The U.S. U17s are cutting an impressive swath of late.
Since kicking off the Nike International Friendlies in December with a loss to Portugal, they’ve gone 5-0-1 and won titles at both the NIF (remember this mad final against Brazil?) and the Aegean Cup in Turkey over the weekend. The run cemented Haji Wright’s status as a wispy up-and-coming lightning bolt at forward (and perhaps earned him a European contract), heralded Joe Gallardo’s ruthless efficiency in front of goal, spotlighted Fulham’s Luca de la Torre as a mouthwatering prospect in the center of the field and made Danny Barbir look like the future of the center back position.
But creative midfielder and No. 10 Christian Pulisic, the 2013 NIF overall MVP, may be the most impressive of the bunch. He may not have the glitzy academy club next to his name on the roster sheet, and of course his goal totals haven’t ballooned his next-level status in the way it has for Wright and Gallardo. But as a creative engine, Pulisic is beginning to separate himself from an otherwise very talented pack.
There are always caveats attached to developing players, and the biggest one is to never heap too much expectation onto a young player’s feeble shoulders too early. It’s easy to stunt a player’s growth if he comes to believe he’s achieved developmentally everything he’s going to achieve by the time he’s 16. But even keeping in mind the factors that should lead us to take everything the U17s do with the appropriate dash of salt, Pulisic’s skill set enchants.
In the U17s’ 3-0-1 run at the Aegean Cup, Pulisic was especially lively, and that counted double in a 2-1 win over Turkey in a final during which he ran rampant. He assisted directly on one goal, indirectly on another and had both hands clamped firmly on the game’s steering wheel.
With that in mind, I’d like to take a look at three of Pulisic’s illuminating moments from Saturday’s final and push them into the light.
This first video is indicative of Pulisic’s comfort navigating in space and peeling back the layers to find teammates in small creases. With three Turkish players crowding his cleaving run down the center third of the field, Pulisic commands the pass with his left and threads it between two defenders (who are not off the mark positionally) to free up a prime goalscoring opportunity. It’s a lovely bit of craft that’s made to look a lot easier than it is.
Our second clip is as illustrative of Pulisic’s motor as it is his vision. He drops a bit deeper here to collect possession, and as soon as he snaps his eyes up vertically the ball is already off his foot, laid perfectly to Pierre da Silva to start a lovely break. Da Silva leads the bank of three forward, and you’d just assume Pulisic’s work is done as da Silva preps the cross. But watch the end of the movement. Pulisic is in the box by the time Joe Gallardo collects the pass. That meant Pulisic burned past Luca de la Torre, who had a few strides on Pulisic by the time the ball was out, in order to buttress the scoring opportunity. Impressive on both the front and back ends from Pulisic on a goal he generated on the root level.
Finally, our third snippet highlighting Pulisic’s outstanding afternoon. You see the midfielder collect possession with his back to goal about 35 yards out, and his first move is so subtle you almost miss it. His defender did not. Pulisic dummies outside, and the half-second of space that allows him gives him the avenue to cut inside and carve open the defensive belly. Maybe the most impressive thing about his movement is how quick it all is. He takes one touch after getting free and then leads Haji Wright inside with a lovely cut-back ball that set up the eventual game-winner. Hard to stop.
The point here is to draw out the things in his game that make him such an enticing propsect. It’s hard enough finding American No. 10s that like to position themselves not only centrally but higher up the field. Creative American players like Luis Gil are far more common – guys who enjoy playing creatively but who settle into more comfortable roles as box-running No. 8s instead of tethering themselves more closely to the strikers.
That’s why Pulisic plays with the imagination to such an intriguing degree. At least early on in his developmental career he appears to be exhibiting not only the ability to hold high, but the relish and desire to stay there. A fascinating player to monitor as his YNT career continues to mature.