-Ed. Note: This is a guest post by Josh Hall. He is a writer for SB Nation’s Borussia Dortmund blog, Fear The Wall.
As fan of Borussia Dortmund and the U.S. national team, I have observed Christian Pulisic’s rise with great interest even before the hype started to build. One thing I find odd is while many people are quick to speculate that Pulisic could become the greatest U.S. player of all time, there have been scant comparisons to arguably the greatest player the U.S. has had: Landon Donovan. The only times I hear the two mentioned in the same sentence are throw-away references to Donovan being the last world-class American player. I suspect this lack of comparison is due to the polarizing nature of Donovan within the U.S. soccer community.
This unfortunate reality demonstrates the level of emotional stock we American fans placed in him, and how so many of us felt let down by what we saw as unfulfilled potential. Perhaps most American fans are hesitant then to compare Pulisic with Donovan because we felt we have been burned many times before. The wreckage of promising American careers that tells the cautionary tale of teenage hype is so well documented it would be superfluous to mention in this forum. What separated Donovan from that ignominious long line and what currently separates Pulisic is the inarguable product on the pitch; the delight that watching those two ply their trade on the largest stages in the world brings to American fans. So why not compare the two?
Technically speaking, I haven’t seen a player as poised and positive as Pulisic in U.S. colors since the Landon Donovan era. Every time he receives the ball, there is this palpable tension, an almost physical bating of breath as you expect something remarkable to happen. And when he plays that curled, inch perfect ball threaded between the goalkeeper and outstretched legs of the defense, or takes that silky-smooth first touch to tee up a perfect finish, that tension explodes orgasmic like in heretofore unexperienced emotive bliss for deprived American fans.
While certainly he does not possess the same kind of magic that only a Messi can produce, the sight of watching an American fearlessly receive the ball, turn into space, and rampage vertically down the field with a conviction and self-confidence born of experiential performance is something that, let’s face it, is largely foreign to us. Pulisic’s ability to pass, dribble, tackle, and his first touch is pretty much on par with Donovan in his prime.
Tactically, Pulisic is eons beyond kids his age. He shows the tactical flexibility that Donovan had as well. Equally comfortable on the wing as in the center of the field as a number 10, the comparisons between the two are apt (although Donovan was far more effective on the wing and Pulisic has yet to be used by his club or country in the middle). Physically, both are relatively small and rely on their superior technical ability rather than the brute physicality, speed, and/or raw athleticism that American fans are used to seeing in their DeAndre Yedlins, Jozy Altidores, and Brian McBrides, all great players, but all only capable of just so much on the international level. When viewed from a technical and tactical perspective the comparisons are completely justified.
The one area that completely separates the two and the factor that has me so hopeful is that of the psychological. Here is where Donovan becomes polarizing. No one ever questioned his ability on the field, but when it came to the decisions he made in his career, or the consistency of his performances (eg. 2006 World Cup), he has been subjected to more scrutiny than I think he could bear. He has been very forthright in his battles with his mental health and has highlighted an area in which most professional athletes likely struggle. He has spoken out on his bouts of depression and how the decision to stay at home to play where his mental well-being was assured was the right one for him.
I completely respect that and am grateful to him for bringing attention to such an emotionally uncomfortable subject in the high-stress world of professional team sports. But an unimpassioned observer would be intellectually dishonest to say that he truly reached the dizzying heights of his sporting potential with his decision to forgo a career in Europe. Of course it could be argued that had he made a career in Europe he could have failed due to his emotional and mental framework, and who are we to cast aspersion on a man whose natural and genetic makeup has a predisposition to a delicate emotional health state? These are the types of questions that a figure even more polarizing, Jürgen Klinsmann, has asked further dividing American passions and opinions on the soft-spoken Californian midfielder.
Landon Donovan’s mental makeup, without judgement or aspersion, is the only thing that separates Christian Pulisic from him, and is the reason why I am so hopeful for the future. With Pulisic, the one thing that has impressed me far beyond his technical and tactical prowess has been his ability to psychologically handle the transition of playing in a development program in the U.S. to becoming a full time professional footballer in Germany… at the age of 17.
He has not just adapted and survived in this environment, but has thrived within a top-ten club team in the world, fought for places through their U17, U19, and U23 sides, and has bashed down the wall to the senior team as an American teenager. He has learned to speak German competently enough to give very coherent interviews. He has learned to deal with the pressure and hype associated with his rapid ascent. He has learned to give the correct, nuanced, and politically astute answers to prying and delicate questions from reporters asking about transfer rumors. Succinctly, he has become a complete professional in a world class league. And he is only 17.
Pulisic is an American prodigy who has taken the difficult, but necessary route; one that is not unique in America but unique in a youngster as talented as he. And it is the route that is normal and understood for players like Antoine Griezmann, who left his home of France for opportunities abroad in the Basque region of Spain, of Lionel Messi who departed Argentina at a very young age for a new life at La Masia, and many other youths who have left their comforts in pursuit of professional football. There seems to be nothing stopping him except perhaps a string of poor performances and a falling off the depth chart at Dortmund, but for such a professionally minded player, whose only youthful indiscretion consists of a questionable taste for the music of Justin Bieber, even a footballing setback like that could be quickly overcome.
Is it fair to compare the two? I say it is.