One of the experiences that I cherish the most about my involvement in the “beautiful game” as a coach and administrator is the exchange program that a couple of my English friends and a few of us on this side of the pond began almost 20 years ago.
For many years now, we have hosted middle school-aged soccer players from near the Manchester area in England for 10 days of competitive games, informative tours, seemingly endless shopping, and probably most importantly, time spent with the host families.
In one of the first years of the exchange, our guests came during their Easter break that happened to be the same year that Freddy Adu made his professional debut for D.C. United.
We grabbed a large section worth of group tickets for the game, and the players, coaches, and host families all made the trek down to our nation’s capital to see the future of U.S. soccer play in front of a, well, close-to-sold-out lower deck at RFK Stadium.
For those of you not familiar with Adu, in 2004 at the ripe young age of 14, he was designated the “Future of U.S. Soccer,” with some even making the absurd claim that he was the “next Pele.”
He hit the scene with a bang, becoming the youngest player ever in U.S. sport history to sign a professional contract. A couple of weeks after the game we saw where he became the youngest player to play in a professional soccer game, he also became the youngest scorer in MLS history when he notched his first professional goal.
Thirteen years later, it seems that all of those prognosticators may have been right.
Adu’s professional career since that amazing rookie season has been a reflection of the U.S. men’s national team. Peaking at 15, Adu has since played for 13 professional teams in eight different countries. The USMNT was sitting pretty high when Adu broke on the scene, sitting at their highest world ranking at No. 6 in the world. Since that peak, the men’s team has fallen as low as No. 34 in 2011 before settling in at No. 24 — their current standing — yet still not good enough to make it in to the World Cup.
Don’t get me wrong, just like the men’s team delivering some very exciting moments on the pitch since that time including a strong appearance in the Japan/South Korea World Cup of 2002 where they finished eighth, in addition to the honors mentioned earlier, Adu played in 59 games for the United States in the under-23 and younger teams and 17 “caps” for the USMNT in international play.
Enter Christian Pulisic, the 2017 United States Men’s National Player of the Year.
Like Adu, Pulisic hit the national stage at a very young age. But the resemblances pretty much end there.
Sure, like Adu, Pulisic signed his professional contract at 16 years old and after showing that he was a man among boys, pulled up to play with the first team.
One of the major differences is the level of play — Adu with D.C. United and the MLS versus Pulisic with Borussia Dortmund of the famed German Bundesliga. Pulisic was the youngest non-German and the fourth youngest player of all time to score in the Bundesliga.
Other major difference is in the impact Pulisic has made representing the U.S. on the world stage. Since leaving the U-17 team where he served as captain and scored 20 goals in 34 appearances, Pulisic became the youngest American to player a World Cup qualifier, the youngest player to score for the U.S. in the modern era, the youngest to score in World Cup qualifier, and the youngest player to score a brace — two goals — in an international game.
In the failed attempt to reach Russia 2018, Pulisic scored four goals against Trinidad & Tobago (two games) and Panama, doing his best to lead his team to the Promised Land. But in the end it just wasn’t enough.
His performance in those final games came after establishing himself as the player to defend which drew resources from the opponent’s defenders to minimize his impact on the game, often knocking him to the ground or swiping out his legs.
Already Pulisic has gained the trust and admiration of his teammates, even the older players who he and his classmates are quietly pushing off the pitch. With the players coming up the ranks from the U23 and younger teams, it sounds almost ridiculous to say. But with 19-year-old Christian Pulisic leading the future of our men’s national soccer team, in the lyrics of Timbuk3 in a song by the same name, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”