The Landon template: What history, Donovan say about Arena guiding Pulisic

The U.S. boss cultivated the last great American talent. Now Arena must do the same with his new star.

To look at the U.S. men’s national team roster Bruce Arena assembled last week is to understand one thing: The U.S. manager trusts 18-year-old Christian Pulisic.

You might say, “Well, sure. Why wouldn’t he?” After all, Pulisic is a regular for a UEFA Champions League quarterfinalist at Borussia Dortmund.

Then again, this isn’t just another Bundesliga (or even European) night at the Westfalenstadion. This is one of the most significant nights in United States men’s national team qualifying history. A loss to Honduras on Friday at Avaya Stadium wouldn’t kill U.S. hopes for a place at the 2018 World Cup, but it certainly would drive the herd right up to the edge of the cliff.

It’s the most important U.S. World Cup qualifying moment since the 2013 game in greater Denver, the one that became our beloved Snow Clasico, when things seemed so perilously close to completely unraveling.

So as we watch Pulisic rise, dreaming about how much upside this whiz kid has, we might be tempted to wonder about how Arena will handle him.

Then again, we don’t need to wonder. We can already see how Arena is approaching young Pulisic. There’s a living, breathing example of how much Arena is willing to risk with a young one, even with so much on the line. And that example is Landon Donovan.

The Landon Donovan template

Arena once brought a very young Donovan into a U.S. training camp just so the player could absorb what soccer at that level was about. That’s what I used to think, at least. Truth be told, while giving the kid a peek into his future, Arena was also sizing up Donovan. The coach needed to assess what this preternaturally talented kid was all about.

So a couple of years later, when things got real at the 2002 World Cup, Arena knew all there was to know about the U.S.’ future all-time leading scorer, who was 20 by then; Donovan was in the starting lineup in that famous, tournament-opening win over Portugal. He scored later against Mexico and was eventually named the tournament’s top young player.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Donovan, now living in San Diego, spent most of his professional career with Arena for either club or country. He says Arena has no trouble with “something new” and is perfectly willing to experiment with new approaches, new tactics or untested players when it comes to matches of lesser meaning.

“But when you get to the games that matter, he goes with people he knows he can count on, players that he knows he can trust,” Donovan said Tuesday. “To a large extent, that’s why he’s been successful.”

What Bruce did for me, and what I know he’ll do for Christian, [is] fill a young player with crazy [amounts of] confidence.

- Landon Donovan

Only Arena knows his depth of trust in Pulisic at this point, but that original roster seems to speak volumes. In version 1.0 of the U.S. roster, released last week, Pulisic was the closest thing Arena had to some kind of creative playmaker. Absent of Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan, the ideas and imagination it might take to break down a (likely stacked and packed) Honduran defense would come chiefly from Pulisic. They could potentially come from Michael Bradley, too, albeit in more recessed areas, and possibly from Clint Dempsey in later minutes of the match. But largely, those moments of magic would have to come from Pulisic.  

That’s the most logical conclusion we can draw when Arena looked at the top two playmakers in the U.S. pool and figuratively said, “We’ll pass on them, for now.”

Either from the middle or, more likely, from wide areas, Arena seemed set on enshrining Pulisic as the top attacking string-puller out of midfield. Using Pulisic along the wing in a conventional 4-4-2, with the freedom to dart inside, seemed most likely.

The 4-4-2 was usually Arena’s way with the Galaxy. Not that he’s married to it, but he’s clearly comfortable going into matches without a classic No. 10. Rather, he’s willing to trust Pulisic.

According to Donovan, if Arena trusts a young player, then the coach is darn sure about it. Arena isn’t a gambler that way, and he won’t just do this stuff willy-nilly. He doesn’t do “hunches.” You can bet your last ticket-buying dollar that Arena has studied the player with all the attention of a forensic scientist. If he hands this sort of responsibility to an 18-year-old, the kid can handle it.

Trust … then reinforce

“What Bruce did for me, and what I know he’ll do for Christian, [is] fill a young player with crazy [amounts of] confidence,” Donovan said. “Christian will go into that game thinking he absolutely deserves to be there, thinking he can absolutely make a difference, and that’s what Bruce does.”

Donovan even suggested that Arena has probably hurt himself at times by extending that trust and loyalty just a bit too far. “Sometimes there’s a need for change, but he’s so loyal to guys who have done the job for him, who have proven it, that he wants to stick with the guys he trusts,” Donovan said.

The application of trust and loyalty might look different, Donovan suggested, depending on the recipient.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Arena certainly doesn’t treat all players the same. Nor should he. If a veteran player makes a mistake or has a bad game, Arena has zero compunction about telling the player so. The approach might be different with a younger one, Donovan said.

Donovan remembers Arena telling him at certain times that it didn’t matter if he lost the ball every time he touched it, that his job was to go at defenders. “He told me, ‘You’re not coming out of the game for losing the ball.’ This is what I want you to do, so go do it.’ 

“In previous [U.S.] games with Christian, he was just kind of thrown into the fire, without really understanding the role or what’s expected of him,” Donovan said. “Bruce will do the opposite. Bruce will make things very clear for him, what’s expected of him.”

From a tactical standpoint, the “what’s expected part of him” may have changed over the last week.  That conversation evolved with Sunday’s announcement that Kljestan had been added to the roster, replacing the injured Bobby Wood. Wood and Jozy Altidore certainly looked like the high pairing in a 4-4-2; now some sort of 4-2-3-1 setup is possible.

Donovan, by the way, doesn’t have any question that Pulisic can handle all this. The former Galaxy star has said repeatedly that 18-year-old Pulisic is far ahead of 18-year-old Donovan. Plus, Donovan says, the pressure is all on veteran Americans, such as Bradley, Dempsey and Tim Howard.

“If the United States loses or if it doesn’t qualify, that’s not going to be Christian’s fault,” Donovan said. “He can just go be himself.”

Instead of worrying about carrying his country, Pulisic can enjoy having those veterans around him, as well as the passionate crowd that will inevitably be pushing the U.S. in San Jose.

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