That is the label that has been draped on Christian Pulisic’s slim shoulders, again and again and again. But when fans and media excitedly wonder, “Can Pulisic save American soccer?” there is a second question that goes unasked.
Save it from what?
If you only turn your attention to the U.S. Men’s National Team every four years to witness a modest World Cup performance, you enjoy the luxury of missing the behind-the-scenes dramas entirely. I envy you. The three years and 11 months between each World Cup are filled with coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s disdain for MLS, MLS’s ongoing quest for an identity, and a seemingly quixotic mission to build an infrastructure that can reliably produce world-class talents like Pulisic — all while fervent and restless fans and media second-guess every move.
In short, the machine of American soccer is massive, rusty, and its gears screech with the horrific results of poor engineering and a clumsy driver. And we’d like Christian Pulisic to fix it, pretty please.
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There is a blueprint for creating world-class soccer players and a cohesive national team: Train every child in the country the same set of skills and the same tactics under a unified system. It is the blueprint for the powerhouses of Germany and Belgium, while Iceland and Australia have exceeded expectations with their limited player pools.
But the United States is too large; there are too many children playing soccer and not enough qualified coaches. Instead, the best young players are expected to bubble up from one of several development routes. MLS academies compete for talent with independent youth clubs, while the NCAA creates another hitch: Klinsmann hates that the short season decelerates player development, while others note that it’s a necessary safety net in a country too large to scout effectively.
The system has room to improve, but for now, it has produced Pulisic, who played for an independent youth club in Pennsylvania and U.S. Soccer’s residency program in Florida. He benefited from a father who coached the game and a mother whose Fulbright scholarship took the family to England when Christian was 7, but still: he was wearing an American shirt when Borussia Dortmund spotted him at 15. It’s a W for America. Count it.
But please, do not compare Pulisic to the Great American Hypes who came before him. Depending on the parameters, Pulisic has already succeeded at a higher level of club soccer than any American in history. Not only is he a regular first-teamer with Dortmund — likely one of the 10 best teams in the world, and one loaded with attacking talent — he shines in big moments. With Dortmund trailing 2-1 in a September Champions League match against mighty Real Madrid, Pulisic came on as a late sub and tilted the field immediately. He attacked fearlessly and ultimately delivered the cross that resulted in André Schürrle’s late equalizer.
Simply put, no American field player has ever shined for a pro club on a stage so high. That naked skill — the slashing runs, the vision, the downy first touch — drew me to Columbus for Pulisic’s 10th cap and his biggest game yet in a U.S. shirt (he already wears the honored No. 10, and deservedly so).
Pulisic was eight months old in the next state over when Mapfre Stadium — then Columbus Crew Stadium — opened in 1999. He was still a toddler when the USMNT upset Mexico in a World Cup qualifier here in 2001, the first of four consecutive dos-a-céro score lines in such matches. There is history here, and that matters in a country that so recently didn’t have any.
Mapfre Stadium is also key to the survival of MLS. When the domestic league began play in 1996, no team had a stadium that the team and its fans could call their own. The immediate success of the stadium — it was embraced by players and fans, and it just looked more like soccer than games played in cavernous pro football stadiums — provided a map forward for MLS at a time when the league’s survival was no sure thing.
Even now, its place in the American sporting landscape is unclear. MLS is a Frankenstein’s monster of a league, constantly wavering between the appropriation of European traditions and creating new American ones. MLS’s spring-summer-fall season runs counter to every central European league — a Soccer Australia wedged into the Northern Hemisphere. It pays above-market for a handful of stars while role players are paid like teachers. But at least the player pool is deeper than it was 20 years ago, and Americans can grow up watching and dreaming of playing for the local team in their domestic league, as Jordan Morris did when he chose his hometown Seattle Sounders over the Bundesliga’s Werder Bremen (much to Klinsmann’s dismay).
There are now 13 soccer-specific stadiums in MLS, and Mapfre’s aura is more historic than tangible. The pitch is perfectly maintained, but the structure around it is spare: the press box looks makeshift, the south bleachers that push attendance past 24,000 are temporary, and the video board above them has the appearance and authority of a 40-inch Vizio.
Before kickoff, as the sun sank to the horizon, the wind whipped in from the north, hauling ass the 100 miles from Lake Erie unimpeded by anything that might be considered a hill. Fans in the lower bowl were safe from its sting, but one look at the flags atop the upper eaves and I knew the last rows felt like seats in a convertible 747. Early rumors are that Columbus won’t play host to another World Cup Qualifier.
The American Outlaws, the USMNT’s largest supporters club, procured 8,000 tickets to the match, fully one-third of the seats. They came in scarves and jerseys and every permutation of red, white, and blue. I saw Rocky’s robe from Rocky IV, Evel Knievel’s bellbottoms and short cape, a full George Washington cosplay, a USA basketball jersey, a USA hockey sweater, a USA water polo cap, a Captain America wearing an American flag as a cape, an adult onesie that was half red and white stripes and half white stars on a blue field, Stars-and-Stripes pants inscribed with the Constitution, and even — on several fans with no sense of taste or shame — the black USMNT away jersey with one blue sleeve and one red. The staggering amount of red, white, and blue cannot be understated: it was like the American flag fucked everyone’s closets, and they wore the results.
We all packed in to see Pulisic pace the American attack and dos-a-céro, and got neither. The teenager flashed several times in the first half with dangerous runs, but the U.S. didn’t have enough possession to create consistent chances for him. At one point, the Mexicans failed to clear a corner and the ball squirted to Pulisic at the edge of the box, but his first touch was uncharacteristically heavy, and the chance evaporated.
The USA were better as a team in the second half, but Pulisic felt absent; the fan next to me wondered if he’d been subbed off at halftime. It was Bobby Wood, another young talent shining in the Bundesliga, who scored the Americans’ lone goal with a combination of speed, skill, and strength. Pulisic may be the USMNT’s brightest rising star, but he is far from the only one. Despite everything — the 2-1 loss, an imperfect domestic league, a scattershot development program, the NCAA, the bulk of an entire country not caring for most of a four-year cycle — the United States Men’s National Team has enough talent to warrant high expectations, and Pulisic will continue to carry them on his 139-pound frame.
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Jurgen Klinsmann planned for Pulisic to get the ball more against Mexico. The U.S. coach put his youngest player in the center of the attack, with the freedom to range to the sidelines as necessary. Klinsmann also, it should be noted, elected to put his team in a 3-5-2, a formation so unfamiliar to the USMNT that Klinsmann had only attempted it once in his five-year tenure, a friendly against Chile’s C-team. The team’s resultant disorganization led to a disastrous first 25 minutes during which the U.S. was lucky to allow only one goal.
This is life under the Teutonic surf golem helming U.S. Soccer. Though Klinsmann occasionally blames fans and the media for not understanding soccer, the more frequent scapegoats are his players and MLS, the domestic league where so many of them work. While Klinsmann correctly asserts that European clubs offer tougher competition for his players, his toxic relationship with MLS can only be detrimental to the national team. (In the 2014 World Cup, 10 of 23 American players were on an MLS roster, while five more had previously played in the domestic league. Three have since made their MLS debut.)
He is one of Germany’s greatest players ever, and a manager whose résumé is matched only by his pettiness and lack of tactical acumen. In case you’re just catching up, here are some recent lowlights of Klinsmann’s tenure:
- The U.S. opened the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup by squandering a 1-0 lead and losing 2-1 to Honduras, leading American supporters to fear missing the World Cup the way that they are now after Friday’s loss to Mexico.
- Klinsmann left Landon Donovan, the best player in American soccer history, off the 2014 World Cup roster. Donovan, even at 32, was clearly one of the best 23 players in the U.S. pool (he scored the game-sealing goal against Mexico that punched the U.S.’s ticket to the World Cup), and a gloating tweet from Klinsmann’s son following the snub suggested the manager’s animus was no secret at the dinner table.
- Perhaps more troubling in Klinsmann’s World Cup squad selection was his failure to bring a like-for-like substitute for Jozy Altidore, who injured his hamstring minutes into the tournament, leaving the U.S. critically without a target striker capable of hold-up play.
- Klinsmann shepherded a truly listless and shameful performance at the 2015 Gold Cup, posting consecutive losses to Jamaica and Panama on U.S. soil for a fourth-place finish (Panama finished the tournament with a negative goal differential).
- Mexico defeated the U.S. 3-2 in a a one-game playoff to win a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup, a dry run for the World Cup featuring the best teams from each continent. (The playoff was necessary only because the U.S. lost the 2015 Gold Cup.)
- In an inexplicable development, Klinsmann stopped calling up Darlington Nagbe, a playmaking midfielder whose limited minutes with Pulisic in early World Cup qualifiers suggested a future in which America played beautiful soccer the way Klinsmann promised when he took the job.
- During Friday’s 2-1 loss, Klinsmann’s decision to play a 3-5-2 formation for the first time in years was nothing short of disastrous and led to El Tri’s opening goal. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones looked overmatched in Mexico’s swarm of speedy players, and a player with Nagbe’s speed, dribbling, and passing acumen would have provided a better chance to win.
This list is one-sided by design, and Klinsmann supporters will doubtless point to his successes: the USMNT’s first-ever result at Estadio Azteca in Mexico, two wins against Germany in friendlies, friendly victories on the road in Italy and the Netherlands, and the successful recruitment of talented dual-national players. That counterargument is why I have this second, more damning list of Klinsmann’s failures:
— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) June 26, 2016
Watch enough USMNT matches, and you’ll know that the default pregame and postgame commentary surrounds Klinsmann’s inscrutable and questionable tactical decisions. Yet every time the Evel Knievels and Rockys and Captains America show up in force to wave their Stars-and-Stripes pitchforks, Klinsmann produces a result to save his job. The Sword of Damocles hangs not by a thread, but by steel cable.
And it will continue this way. The results will be good enough to maintain the status quo, and the improved player pool will produce incremental steps forward in spite of the coaching. The national team faces an unenviable Catch-22: they are stuck with Jurgen Klinsmann until the World Cup, unless they miss the World Cup. For all the excitement about Christian Pulisic, Friday’s loss to Mexico should — but won’t — serve as a warning to U.S. Soccer: Klinsmann’s heavy hand has a greater effect than the Messiah’s touch.