In America, the French actor Isabelle Huppert once said, Europe disappears: “They have everything. They don’t need anything. Deep down to them we are a sort of elegant Third World.” The history of American sport reads as one iteration of this blazing autonomy: from the development of baseball as a derivative of regional English games like stoolball and tut-ball to the evolution of rugby union into American football and the creation of basketball from the manipulation of a soccer ball indoors, the US has specialized in fashioning its own kind of sporting modernity out of Europe’s raw cultural materials, often consigning these older sports to the scrapheap of national memory.
But globalization – the great success story of American free-market economics – and the unstoppable rise of football have, in recent decades, forced the US to confront a discomfiting reality: in the world’s most popular sport, the global hegemon remains a middleweight at best. The country that has everything now finds that it doesn’t: emerging (almost) every four years from a middling confederation into the glare of the World Cup, the spotlight deflected for once towards other countries, the America that wants for nothing – so confident, so culturally self-reliant – now finds itself in need. It needs to prove that it has footballing muscle equal to its muscle in every other domain. It needs to show that it belongs. And it needs, perhaps more than anything, to convince the world that it can produce a player in the men’s game equal to Haaland, Neymar, Salah, or Mbappé.
For the past five years, American hopes of producing a world-class player have largely focused on one man: Christian Pulisic. To be sure, many fine footballers have emerged from these shores in recent times: Clint Dempsey is a folk hero at Fulham, Landon Donovan – though he struggled to build a club career in Europe – was never better than when appearing in national colors. And the stocks of the country’s shot stoppers – including such fixtures of recent English Premier League history as Brad Friedel and Tim Howard, a player who was once as resolute in goal as he now is impenetrably wooden as a pundit on NBC – have historically been particularly rich.
But outside the women’s game, where America is now an unfailing conveyor belt of top-class talent, the US has yet to produce a player with that insistent specialness – that fizzing mixture of skill, strength, personality, and will to win – capable of transcending national boundaries. Even players of a caliber one rung below the very top continue to elude the US, which is a genuine curiosity when you consider the country’s size and financial means and the domestic popularity of football as a participation sport. Australia, a temperamentally similar country with a far smaller population and not one but three rival football codes to siphon talent away from soccer, has arguably produced three top-class players during the Premier League era: Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka, and Harry Kewell. America is yet to produce one.
In this context, the expectations that have been placed on Pulisic are immense. A sense of all-American destiny has beckoned him seemingly from birth. Born in the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania – home of the famed Hershey Company, the biggest chocolate manufacturer in a country that runs on sugar – Pulisic grew up in a football-mad family (his parents both played college soccer and his father later became a professional indoor player) and made rapid early progress through the national ranks.
One performance against Brazil in 2013 for the US under-17 team shows just how good he was as a teenager – pulling the strings from out wide, arrowing into space, timing his runs, burying his chances. All the speed, courage and control of his mature game were already there at the age of 15, with none of the self-doubt that has encroached in more recent years. The story from there is well known: the move to Borussia Dortmund, the first-team debut at 17, the string of impressive performances and the transfer rumors, the image of him slumped on the turf, head in hands, after the loss against Trinidad & Tobago that denied the USMNT a place at the 2018 World Cup. The passion, the skill, and the commitment were all there, and soon afterwards the money on the table matched the scale of Pulisic’s ambition, now nicknamed “Captain America” (a moniker he reportedly detests) for his inspirational performances with the national team.
At Chelsea, however, the narrative of Pulisic’s career has begun to take a more complicated turn. Injuries and managerial changes have starved Pulisic of starting opportunities, and when he has been given a chance to strut his stuff he’s often appeared hesitant and unsure of himself, qualities fatal to the game of a player who relies for so much of his efficiency on directness and courage. Pulisic is now in his fourth season in England and has never succeeded in nailing down a permanent place in Chelsea’s starting XI; given the number of managers who have declined to place their unconditional faith in him it seems fair to wonder whether he’ll ever make it to the very top of the sport as he has seemed destined to for so long. Among Chelsea fans his name is now a byword for missed chances and wasted potential, a bleak departure from the arc of his early career.
On those rare and increasingly distant occasions when he has put it all together – such as during Project Restart, the peak of his Chelsea career to date – the results have been exhilarating. The hat-trick against Burnley in late 2019 – the first goal scored with his left foot, the second with his right, the third with his head – showed the very best of Pulisic: the casual two-footedness, the feathery first touch, the willingness to take his man on, that surgical turn of pace. In open space he’s a dolphin breaking through the waves; cornered he’s a spider scampering free. Above all he is one of the sport’s great lateral movers, trampolining across the pitch with the limpid grace of a piano player as they command the keyboard. The sheer versatility of Pulisic at his peak is something that only half-cooked metaphors can capture.
The beauty of Pulisic’s play on the pitch is all the more remarkable when you consider his blandness off it. Guarded, risk-averse, perhaps even slightly square: Pulisic has none of the braggadocio of Cristiano Ronaldo, none of the laddish immensity of Erling Haaland or slick eloquence of Kylian Mbappé. In speech and manner he seems less like a footballer than a wealth management professional from a mid-sized regional city with some investment opportunities in municipal bonds and tech stocks he’d like to discuss. And yet. Despite all of this – the weight of national expectation, his stop-start progress in the Premier League and Lampardesque lack of charisma – Pulisic is liberated when he steps onto the field for the USMNT. All the doubts that consume his game at club level melt away and he is reborn as America’s star, the player through which all good things flow. Gregg Berhalter’s system – built on an inexhaustible press, quick transitions, attack at all costs, and speed out wide – is designed to get the very best out of his No 10, and there’s reason for American fans to feel real excitement at the prospect of seeing Pulisic, at his first World Cup, set free in a team where he’s the unquestioned talisman.
Given the relentlessness of European club football today – its booming popularity, the money it attracts, the sheer scale of its playing calendar – there’s little doubt that in our era, truly great players need first to be great for their clubs. Though football is no stranger to late bloomers – look at the careers of Jamie Vardy, Olivier Giroud, or Didier Drogba – and playing careers are unquestionably growing longer, Pulisic has been hyped since adolescence, which carries its own kind of psychological burden, and at 24, time may be running out for him to give full expression to his talent at club level. But for the next few weeks, the question of whether Pulisic can vindicate his country’s footballing potential and become truly “world class” does not really matter. The boy from the chocolate town needs only to be very good, and America will remember Qatar sweetly.