When the U.S. national men’s soccer team faces Mexico, its biggest rival, in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier, all eyes are on its biggest hope: Christian Pulisic, the first international soccer standout the country has ever produced.
“It’s going to be a tough one down there in Mexico,” Pulisic told FOX Soccer. “But we really want some revenge on them from when they got us earlier this year. We’re really confident going into that game. We’re going to come out with a win there, too.”
Pulisic’s confidence is warranted. His coach calls him a natural, the 18-year-old’s teammates hail him as ahead of his time, and pundits praise him as not just the country’s best player, but on his way to being its best ever.
And all that might be understating him.
“If it stays on the same progression,” analyst Taylor Twellman said on ESPN, “you’re looking at the best United States national team player we’ve ever seen.”
That honorific is often reserved for Landon Donovan, or perhaps current keeper Tim Howard. But Pulisic already is excelling in the German league Bundesliga that Donovan failed to gain any traction in three different times. The way Pulisic is developing, it isn’t a question of where he ranks in the U.S. pantheon but of where he fits on the world landscape.
Sports Illustrated ranked the young Hershey, Pa., native 13th in its world Top 20 Under 20. His value, according to usually conservative Transfermarket.com, was a U.S.-best $13.4 million. For perspective, John Brooks was projected at $12.75 million and went for a U.S-record of nearly $22.5 million. Of players 19 and under, Pulisic was the eighth-most valuable in the world.
Yes, he is that good.
“He’s a special talent. Talk about Landon, he had incredible talent and he fulfilled it over a decade. Christian’s well on his way,” Howard said.
“I just think he’s ahead of his time. He gets the ball, he’s super comfortable on it. He’s never, ever panicking. You see it when he gets inside the box. He stands his defender up and the world is his oyster. He’s special. These guys don’t come around very often, so you have to enjoy it and savor it.”
Oh, the U.S. surely is enjoying Pulisic’s emergence as a game-changer. After they dropped their first two games in the Hexagonal — sinking to last place and seeing coach Jurgen Klinsmann fired — the 5-foot-8, 140-pound midfielder has lifted them with a deft first touch, quickness of thought and a knack for the jugular.
In his three games as coach, Bruce Arena has given Pulisic more responsibility, even switching to a diamond formation to get him closer to goal. Pulisic scored or assisted on seven of the team’s past eight goals, and got fouled to set up Clint Dempsey’s free kick for the eighth. The U.S. responded with two wins and a tie to move into the third and final automatic spot midway through qualifying.
“He’s having fun,” Arena said. “He’s a natural for the game. He sees the game very well and has good instincts on getting in good spots — especially his running off the ball, which is exceptional. … He’s certainly an exceptional talent.”
Pulisic showed that talent at Borussia Dortmund, where he moved in February 2015 at just 16 years old. He signed that summer and vaulted into the first team by age 17.
He had three goals and six assists this Bundesliga season, and added another score and assist in DFB Pokal (the German Cup). In the UEFA Champions League, he rose to the occasion with three assists and a goal, his tally against Benfica helping Dortmund through the round of 16.
He has been just as good for the U.S.
“Any time I feel like I made an impact on the game I’m really happy,” Pulisic said. “But I’m just honored that I get to go out there and be given the chance to play.”
Pulisic’s confidence was buoyed by scoring both goals in Thursday’s 2-0 qualifying win over Trinidad & Tobago. It is unwavering despite facing choking smog and altitude in Mexico City, and a daunting crowd of 87,000 at Azteca, where the U.S. never has won a qualifier and managed just two draws.
“It’s going to take a lot,” Pulisic admits. “But I think with the guys we have and the confidence we have, there’s no reason why we can’t do it.”