Pulisic and soccer in the U.S.

The best American soccer player so far? Perhaps. At least the best attacking player we’ve seen in some time.

This post is more of a catch-all on the subject for me to help me retain some of the pieces of info collected from various sources and my thoughts.

Here’s a piece from 60 Minutes.

3Four3 Podcast interviewed Christian’s Dad early last year.

Here are some notables from the 60 Minutes piece:

(4:00) – Bruce Arena on Pulisic: “…you don’t think he’s an American. He looks like a natural on the field. He moves gracefully. He’s strong for his size. His speed is incredible. His first touch is good…this is a very talented young man.”

I think this is funny, because that means Americans aren’t known for looking natural on the field. But, as we will come to find out, there’s nothing natural about Pulisic’s skills. He has worked hard to develop them.

(5:20) – Christian’s Mom discusses his perfectionist tendencies from a young age. This may be an indication of his built in desire to work hard to perfect something.

(5:50) – “He became obsessed with soccer. [Video of young Pulisic juggling]. Before he started kindergarten, had mastered one of the sports most difficult skills — playing with both feet. He’d play for hours in the yard. When his parents finally coaxed him inside for dinner, he’d pass under this sign [“Confidence!!”], the one word gospel according to Mark.”

(7:20) – Christian’s Dad, Mark: “We didn’t put him in a structured environment all the time. He played for one team. He’d practice twice a week and play a game on the weekend.”

Reporter: “You hear the stories of parents doing thousands of miles of travel, taking their kids everywhere. Special coaches. Special diets. Backyard workouts.”

Mark: “Doesn’t work.”

This was strange coming just a few minutes after mentioning how Christian would play in the yard for hours. Seems like the reporter and parents forgot about that. And as we will see from other sources, he spent hours upon hours playing with kids in England. 

(10:00) – It shows Christian training in the FutBotNot — a room that pitches ball to a player and targets light up around the room for him to pass the ball to.

I thought this was funny. Certainly a decent training tool to help you get used to looking around, but Pulisic likely didn’t see this thing until well after he was good enough to make a top German first team.

From the podcast:

(6:00) – Mark describes Christian’s typical start in rec soccer at around 5. “He wasn’t that interested. He was more interested in the people on the sidelines.”

But, then they moved to England for a year because Christian’s Mom did a teacher exchange program. It sounds like Christian was around 6 or 7 when that happened. Mark: “Got a pretty big bump there, playing U8, did really well. You know, played every day after school on the playground with big kids in England.”

(7:50) – When did you notice he was starting to excel? Mark: “Pretty much right away. He was an athlete. So after that 7-8 years old, he was watching games all the time. In 7-8 in England he really wanted to watch and play everyday. So, even at that young age you see the bug already to start to creep into him.

Once you realized soccer was going to be something a little more for him, did you change your approach… Mark: “Yeah, it wasn’t like a lot of these idiot parents that scream at their kids all the time, you know. I was coaching him all the time, just tried to make sure he enjoyed it. Whether he played poorly, or didn’t work that hard, I just made a decision at an early age to let the game be about him and not about me. I look back on that now and that was probably the best thing I did, was just leaving him alone.

Overall thoughts:

Christian had early exposure to proper technique, which most US soccer players lack guidance on unless they happen to grow up in a soccer family. This would have likely put him well ahead of 95% of soccer players in an age 5 soccer program.

Here, Christian admits that living in a true soccer culture in England for a year when he was 7 sparked his interest and love in the game. From the article:

Yet Pulisic, who spent most of his childhood back home in the US, places a great emphasis on a year he spent in England back when he was seven.

As the American international told Sportsmail in the tunnel at Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park: ‘It’s a big reason where I am today.

‘A lot of people don’t realise but it really brought on my passion for the game. After school every day, I was just out for hours in the park, playing with my schoolmates.

‘That’s really where my love for the game started to come alive and that was a big part of my development.’

Christian’s advantages appear to include:

  • Growing up in a soccer family, which means early exposure to proper technique.
  • Natural athleticism.
  • Built-in desire to work hard.
  • An interest in the sport sparked by being immersed in the culture in England.
  • Hours on the playground during that time — with kids of all ages — learning the sport at a level that is is not widely known in the U.S., which is mostly concentrated in organized play.
  • Regular trips to some of the top clubs in the world that his Dad made over the summer.
  • He had the desire to learn to juggle at a young age — I’m not sure if that was inspired by his immersion in England or before that. That’s something that is not inherent in many U.S. soccer players.

Pulisic seems like a good kid with good parents. He’s a hard worker and deserves every bit of success he’s experiencing.

While Pulisic is American, his soccer roots are European.

I believe if the soccer culture was alive and well in the U.S., the U.S. could produce about 10 Pulisics each generation and probably 100 – 200 players that aren’t far behind him.

The U.S. lacks the culture to inspire those hours upon hours of after-school free play where skills get developed.

And, U.S. Soccer dictates a form of soccer that is closer to soccer’s close cousin, rugby, than it is to the modern game of soccer that is being played around the world.

I have these questions for Pulisic: 

Can you describe the games and culture where you played for hours upon hours on the playground after school?

What made it so fun that you could spend hours doing it? My experience with kids in the U.S. is that it’s like pulling teeth to get them to do anything soccer-related on their own.

Could you contrast that experience with experience in youth soccer in the US?

What was the club you played for in England like compared to clubs you played for in the U.S.?

Was it important that pickup games included a mix of ages? How did the older kids interact with the younger kids?

If you were to get more kids playing on their own, like U.S. kids play pickup basketball, how would you do it?

When did you decide that you wanted to learn to juggle and why?

Update: I forgot to mention, the German soccer culture Mark Pulisic describes in the podcast very much aligns with the description I found in the comment on another blog and reposted here.

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