Pulisic, McKennie and Sargent: Common Threads

Pulisic

I enjoyed reading this article by Christian Pulisic, about missing out on the World Cup and his thoughts on American soccer.

Here’s a good paragraph:

The second thing I want to say here is that I’m not a prodigy — or a “wonderboy,” as some have put it. I was always, you know, a decent player growing up. And yes, I was born with a certain amount of so-called “natural ability.” But I also worked and sacrificed a lot to try to maximize what I was born with — which I think is important to point out. I think it’s important to make clear, you know, that the problem with American soccer … it isn’t talent. In fact, I’m sure there are kids who are going to be reading this article who are more talented at their age than I ever was.

While he says he came up in the American system, he does say that having a dual citizenship with Croatia got him to a European club 2 years earlier than he would have and he thinks those 2-year, from 16 to 18, are “everything”:

It’s the age where a player’s growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way — and where, with the right direction, a player can make their biggest leap in development by far.

I found his thoughts on American soccer a bit contradictory.

First, he addresses a common charge that “he’s barely American” with:

Until I was 16, I came up through the U.S. youth system. I did all of the camps, the academies, the residency programs, the travel teams, and everything else it had to offer. I’ll always be a part of that system, and I’ll always be indebted to it. Second of all, I think that’s just a dangerous attitude in general: Having a closed-minded view of what does or doesn’t constitute being an American. And I hope it’s an attitude that we can keep out of this conversation in the years to come.

But, then highlights a difference between the American and European programs he has experienced:

In the U.S. system, too often the best player on an under-17 team will be treated like a “star” — not having to work for the ball, being the focus of the offense at all times, etc. — at a time when they should be having to fight tooth and nail for their spot. In Europe, on the other hand, the average level of ability around you is just so much higher. It’s a pool of players where everyone has been “the best player,” and everyone is fighting for a spot — truly week in and week out. Which makes the intensity and humility that you need to bring to the field every day — both from a mental and physical perspective — just unlike anything that you can really experience in U.S. developmental soccer.

In this article, I think he oversimplifies his soccer experience. In a story linked in this post, he does credit his time England at age 6-7 for sparking his interest.

I think this is important. At a young age, he saw good soccer, firsthand, which is something most American kids won’t see until much later.

In this post, I point out that among American and European kids, there are those who want to rise to the top of their soccer bubbles, it’s just that the American bubble is so much smaller and insulated (e.g. being the best on your team in its age and competition level) whereas the European soccer bubble is more connected all the way to its first team of their club (e.g. kids see these first teamers from day 1 and work for 10 years to be able to make that first team at age 16 or 17).

Also left out of Pulisic’s piece, frequent trips Mark made with his Dad over the summer to European clubs — again reinforcing in his mind what good soccer looks like.

I think the charge that Pulisic is ‘barely American’ is exaggerated by Pulisic.

I believe the charge is that he was heavily influenced by his time in soccer-playing cultures. And, that’s true. Pulisic and his Dad has admitted as much elsewhere. It was consistent and regular from an early age and something that is not common among American soccer players.

I think he will help soccer in the US more if he continues to drive that point home.

McKennie

Another rising American start is Weston McKennie, currently playing for Schalke in the Bundesliga.

What’s his story? He spent 3 years between ages 6 and 9 playing soccer in Germany. This provides another example of someone being exposed to soccer playing culture at a young age.

Sargent

Another up-and-coming soccer star is Josh Sargent.

It’s not clear if he was immersed in a soccer-playing culture early on. But, both his parents, like Pulisic’s, were college players. So, he, at the very least, likely learned basic technical skills before he could form long-term memories.

But, I did enjoy this article, at FourFourTwo.com, which shared his Dad’s view of his making:

“I wish there was a recipe to make a pro soccer player, but I don’t know,” says Jeff Sargent, with a laugh, when asked what he tells others eager to know how his son honed his gifts. “Honestly, what I tell them is, it was Josh. Josh did it. He was born with a lot of talent and developed it. He worked very hard.

“Probably more than I would even want him to – I know some parents push their kids a lot, and I never had to push him. He was always getting me off the couch and making me go out and play with him. He was just that kind of kid. That’s something that was in Josh. I didn’t give that to him. He had that.”

Sargent will be joining a German Bundesliga fixture, Werder Bremen in January.

Common threads

Let’s recap some common threads among these rising stars:

  • Hard work — Yes, they have natural talent, but they all seem to have the innate drive to work hard to get better.
  • Early exposure to soccer culture in their life. They knew what good soccer looked like. They tried to climb to the top of that, rather than just be happy and complacent by being the best on their team.
  • All skipped college and the MLS to join teams in Germany’s top league. They can be as nice and polite about soccer in the U.S. as they want, but this says it all when 3 of the top prospects leave the U.S. soccer system behind.
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