Christian Pulisic's success could change how athletes are developed the U.S.

Posted: June 20, 2017

Christian Pulisic's success could change how athletes are developed in the U.S.

If you don’t know Christian Pulisic’s name now, you will. He is the American soccer star that America has been waiting for, well, forever to watch.

He is 18 years old and hails from Hershey, Pennsylvania. He’s scored four goals in his past five games for the United States men’s national team as it attempts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. He is not hype. He is not just potential. He is a brilliant tactical player and already an established presence with Borussia Dortmund, a traditional powerhouse in the German professional league.

Did we mention he is 18 years old?

Pulisic has a chance to change soccer in this country. And he also may change the way soccer players – or even basketball and hockey players – are developed.

The way he was brought along by his parents might even answer the long-standing question about American soccer, American players and the American system – why can’t we create truly elite players?

No one is expecting the U.S. to become Germany overnight, with waves and waves of talent, depth beyond belief. Former national coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s strategy was actually signing German team castoffs who had at least one American parent (usually a military member) and taking them. They often ranked among our best.

Why not a homegrown star, though? Tens of millions of kids have played soccer here through the decades and while we’ve produced a smattering of excellent players, there’s rarely been a truly world-class one. Pulisic may become that.

The oft-cited logic is that our best athletes play football or basketball or baseball, not soccer. This is true and I once agreed with it, but if you look at the elite soccer players around the globe, it’s not like they are a collection of LeBron James and Cam Newtons.

Great and skilled athletes? Absolutely. But Lionel Messi stands 5-foot-7. Cristiano Ronaldo is 6-1, 175 pounds. Neymar is 5-9.

The USMNT players look like all the other players. Sometimes, they look even better. We can run and jump with anyone. That isn’t it.

The emergence of Pulisic, who checks in at 5-8 and a slight 140 pounds, from the same club-level teams that so many Americans participate has sparked a lot of thought at USA Soccer about how to make more players like him. Pulisic is obviously a naturally gifted player (both parents played college soccer). And he benefited from his father being an international coach capable of getting him some time and training in Europe.

A story by George Dohrmann last week – “The Christian Pulisic Blueprint” – revealed that his upbringing was pretty simple. His parents didn’t push him to train a million hours a week, overburden him with private coaches and welcomed participation in other sports. Those are all important items.

What stood out, however, was the following passage, which might apply not just to soccer, but the way youth, high school and even college athletics (particularly basketball) is done. It centers on the decision to stick with a good travel club – PA Classics in this case – rather than go with the bigger and supposedly better suitors that came in from near and far to attempt to get Pulisic to play for them.

He spurned the academy team of the Philadelphia Union, a unit consistently more talent-laden and successful than the PA Classics.

“When you are the best player on your team but your team is not as good, it means you handle the ball more, you have to do more to carry your team and in the process, you are developing your game,” says Richie Williams, an assistant coach with the U.S. men’s national team who coached Christian, then 15, at the U-17 residency program in Bradenton and in the 2015 U-17 World Cup. “If it is a loaded team, that same player might be identified as a role player and never develop those skills.”

American youth sports almost always push good players to the highest level of competition, thus surrounding them with the most amount of talent so they are most likely to win. Bigger is almost always considered the best route to development. It is the basic stable of all travel teams, high schools and NCAA programs.

All sports are different – baseball and softball, for example, are in many ways individual endeavors resting in a team sport. Football is a beast unto itself. So this can make sense, even in basketball, soccer and ice hockey.

Or, as Pulisic shows … maybe not. Certainly a player needs to be surrounded with competent teammates so they aren’t forced to win games by themselves and thus fail to learn team play.

However, as the Pulisics realized, just stacking the deck isn’t always effective. And this would especially be true for the non-superstar. If you join a basketball team because there are three great scorers and your job is to set picks – or barely play – then all you may learn to do is set picks. Who cares what “level” you are playing on or how far you traveled to play?

Regional and then national super teams have been the trend in AAU basketball for a generation. It’s increasingly popular in high school basketball, with teams popping up that don’t even have an affiliation with a high school – Findlay Prep in Nevada, La Lumiere School in Indiana, etc.

Those programs can often offer things a local high school can’t – elite training, focus and so on. Again, it’s not all bad.

Would those players be better off playing at their traditional local schools, however, not being on a team with so many high-level recruits but instead having to develop as both the main focus as well as a team leader? Or specifically in terms of soccer, is the U.S. system of super teams at the youth club level worth rethinking?

Each individual situation may be different, but clearly the Pulisics saw value in going a different route than conventional wisdom.

It didn’t just work for their son; it worked in a way it never has for an American-trained player. As such, the kid’s ability to set trends may be more than just what he can do with a soccer ball.