America’s #10: Why Christian Pulisic Is Inheriting More Than Just American Hopes
by 8 November 2016, 10:00 AM
American soccer fans have incredibly high expectations of Christian Pulisic. If his choice of jersey number means anything, he won’t be shying away.
Technically speaking, jersey numbers in team sports do not mean much. Some professional sports leagues such as the NFL have actual rules about which positions wear which numbers, but for the most part these one- or two-digit symbols simply exist to help officials easily identify and distinguish between players. After all, the goal in any team sport is team success; the logo on the front of the jersey should mean more than the number on the back.
However, teams are made up of individuals. Collective achievement may be the overall objective, but the capacity for individual expression remains one of the most beautiful aspects of sports in general. We cherish the banners, rings, and glory that championships bring, but we tend to remember the players that won them more vividly. This holds true especially for that special class of players we call ‘the greatest.’ It includes names like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Pelé, all connected in that their talent and their dominance transcends the teams they played for and the titles they won.
Nowhere is this effect more evident than in the theoretically mundane world of jersey numbers. Jordan, Gretzky and Pelé, each widely considered the best player of all time in their respective sports, left lasting legacies that will forever be tied to the number stitched into the back of their jersey. Because of Michael Jordan, the number 23 now feels like hallowed territory in the basketball world. Current NBA superstar Lebron James serves as the most notable example of this, as he has a complicated but intriguing history of wearing (and not wearing) #23 at different times in his career, undoubtedly influenced by his knowledge of its association with Jordan. The same sort of situation exists in the world of hockey for the number 99, which is retired league-wide in the NHL out of respect for ”The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky.
Pelé began a storied lineage of stars choosing to wear #10 — Lemyr Martins/Placar
Unlike hockey and basketball, soccer has traditional associations between players’ jersey numbers and their position on the field: goalkeepers wear #1, strikers wear #9, etc. While these historic designations still do factor somewhat into number selection today, the old system has largely given way to more freedom of choice on the part of the players. This change becomes most significant in regard to the number ten, worn by legendary Brazilian striker Pelé. His prolific scoring ability, masterful dribbling, and overall charisma forged a specific identity around #10 in soccer circles. Before kids all across the globe competed for the privilege of wearing #23 on the hardwood and #99 on the ice, they were fighting to claim #10 on the pitch.
As the years have gone by since Pelé’s era, it has become standard procedure for the best, most creative attacking player on a soccer team to wear the number ten. Argentina’s Diego Maradona, France’s Zinedine Zidane, and Brazil’s Ronaldinho are just three examples of all-time great playmakers and scorers who wore #10 proudly. This numeric legacy continues today as well. Lionel Messi, an Argentine forward for FC Barcelona who many say could even eclipse Pelé once all is said and done, dons the number ten shirt for both his country and Barca as well. Suffice it to say, those who wear #10 on a soccer field inherit a tradition of the highest order, a responsibility to be the best player on their team.
Christian Pulisic is the American heir to this tradition. At 18-years-old the Hershey, Pennsylvania native has emerged over the last year or so as the premier prospect for the United States Men’s National Team, for whom he currently wears (you guessed it) the number ten. He currently plays for German club Borussia Dortmund who regularly contend for trophies both in their domestic league and in European competition, and has been linked with a possible transfer to the likes of Liverpool and even FC Barcelona. To say that the level of expectation surrounding Pulisic’s development is ‘high’ would be like referring to the feeling of stepping on a Lego brick as ‘unpleasant.’ The United States has never had a Maradona, a Messi, or a Pelé, but now many see Pulisic as our best chance yet.
Freddy Adu, the archetype of unfulfilled American soccer potential — http://colgadosporelfutbol.com
American soccer fans have ridden this sort of hype-train before with young talents. Freddy Adu stands out as the most notorious instance. The midfielder began playing professionally with D.C. United in MLS at the ridiculous age of 14, inspiring all sorts of hope that he would become the face of US soccer for years. But the play never came close to matching the potential, and Adu slid into mediocrity and journeyman status. He now plays for the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the North American Soccer League (the effective second-tier in American professional soccer), his 12th team in 12 years.
Adu does not stand alone on the list of American soccer letdowns, though. Forward Landon Donovan may be the nation’s greatest player to date, but he failed more than once to succeed for any length of time in soccer’s biggest club stage, Europe. Striker Jozy Altidore’s struggle with injuries and questionable finishing in big games keeps him from being thought of as a true success story as well. Point being, the USMNT has had its heart broken before. Yet its fans have fallen for Pulisic nonetheless. So far, though, all the anticipation surrounding the young attacking midfielder has been more than justified.
Pulisic’s statistical record thus far is impressive both for club and country. In nine caps for the USMNT the attacking midfielder has scored three goals and assisted two, despite coming off the bench in seven of those nine games. For a kid who is only a few months removed from being too young to vote, this type of production at the international level says a lot about both his talent and his maturity, especially given the frequent lineup rotation and formation adjustment that the USMNT has gone through in the past year or so.
Pulisic’s form for Dortmund this season has been a pleasant surprise as well. Manager Thomas Tuchel has given Pulisic plenty of opportunities to prove himself this season, and the young attacking midfielder’s performance continues to thrive. In 8 German Bundesliga appearances this season the American has two goals, four assists, nine chances created, and a pass-completion rate of 77%. Pulisic also has started three of Dortmund’s four UEFA Champions league games this fall, coming in as a substitute in the fourth, and registering one assist. Playing for a German powerhouse club, and making an impact while doing so, Pulisic already seems well-suited to the elite play of Europe’s top leagues and tournaments.
Here’s the interesting part: what sets Pulisic apart from all the American disappointments of recent memory is not his statistical productivity, but the way he plays the game. Specifically, how un-American he is when he’s on the field.
The biggest obstacle to American soccer success is not a talent gap between us and the world, it’s the fact that the sport has only been half-heartedly embraced in this country until relatively recently. When the USMNT plays teams like Brazil, Germany, or Spain, they are dueling against nations whose people live and breathe this sport. They are competing against countries whose schoolchildren can name each of their national team’s #10’s since their parents were born. The United States simply does not have any real tradition and culture to draw upon when it comes to soccer.
The beauty of watching Pulisic is how he makes you feel like you’re watching someone from a country with just such an environment. American players tend to be phenomenal athletes, with capable technical ability, but who lack the instinctual creativity and vision to take their game from ‘good’ to ‘great.’ Pulisic stands out from those who have come before him precisely because of his ingenious playmaking, and his ability to anticipate the next dribble, pass, and shot quicker than those around him. He’s not playing the typical American brand of paint-by-numbers soccer. He’s creating. He’s playing like a #10.
Will Christian Pulisic be the next Pelé? Probably not. But that’s not an appropriate question to be asking of him at this stage in his career. The more interesting question is this: can he thrive as America’s number ten both at home and abroad? Forecasting the growth of athletic talent to fruition is an impossible venture, but all signs point to Pulisic as being the most well-equipped American player to succeed on the game’s biggest stages. Perhaps even more importantly, he now finds himself in a position to inspire the next generation of United States youth players to refresh their nation’s soccer stereotype. Hopefully the day will come where American children want to wear #10 because Christian Pulisic wore it. I believe it very well might.
[statistics courtesy of squawka.com and espnfc.com]
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