Christian Pulisic: The new face of the USMNT, whether he's ready or not
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Christian Pulisic sat on one side of the table in a small conference room at the downtown Columbus hotel where the U.S. men's national team is staying. Across from him sat a gaggle of top soccer reporters in the country, their tape recorders all pointed in his direction.
A special media session was set up for the special 18-year-old U.S. national team winger ahead of Friday night’s World Cup qualifier against Mexico. It was indicative of what the game may represent for Pulisic, whose rapid rise to the forefront of American soccer has been well-chronicled.
Pulisic is the Next Great Hope for this U.S. men’s team. He is the most important prospect to come along since Landon Donovan. Pulisic is blossoming into a true star, both at Borussia Dortmund and in the red, white and blue, and Friday night’s game against El Tri will be his biggest with the U.S.
For some, it represents the official unveiling of the next face of American soccer.
It’s a title Pulisic isn’t yet ready to embrace, even after a year of learning to brush aside the pressures that come with his meteoric development.
“I understand where it comes from and people want that ‘face of U.S. Soccer,’ or whatever, but like I said I’m just so focused on myself I don’t think of myself like that and I never will,” Pulisic said. “I just want to be with the team and win. It’s not like I want to be the player all over media and stuff like that.”
Pulisic paused before realizing the title is something he may not be able to control.
“I guess it hasn’t really hit me and I don’t think it will,” he said.
It was not the only time Pulisic faced the question on Wednesday. During an appearance with Colin Cowherd on Fox Sports 1, Pulisic was again asked about being the face of U.S. men's soccer. He said he didn’t want that type of pressure.
I wouldn’t even be close to where I am if I didn’t have the support system I do. I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own.
It’s a reason why U.S. Soccer has been so delicate with Pulisic to this point, though it’s becoming difficult to muffle the hype around a player who is proving his value for club and country. Even Pulisic recognizes it may be time to take off any sort of limits that remain.
“The competitive side of me wants to just play whenever I get the chance,” he said. “It’s not like I want to hold back, but I understand what people say. At a young age it is a lot and this past year has put a big mental strain on me. So I understand what they mean. Kind of taking it slower. Not being in every game or every tough situation just to kind of ease me into it. But a part of me thinks that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, because I just want to go out and play.”
Parallels with Donovan
Few can understand the path on which Pulisic appears set to embark. Donovan is the success story. Freddy Adu is the bright, flashing warning sign on the other end of the spectrum. Pulisic’s success at Dortmund has already separated him from Adu and other busts, but there are inherent risks in assuming the burden carried for more than a decade by Donovan.
Donovan made his debut with the U.S. senior team in 2000 at the age of 18 against Mexico. He scored in that game. Donovan would be a key part of the U.S. team that qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea, and it was during that tournament that he broke out and became the face of U.S. Soccer.
It’s a title he would hold until he retired in 2014, and one that weighed on him as much as it lifted him up.
The pressures were there within a year of the 2002 World Cup, when then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena challenged Donovan’s motivation. Donovan cited the intense media obligations he faced in addition to playing for both the San Jose Earthquakes and U.S. national team.
Eight years after his standout performance in South Korea, Donovan held a press conference at the team training camp in Princeton, New Jersey, ahead of the 2010 World Cup. The U.S. finished dead last at the World Cup in 2006. Donovan had not delivered as expected, and he confronted that failure to the press.
Donovan was his usual introspective self, but it was evident how much the expectations of a program had fallen on one player as much as the team.
"At 20, it was youthful exuberance and naïveté and literally just playing every day because you loved to play every day," Donovan said that rainy day at Princeton. "Now there is more responsibility and there is greater opportunity. I enjoy the challenge of that now. In 2006, that became burdensome because I wasn't ready for it. And now I am ready for it and I am really excited for it."
Perhaps, then, Pulisic still lives in that naïveté. The goal is to prepare him for the burden that follows.
When the last World Cup was played, Pulisic was on the U.S. under-17 team, watching the tournament and dreaming of the chance to step on the field in 2018. Now, he is a year-and-a-half from accomplishing that dream, and a key part of the equation to make sure the Americans get there.
He’s gone from that Point A to Point B in less than two years.
“Mentally it can be a lot,” Pulisic said. “I think for young players it is tough at such a young age dealing with the pressures. Luckily I’ve just had a lot of people around me that have helped me through it because I wouldn’t even be close to where I am if I didn’t have the support system I do. I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. That’s the really important part about it.”
His ascension could climb to its next level on Friday night against Mexico, in the first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying (“The Hex”).
When fans arrive at MAPFRE Stadium, they will be greeted by a billboard of players clutching the U.S. crest on their jerseys. In one of the more prominent spots in the banner, behind some of the team’s most recognizable veterans, is Pulisic, pointing to the emblem over his heart.
For the men's team, he’s the newest ‘Face of U.S. Soccer,’ ready or not.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.