Perhaps the most culturally important facet of Christian Pulisic’s breakout as a bonafide USMNT star is the suddenly blossoming reality that he’s a legitimate crossover personality. For a significant portion of the professional sports-watching populace on these here shores, soccer is a dormant sport, only to be poked awake every so often for major events and happenings.
The unearthing of an International Star certainly qualifies. And Pulisic is as close to one as we’ve had… perhaps ever.
This necessarily created off-shooting sprouts of public adulation in more forms than I particularly care to count. One of those is attention in the broader general national media, where Pulisic’s been thrust into the spotlight in a way we’ve not seen with a teenage American soccer player since Freddy Adu. And gratefully Pulisic was kept out of that blender in the relatively sheltered alcoves of development until his move to Borussia Dortmund dried at 16. And in reality, Pulisic was always the better player anyway.
Two of those stories worth your time are this one, from Yahoo by respected national columnist Dan Wetzel, and this one, from Bleacher Report’s George Dohrmann titled flatly The Christian Pulisic Blueprint. The aim of each is to grope for some measure of understanding about the replicability of Pulisic’s past. There must be something in it we can drop into a beaker and distribute to future prospects, some kernel of necessary information to be disseminated amongst our best and brightest in airdropped leaflets on practice fields all over the country.
And there is, to a degree. But there is certainly no blueprint. At least not at this level.
I have seen enough club soccer – and specifically enough bad American club soccer played at supposedly high levels – to know Pulisic’s invention was no grandiose triumph of American club soccer. The Development Academy is a bourgeoning league with successful facets to it, and with more advancement I firmly believe it will (and currently is) usher us into a new era of national team solvency and success. Kellyn Acosta is a replicable formula, a good player made very good by a distinctly productive MLS setup that eventually pushed him into a national team format.
If Acosta is replicable – an MLS academy player emerging from an MLS city for an MLS team – Pulisic is not. Or at least he’s not in the way we’d prefer. At the time of his substantive development, in the years just before he left with his father for Germany, the Philadelphia Union were just opening the YSC Academy, and the Earnie Stewart era whereby young players were actually nurtured in a holistic and understandable way was still several years off. Pulisic stuck with PA Classics because it made family sense, but also because the Union at that time weren’t a startlingly better option. He simply bloomed where he was planted.
But what I want you to see about Pulisic, and in truth about all supposedly elite young players, is that the club complex is merely a repository for the talent, a place to stash it and watch it grow as opposed to the creator of the seed itself. We’ve grown so enamored with the idea that coaches and systems Make Players that we’ve largely forgotten that the best ones are knitted together at birth and largely nurtured in the most substantive ways at home and in the street.
To set this idea in stone, I’d like to point you toward something now-retired Schalke development head Bodo Menze told me earlier this year in a sit-down interview. I was interviewing him for a story on Schalke’s development system and specifically about the three Americans there now, and he said this about the players he’s developed. Those players, it should be noted, include Leroy Sane, Mesut Ozil, Holger Badstuber, Manuel Neuer, Julian Draxler.
“You cannot make a talent,” Menze said. “That is the work of the parents. Sometimes I hear (from academy coaches), ‘I have made him.’ No. I say, coach, you have given him some lessons and perhaps an organizational frame to keep him in and to guide him to the point where he ended. But you did not make him. This is a little bit as well my philosophy. If you have money, you have to invest it well. We did not have big money at the time, so we helped ourselves with good ideas, with good coaches and good behavior in direction of the kids.”
As Exhibit A, I present a video of Pulisic embarrassing children as a microscopic 9-year-old. This is not normal, nor was it coached into him by any holistic club system. It was his father, a former player himself, working with him for hours and hours on end. It was Pulisic working in unstructured environments at 6, 7, 8 years old, hitting balls alone against backboards and house siding and playing 3v3 with friends with coke cans and sweatshirts as goalposts.
There is no blueprint for this.
This of course does not mean there’s no reason to try, to push exciting young players into top academies and to work out general frameworks for young players to ultimately have a discernible ladder to first team soccer. Clubs are important. Coaches are important. The Development Academy is important.
But the emergence of a player like Pulisic in such a starved soccer economy is tantamount to throwing a no-look 50-footer into a basketball hoop. We are now in the brief, hazy moments afterward, as we all introspectively wonder what just happened and whether we can ever do it again. And the truth is that yes, we can, but to craft an entire strategy around those deeply improbable shots is to miss the nuts and bolts of producing more high percentage players at much more replicable clip. Because if you’re honest with yourself in the gloaming after the shot settles, you really have no idea how it went in. The beauty is that it doesn’t really matter. Like a finger-trap, the more you struggle against the idea of making those shots repeatable year over year, day over year, the more the trap closes in on you and you lose the broader sight.
Where the analogy breaks down is that we do know how Pulisic was developed, just not, as a wider soccer body, which parts were most important. And to talk to the smartest men at the highest levels of the global development game, it wasn’t in the organized U14, U15, U17 games played in international tournaments and on club fields in Middle America. Though important, the real guts of Pulisic’s development was a unique blend of genetic ability, intelligent homespun teaching from a father who deeply knows and loves the game, and an almost impossible amount of repetition at a comically early age.
This has largely been the crusade of Tom Byer, the American who’s become an Asian development guru by preaching the gospel about soccer starting at home. He literally wrote the book on it. It is possible, if not entirely ideal, to craft a world class player with a consistent, top class home environment and a mediocre club upbringing. It is not possible to do it the other way around.
It is entirely natural to desire a national team full of Pulisics, or even just a few. But the bitter truth of it is that you can’t build Pulisic’s blueprint. You can’t force a parent to love the game, to know and have the ability to teach his or her child the basic tactical principles of the game in the back yard. Because you only have so many hours a week in tutelage scenarios on the club level, and even then, the basic coaching level among AYSO-level coaches is generally lacking to a dismaying degree. You can’t simply generate an EU passport, allowing your child the opportunity to move abroad at 16 to embed in any soccer academy, let alone a top one. And you can’t fake genetics. There are not many children in this country who can do at 14 what Pulisic could at 9. There is a family and repetition dynamic to that, but there is also nature winning its battle against nurture as well.
The beauty in Pulisic’s development is that it’s organic and as natural as the driven snow. The frustrating core of it is that there is literally no way to port it to other young players on any real systemic level beyond the cultural elements other nations have that we patently do not. And that’s fine. It’s one of the vagaries about soccer development that makes the game such a beautiful, shimmering mystery. As much as we’ve advanced in analytics and game understanding, there are certain things beyond our reach. How a Messi is ultimately a Messi, beyond what Barca did for him and into the core of his personality as a player, is not really for us to know. Merely to enjoy, in the end.
In the coming years, my hope is that we appreciate all this and take the general principles that helped Pulisic become Pulisic and use them on our own children. For parents, that means giving your children space to grow and develop while generating a framework informed by a base knowledge in the game. For players, that means repetition. And repetition. And repetition.
We can’t ultimately know the heaving core of what made Pulisic, at least not in its entirety. At some point, development simply becomes not about what we can create out of nothing, but what we can nurture that already existed.