Over the past few decades, the United States has produced several footballers who have gone on to become stars in their own right.
The country has watched several top players go on to play in some of the world’s best leagues, becoming regular contributors for clubs that are among the most recognizable in the sport.
But there has always been talk of that next step. While there have been plenty of American stars, there has never truly been a star that is American, and, yes, there is a difference.
Every country has its own set of heroes but, for a player to truly transcend, to earn recognition among the best the sport has to offer, they need to take things a step further.
That day, that next step, appears to be occurring right before our eyes.
From the moment Christian Pulisic broke through at Borussia Dortmund, there was hope that, eventually, he would become the world-class player that the U.S., and clubs around the world, had been begging for.
There was hope, albeit cautiously-optimistic hope, that Pulisic could be the first U.S. men’s national team player to truly emerge on the global stage and be known for something more than just being an American.
Over the last few months, Pulisic has done just that. He has become Chelsea’s most important attacking player and, since the resumption of the Premier League in June, there are maybe only one or two players that can say they have enjoyed a better return to action than the 21-year-old.
Pulisic has emerged from lockdown looking like a bona fide star, one who is good enough to dominate in the Premier League and young enough to add credence to the thought that this may just be the beginning.
“In the first couple days, it is normal for a new guy that it is tough, not everyone is going to be your best friend straight away,” Pulisic told Sirius XM recently. “That’s OK. But I really felt once I was able to show myself on the field that I could play, and that’s when guys really started to say, ‘This guy is good. He can hang with us. We are going to treat him with a little more respect.'”
Since the restart, Pulisic has started to earn that respect and that recognition. He is no longer the kid from Hershey or the hot prospect at Dortmund. He is no longer a player of potential who someday, maybe, could thrive as a superstar on a top team.
These days, Pulisic is Chelsea’s main attraction and a global star in the making.
Signed by the Blues for a whopping £57 million ($72 million), Pulisic was a big name before he ever arrived at Stamford Bridge, such is the appetite for the sport in America and the desire to see a USMNT star thrive at the top level of the game.
Much is made about America’s soccer culture, or, for some, lack thereof, but there is a reason that big clubs are frequently investing time and resources into developing their brands stateside. That reason is that there is unmatched potential in the U.S., a country that is continuing to fall more and more in love with the game, and the Premier League in particular.
But, despite early concerns that the push to sign Pulisic was one merely based on marketing and shirt sales, those perceptions have changed. The indecisiveness in the final third is now gone. The doubts stemming from a difficult start to the season have been erased in emphatic fashion. And, given his form since the restart, it seems as if Chelsea may have a bargain on their hands.
After the return of the Premier League, Pulisic provided four goals and two assists and won two penalties. Having appeared timid and bereft of confidence during his initial months in west London, Pulisic returned from the coronavirus-enforced break playing like someone who belonged.
The world has taken notice. Since the restart, Pulisic has drawn frequent comparisons to the man he replaced, Eden Hazard.
The Belgium winger, by any measure, is one of the most dynamic widemen in Premier League history, a truly world-class talent who, despite his poor start to life at Real Madrid, has long been seen as one of the world’s best players.
Pulisic, meanwhile, is getting there. It takes time to build the kind of resume and highlight reel of a player such as Hazard, but there are also small pieces of evidence you can find along the way.
It is the shoulder drop against Benjamin Mendy that left the Manchester City defender in the dust. It is the perfectly hit assist to Tammy Abraham at Anfield that few players in the world can pick out. And there is the patience and poise of Pulisic’s goal against Liverpool, one that only furthered the conversations surrounding him.
“I didn’t have any exact expectations for him,” Lampard said recently. “When he came at the start of the season, he needed a break and he had to get himself acclimatized to the league, it is physical and it is tough for some of the greatest players we have seen in this league from the beginning.
“He got to grips with it quickly and he is playing very well. He got injured at the start of January but now he looks sharp and hungry. The quality is there for everyone to see at the moment.
“He is going past players, he is moving at pace and he always works very hard for the team in all senses so I am very happy for him. I think considering his age, what could become of him, I am very, very pleased. We have got ourselves a very, very good player and he can get even better.”
Those comparisons and those words are major compliments. Never have we seen an American player at the center of these types of discussions, and that is not to downplay the impact that players like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard have had on the game in recent years.
Donovan was perhaps the most talented American player ever before Pulisic came along, but there will always be that question of how he would have fared with a longer spell in Europe.
Clint Dempsey is the most tenacious player the U.S. has produced and earned everything he got in the Premier League but, while he was great for Fulham, he never carried a team at the level of Chelsea.
And while Howard became a starter with Manchester United, an icon for Everton and a record-breaking World Cup star, he was never quite regarded as being at a level this high.
Those three names, though, have done things that Pulisic has not. All three have shined at a World Cup, with that image of a tearful Pulisic on that field in Couva after defeat to Trinidad and Tobago still etched in many’s memories.
Until the day Pulisic steps on the field at the World Cup, that moment will haunt him, as the failures of the 2018 qualifying cycle likely robbed him of the chance to become an even bigger star by taking the field in Russia with the world watching.
Those three have also displayed incredible consistency, shining for nearly a decade for both club and country. But, even if this is Pulisic’s final form, even if he never improves from this moment forward, the winger has all of the ability to do those things and more.
For years, America was cautiously optimistic that someday there would be a player this good, one to lead the way in the next step in the country’s soccer evolution. Pulisic is that player.
Since his breakthrough, there has been a fear of anointing him too quickly. There has been a fear that something could somehow go wrong, that he would never truly turn his potential and talent into something tangible. American fans have been down this route before, declaring a player as their first true star before seeing them flame out in spectacular fashion.
But, this time around, this is not the American fans’ point to make. The rest of the world is saying it for them: Pulisic is something special.
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