Of all the tales told of the USA’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the most haunting depicts Christian Pulisic, after the fateful draw away to Trinidad & Tobago, in the showers “fully clothed, with his hands in his face just crying,” as Dax McCarty described it. Only Pulisic knows what was going through his mind in that moment, but on some level he, as his country’s best player, surely felt a level of responsibility for American soccer’s biggest, most humiliating failure in a generation.
Of course, Pulisic is one of the few US players who warrant a free pass for what happened in World Cup qualification. Not to go over old ground, but he was a leader, the kind Bruce Arena’s side could have used more of. Still, Pulisic’s tears in the showers were revealing. They painted the picture of a figure burdened by expectation and the pressure that comes with being American soccer’s first male superstar.
This status was confirmed with Pulisic’s €64m move to Chelsea last week. John Brooks had previously been the most expensive player in American soccer history, joining Wolfsburg for €20m back in 2017. Pulisic’s transfer fee more than tripled that record. Never before has US soccer been so close to having the global icon it longs for.
Therein lies a paradox for the American game. The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup opened up chasms within US soccer, with a keenly contested, sometimes toxic, presidential election focusing on a fractured youth infrastructure. The establishment candidate, Carlos Cordeiro, ultimately won, seeing off more radical outsiders who promised fundamental change, but the debate over American soccer’s future remains.
But just how bad are American youth soccer’s problems when Chelsea have just made Pulisic the third-most expensive player in their history? On top of this, Tyler Adams, the teenage midfielder who made such an impression in MLS last season, made the move to RB Leipzig last month, US international goalkeeper Zack Steffen signed for Manchester City and US Under-20 centre-back Chris Richards joined Bayern Munich from FC Dallas this week.
Then there’s Weston McKennie, the defensive midfielder who helped Schalke to a second-place finish in his breakout season, while Timothy Weah has turned heads with some of his performances for Paris-Saint Germain, and may join Celtic. If American soccer has a youth problem, then it is doing a good job of masking it.
That’s the thing, though. Masking is exactly what these high-profiles are. They mustn’t be taken as a vindication of the ‘pay-to-play’ culture that exists at youth levels of the American game, of the divisions between organisations, associations and federations all with different aims and ambitions or of the US’s refusal to participate in Fifa’s solidarity payments scheme which would have seen Pulisic’s youth team, the PA Classics, receive around $540,000 as part of his transfer to Chelsea.
When it comes to youth development, American soccer, in general, attempts to occupy a space between the club-led grassroots philosophy favoured in Europe and the collegial approach of traditional US sports. Until soccer in the States picks one approach over the other, the same issues will recur.
American soccer could do with opening itself up, with becoming a bit more European, particularly when it comes to youth development. It’s admirable that so much faith continues to be shown in the college system, giving players an education to fall back on if they don’t make it as professionals, but that faith puts American soccer players at a disadvantage from a young age.
Some may argue, with good reason, that European soccer fails its young players as people, allowing so many to drop out of the game with few qualifications. But if American soccer wants to catch up, to close the gap at grassroots level, then it must change its entire outlook. If the objective is to produce the best soccer players possible, the current set-up is insufficient. US Soccer has become a target for those with an axe to grind over youth development in the States, but there’s more to the problem than just a fracture in governance. It’s ideological too.
European soccer’s youth approach might be wasteful, maybe even irresponsible, but it cultivates talent en masse in a way the US game doesn’t. Had Pulisic stayed in America rather than making the move to Germany as a 14-year-old, coming through the NCAA system and into the MLS draft, it’s likely he would be making his breakthrough only now. Instead, he has played three seasons in the Bundesliga, captained his country and made a mega-money move to an elite Premier League club all by the age of 20.
Pulisic bristles at the notion that he succeeded in spite of US soccer, not because of it, but there’s no denying he is an exceptional case. If he were the norm, if he was a true reflection of soccer in the States, the American game wouldn’t have suffered the existential crisis it did in 2018. The deep sense of malaise would have shifted by now. A €64m transfer to a Premier League giant might seem like cause for US soccer to celebrate. Instead, it holds up a mirror to a highly dysfunctional soccer nation that has succeeded only in producing a €64m anomaly.