In the leadup to the U.S. men’s national team’s critical World Cup qualifier tonight against Honduras, the usual and deserved attention has been predictably focused on Christian Pulisic, who, if you somehow still need an introduction, is the young American phenom lighting it up for Borussia Dortmund abroad and inspiring his countrymen at home.
Pulisic is the real deal. He’s everything you want in a winger—creative and quick, with a soft first touch and deft anticipation, capable of doing stuff like this against some of the stiffest competition in the whole world. He’s also already established himself as a shiny, new, indispensable cog in the rusty, old national team machine. Last May, he became the youngest-ever player to score for the USMNT at 17.
As we have been saying for months, Pulisic isn’t some unrealized talent waiting to make good on a massive reservoir of potential; he’s already exceptional. If he’s not the face of American soccer now, he will be soon. Cue the worn out comparisons to American soccer’s old face, Landon Donovan. This time, it’s coming from the USMNT coach himself.
Bruce Arena said yesterday that Pulisic “has a long way to go before he gets to stand next to Landon,” per ESPN. He continued:
“In Landon we saw a player who had a tremendous career at both club and international levels, and Christian is just starting. We don’t know what it’s going to look like 10 years down the road, but he certainly at this age he reminds me a lot of Landon.”
The comparison isn’t too crazy at first blush, but when when you really think about it, it’s actually bizarre. Pulisic’s ceiling isn’t that he might one day, if everything breaks right, ascend to the same heights as Donovan. By even the most conservative projections, Pulisic should develop into a much better player than Donovan ever was.
The only reason to compare the two in terms of aptitude is that they’re both Americans, and that thus far Donovan has been the standard-bearer for American soccer excellence. In that way, it’s a little like seeing an 17-year-old LeBron James and comparing him to the basketball greats to have come out of Ohio. “Boy, this LeBron kid is really good, and who knows, with hard work, he might even get up there with Jim Jackson!”
Again, the Pulisic-Donovan stuff isn’t totally out there. Donovan was an exciting and extremely good player for the USMNT, and a veritable icon of U.S. soccer, which is what Pulisic aspires to be. He and Pulisic’s career paths are somewhat similar: they both skipped college to join German teams, and debuted for the national team at young ages. And their games aren’t all that different either, both creative attacking types who like to score.
The problem here is that to compare Pulisic to Donovan is to limit him. Pulisic might already be better than Donovan was at his peak, and if he were to schlep over to MLS right now and never improve much, he’d own all of Donovan’s records in a few seasons. Even Donovan has been quick to shout—repeatedly—that Pulisic has already far outpaced him. Just yesterday, he told Yahoo Sports that “Christian is miles ahead of where I was at that age.”
“I think we have similar qualities when I watch him,” added Donovan, the all-time leading scorer of the United States men’s national team. “But the difference for me is that mentally he’s been exposed to things that I hadn’t been exposed to yet at that age and it has clearly helped him. So I think the future for him is incredibly bright.”
Pulisic’s future is bright, but just because the brightest light America has thus far produced in the sport is Donovan’s doesn’t mean Pulisic’s shine should be held to the same standard. If Pulisic only ends up being as good as Donovan, it will be a disappointment.
But maybe Arena was just trying to manage expectations when he downplayed Pulisic’s success. (He wouldn’t be the first of Pulisic’s coaches to do so.) The hopes USMNT fans have pinned on this kid are indeed enormous, they just aren’t Donovan-shaped. And so at this point the Donovan comparisons are fairly meaningless. Pulisic—already media savvy, too—ever so gently nudged the conversation away from the Donovan talk yesterday.
“[Donovan] was an idol of mine. It’s obviously an honor, but I’m my own player as well, so I’m just trying to do it for me.”