While the "GOAT" talk in every men's sport can be a meaningless argument about which stat is most important in the debate, the USMNT is seeing one of the single greatest players of all time currently represent the US worldwide.
In men's basketball, you have the endless debate about whether it’s Jordan or Lebron, or a variety of other players including Kareem, Magic, Kobe, Shaq, Bird, Duncan and Curry. I’m sure someone won’t be happy that I did or didn’t include someone here, but these are undoubtedly in the best of the best conversation.
In American Football you have Brady as probably the undisputed GOAT, among other greats like Elway, Marino, Namath, Rice, Moss, Brees, and Manning. Tiger for Men's Golf, Babe for Baseball, and Gretzky for Men's Hockey, Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic for Men's Tennis - all debatable of course.
All of these opinions for me are likely going to be widely debated, but for US Men’s Soccer, the conversation is coming to an exciting and sudden halt. A young soccer GOAT is being raised right before our eyes and has already changed the future outcomes for the sport forever.
Enter Christian Pulisic, the 23-year-old soccer phenomenon, captain, and all-star #10 for the United States Men’s National Team, also dubbed "Captain America".
Before we dive into the details surrounding Christian Pulisic and what we've witnessed in regards to his rise to the top, let’s talk through the other players who are in the discussion for GOAT, or what I would call our "Mount Rushmore of US Men’s Soccer".
And before we crusade through this conversation, I’m chiseling this mountain of stone with opinions based on only one point of view: the global impact of an American soccer player. (This is also based only on Men's Soccer, as Women's Soccer could easily hold two spots on this Mount Rushmore of American Soccer - no spoilers as a future piece is in the pipeline.)
First, we have Landon Donovan.
Landon is arguably one of the most cemented players of all time for the USMNT and soccer for America. Surely he is going to be the first person most people bring up in the GOAT conversation. Not only is he considered one of the most popular American players, but he’s undoubtedly one of the most successful as well, in addition to being one of the first in many areas. He was also one of the first to create disruption in the record books. It was actually heartbreaking when he didn’t make the team for the World Cup in his last few years of his career, and the memes and commercials from that one that still sting.
Donovan is, however, a 5x MLS Cup Winner, record-holding 4x Gold Cup Winner and 4x U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year. He was also voted the 2002 FIFA World Cup Best Young Player of the Tournament, chosen as the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup MVP, 2009 MLS MVP, 2008 MLS Golden Boot Winner and currently holds the records for USMNT when it comes to being the All-Time goal scorer (57) and assists leader (57). He also stands as the highest World Cup scorer in American History and has started the 2nd most games at 157 caps, only 7 behind Cobi Jones.
Landon has also played an incredible career beyond US soil, where soccer is widely the undisputed most popular sport: Europe. Even though his career abroad wasn’t the most successful one to take home, he played for 3 incredible teams including Bayern Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and Everton - that alone is impressive.
However, Landon’s career is most defined by his success on the USMNT and his career with LA Galaxy. With Landon’s multiple championships in Major League Soccer and with the USMNT, shiny personal accolades, and records with the USMNT and MLS, we easily put him at the top of this conversation. How could the highest World Cup scorer in American history not be carved into the stone?
Dempsey was different. What makes Dempsey’s career so unique and worthy of praise is the reality that Dempsey represented America abroad like no one had in the past. In many people’s eyes, Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna were the first players to truly represent what America was capable of in Europe, but Dempsey made it seem like America was transcending possibilities - that America had players that could be dangerous.
What makes Dempsey’s career even more impressive is the fact that while most young soccer players are plucked at an early age and sent to youth academies, Clint took the traditional path of soccer in college which led him to be a part of the MLS Super Draft in 2004. Most young soccer stars around the world are scouted at an early age and make risky decisions to give them further exposure, which today includes players leaving the US to participate in youth soccer abroad. However, Dempsey didn’t take that path and still made it to the world stage of club soccer.
Dempsey started his career at the MLS team New England Revolution and ended his career at the MLS team, Seattle Sounders. In the middle of his career, Dempsey represented America as a player in the English Premier League for 7 years, arguably the world’s top club soccer league. He played in 189 games for Fulham and 27 games for Tottenham Hotspur, which allowed him to accumulate a total of 57 European goals. The campaign that Dempsey led in Europe is monumental because not only did he just go to Europe, but consistently played and made an impact in top games. His position and role within the teams made him wildly popular as a footballer and absolutely shifted the future of American soccer.
During his career, he also stood out as an embellished starter for the USMNT team, having scored as many goals as Landon Donovan in his career (57) in less games (141). Dempsey became a face for the US with his "Don’t Tread On Me" style and arguably created a new image for how dangerous the US really could be on the club and international stage.
Unfortunately for Dempsey, and a sad thing to bring up, is that during his career he won very few major trophies domestically until the very end of his career. He won the MLS Cup, Supporters Shield and US Open Cup with Seattle. He did conquer the Gold Cup 3x, but only accumulated personal awards beyond that. He is a 3x U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year, was the 2004 MLS Rookie of the Year, 2x Fulham Player of the Season, and was named to the MLS Best XI twice.
While this lack of metal in the trophy room isn't a major blunder, it is still impactful. However, the grand picture of Dempsey’s impact on the sport in America and his illustrious representation for the US will always solidify him as a legendary American leader in soccer.
This selection comes at a hard intersection, as many other players could have their resumes and faces inscribed forever. This selection could absolutely be debated and cases could be made for multiple players.
We could consider Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna who arguably pioneered the way for Americans to play overseas before Donovan and Dempsey arrived. Brad Friedel, Eddie Pope, Eric Wynalda and Kasey Keller could all potentially be considered major contenders for a spot on the mountain. All of these guys have their names in the hat because of their consistent impact as American soccer players globally. But this isn’t a Top 10 list, it’s a "Mount Rushmore'' of US Soccer, which means we’re talking about the Top 4. Since Donovan, Dempsey and *spoilers* Pulisic would be carved in stone, this third spot is made for Tim Howard. I can see it now with a proper stone-chiseled beard.
Tim Howard is iconic. One specific game solidified Tim Howard on the mountain: his performance against Belgium in the 2014 World Club. At the peak of his career in this magnificent World Cup game against the World's 5th best team, Tim claimed the nickname as the "US Secretary of Defense" as he accumulated a FIFA record breaking 16 saves, solidifying him in the FIFA history books forever. As Santana Moss famously stated, "Big time players make big time plays in big time games" and Tim Howard is just that.
This game, however, was only a small part in his career as a ruthless goalkeeper for the US. Howard played in two World Cups for the USA and appeared in the most games of any Goalkeeper in history (121). Howard also staked his powerful claim in Europe as he played 10 full seasons with Everton, a consistent top 10 team in the English Premier League. This could be underrated as Everton never had consistent success as a club with Howard on the line, but make no mistake that 10 years as a starter on a top 10 club in arguably the top league in the world is a tremendous accolade that has yet to be matched.
Tim Howard is also a 2x Gold Cup Winner and 2x US Footballer of the Year. He also claimed 1 English FA Cup, 1 English League Cup, 1 English Super Cup, and PFA XI team of the year, all with Manchester United, one of the most prestigious clubs in European history. Howard also claimed a multitude of personal awards and accolades in the MLS during his career with the Colorado Rapids.
Tim Howard earned his way through his career and now stays heavily involved as one of the most respected football commentators in the game. Tim Howard will be long known as the legend that he was for the United States and absolutely belongs on the mountain with the other carved busts.
Now that there is some perspective to the aforementioned legends of US Soccer, it’s time to talk about "Captain America", and who I would claim is no longer just an up-and-coming GOAT or future GOAT of US Soccer, but center of the mountain GOAT and greatest of all time US Men’s Soccer Player. Steve Kerr, 5x NBA Champion as a player with the Chicago Bulls and 3x NBA Champion as a Coach of the Golden State Warriors, recently claimed the cemented future of this reality on Men in Blazers.
While much of the future outlook for Pulisic can be speculative, he has in many ways changed the entirety of the sport. While Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan may have pioneered playing overseas, Pulisic acted as an immediate ambassador for the sport, as he practically paved a road to shepherding fellow young US Soccer players overseas. His immediate success as an American youth soccer player in Europe was the tipping point for how much talent the US had been developing over the years - players like Gio Reyna (Claudio Reyna’s son), Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Tyler Adams, and many others. Christian made playing overseas a legitimate option for young Americans and not just seasoned players. Now, young American soccer players are becoming a part of the pipeline and young starters on some of the top clubs, including Chelsea, Juventus and Barcelona.
Christian started his young career in Pennsylvania, but quickly became an international phenomenon at the age of 16, when he signed for Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s top level teams and breeding grounds of talent. He was promoted to the senior team at the age of 17 and accumulated 10 goals in 3 years, all between the ages of 17 and 20. During his time in Dortmund, Pulisic won 3 trophies, including the highly sought after, German Cup. Not to mention the fact that he also won 4 trophies with the Borussia Dortmund team under the age of 19 - including back-to-back league championships as the U-17 & U-19 Bundesliga Champions.
After an illustrious start in his career at BVB, Pulisic, who was only 20 at the time, transferred to Chelsea, one of the largest and most valuable clubs in the entire world, in a major blockbuster transfer in 2019. He immediately became the most expensive US player to ever be transferred, at an astronomical $73 million, almost 4x more than the career value of Clint Dempsey. For perspective, Clint Dempsey had a total career transfer value of $20.55 million, while Tim Howard was valued at $8.4 million, and Landon Donovan $1.1 million).
During his 3 year career at Chelsea so far, Pulisic has already won the Champions League, the soccer world's most sought after trophy behind the World Cup, and the UEFA Super Cup. Pulisic is only 1 of two players to win the Champions League in US History and the only player to score along that campaign. Pulisic also helped Chelsea take home the FIFA Club World Cup and in his 73 appearances so far for Chelsea, he’s scored 19 goals and 8 assists, including 5 goals in the Champions League. Combined with the 2 goals he scored at Dortmund in the Champions League, Pulisic has the most Champions League goals by a US player all time - something neither of the players listed prior have done even once. Another stat to include in this discussion is the fact that Pulisic has also helped Chelsea reach 4 additional European finals, all that have unfortunately ended in no hardware.
When representing the United States, Pulisic has already helped bring home a trophy: The CONCACAF Nations League. Many will remember this game as the game when Pulisic scored the game winner in overtime - a spectacular moment for the USMNT history books. In just 48 games on the National Team, Pulisic has already netted 21 goals and assisted 9 times, which is nearly half of Donovan and Dempsey’s shared goal total, in nearly a third of the games. He’s also been named as the US Men’s Soccer Player of the Year twice in his young career, matching Tim Howard and steps behind Dempsey and Donovan. As a reminder, Pulisic also found his debut for the US Men’s team at the age of 17 years and 192 days, only roughly 1 year later than the record-youngest Freddie Adu, who debuted at 16 years and 234 days.
Let me catch my breath real quick… All of this to say that when Christian Pulisic one day retires from the sport, he will be regarded as one of the greatest players of all time for the United States, both domestically and internationally. He may have not been the first to do everything he’s done, but he has absolutely been the best at most of it, and he’s only really getting started. With the start and pace he has, and with many years left on the clock, Christian Pulisic is poised and on track to have statues raised in his honor (hint hint Hershey, PA.). Christian Pulisic is becoming the GOAT of US Soccer right before our eyes, and with what he has accomplished already in his career, possibly already the GOAT.
In November of 2022, Pulisic will have the chance to take the United States further than they ever have before on the greatest stage for soccer, The FIFA World Cup. He will also have the chance in 2026 when North America hosts the World Cup on his home soil, which will be prime for him at the age of 27. These opportunities could be the ones that turns his future statue gold.
Pulisic will undoubtedly have many other championships to fight for in his career, and hopefully a very long and successful career. After dissecting his progress along with his pace, I can confidently say that Pulisic has taken American soccer to the highest level it’s ever been at. With data to back his progress and pace, and the impact that he has already delivered, the question I now ask is: what are we waiting for to claim Christian Pulisic as the Greatest US Men’s Soccer Player of All Time?