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.

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.