There have been, historically, two kinds of standout players in United States men’s soccer history. The first are good American players — the guys who make a career out of being really good in MLS, move over to a second-division European side, maybe even get a World Cup or two under their belts as a reliable contributor for the United States men’s national team. There is no shame in this, as you can have a very solid career and make a ton of money and be in the top fraction of a percent of humans to ever kick a soccer ball by being a good American soccer player. There’s also a bit of a misconception that this is a knock. It is not, as there are plenty of good footballers of English and Spanish and German descent, too, who never turn into world-class players.
The second classification: good players who are American. While the entire USWNT is comprised of world-class talent, this is a more rare distinction among the men’s team — think Landon Donovan, or Clint Dempsey, or any number of goalkeepers (Tim Howard, Brad Friedel) who could cut it in one of the top leagues on earth. France, for example, is really good at producing these sorts of guys. The United States, well, not so much, although there are a handful of indications that we’re getting to a point where we’ll see this caliber of player a bit more frequently.
Dudes like Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and other members of the nascent American “Golden Generation” are near the top of this list. None of these players are at the top of said list, though, as that distinction goes to Christian Pulisic. The 21-year-old Hershey, Pa. native plays for Chelsea, commanded $73 million on the transfer market when he jumped to the English giants, and has already earned the distinction of being the best player to ever wear the red, white, and blue.
This article was inspired in large part by the fact that Pulisic is in the midst of an absolutely torrid run of form for Chelsea since English football has come back from its COVID-19 hiatus. The Blues have played five Premier League matches and one FA Cup tilt in that period — Pulisic came off the bench against Aston Villa in the first match, scored, and has started every match since. This has included two more goals, one against Manchester City and one on Tuesday against Crystal Palace, and a whole lot of extremely impressive performances aside from the times he has found the back of the net.
There are a whole host of things that wingers at a club with aspirations as lofty as Chelsea are tasked with doing over the course of a match. Goalscoring is, obviously, a gigantic aspect of this, and in recent matches, Pulisic has done an admirable job. His goal against Aston Villa came by result of something that was discussed on the most recent episode of the Scuffed podcast: his ability to arrive in the box.
Against Crystal Palace, we got a glimpse of Pulisic using his weaker left fit to beat Vicente Guaita with a thunderous, upper 90 effort.
— #MyPLSummer (@NBCSportsSoccer) July 7, 2020
Pulisic being a clinical ambidextrous finisher who can put his left foot through a ball like this is a welcomed development — it would be for any winger — but with his goal against Manchester City, Pulisic showed off what has long been his best quality: making stuff happen with the ball at his feet. Pulisic pounced on a mistake, showing off incisiveness and burst, dribbled past a pair of defenders, and slotted in a tidy right footed strike past Ederson, one of the world’s best keepers.
Finishing is a tool that good wingers need in their toolbox. Pulisic showed some glimpses of this during his time at Borussia Dortmund and more than glimpses with the USMNT. With Chelsea, it’s again mostly been glimpses — it took 10 matches for him to score a hat trick against Burnley, and while growing pains were expected as someone who jumped to the best league on earth as a 20-year-old, a signing with his hefty price tag and the expectations of replacing recently-departed star Eden Hazard is expected to produce. One of the best players in the world and a club legend in London, Hazard was sold to Real Madrid last summer, and almost immediately, questions began popping up about Pulisic being his successor.
Now, soccer is a sport where like-for-like comparisons can be tricky, as the roles of players in nominally the same positions are constantly changing due to managers, the other 10 players on the pitch, all sorts of things. For wingers, though, the ability to make things happen in 1 v. 1 situations and the ability to create chances — whether they’re scoring or setting up their teammates — are usually going to be paramount. Hazard was quite good at both things, and so far, Pulisic has shown a whole lot of aptitude in these areas, too.
Let’s start with chance creation. An important thing to know about soccer is that chance creation does not necessarily mean that chances are converted into goals. This is the general idea behind expected goals (xG): to steal American Soccer Analysis’ explanation, xG “are the number of goals that can be expected to be scored based on where and how a shot was taken.” In simpler terms, a player is more likely to convert a chance from two yards away from goal than they are 30 yards away from goal, even if it tap-ins go astray and bangers from another county are converted. What xG tries to do is quantify the likelihood of chances going in, regardless of whether they found the back of the net.
Pulisic is already quite good at creating chances. Per StatsBomb, Pulisic’s non-penalty xG+xA per 90 minutes in Premier League tilts — basically how many chances is he creating over one match without penalties factored into the equation — is 0.64. He has not played quite enough to qualify for the Premier League leaders in this statistic, but if he did, he would register the eighth-highest npxG+xA per 90 in England. Six of the seven players ahead of him suit up for Liverpool and Manchester City, while the seventh is his striker, Tammy Abraham. American footballers have been good in the Premier League in the past — Dempsey was tied for fourth in the league with 17 goals for Fulham in 2011-12 — but no Yank has been this productive for a Champions League side. (Dempsey’s Fulham team that year, while solid, came in ninth.)
Where Pulisic has always shined is his ability to dribble, particularly in 1 v. 1 situations. An example from Tuesday’s match comes at the 1:22 mark of the below video, as he gets the ball on the left wing, sheds one defender, then picks up a foul as he dribbles past another.
His aptitude with the ball at his feet is nothing new — we saw it with Dortmund and with the national team plenty of times. He’s also very, very good at recognizing when a window is opening and pouncing. This is something he’s done well, as we saw against Bayern Munich in 2017, and it was put on display with his goal against Manchester City. That’s a skill a player can learn, but it is much, much better for someone to inherently have this and refine it — think of it like a linebacker who just knows how and when to attack the line of scrimmage, or a shooting guard/small forward who has been good at moving off the ball their entire life.
There is still plenty of room, though, for Pulisic to improve. While he is growing as a passer, his first instinct is still to go, go, go with the ball at his feet. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he can be a ball-stopper and, in turn, has a bit of a propensity for being wasteful. Pulisic is 19th in times being dispossessed among Premier League players (57), and among 216 qualifying players in the league, Pulisic is 154th in percentage of dribbles successfully completed (54.7 percent). For the former, he has the second-fewest touches among players in the top-20, and for the latter, there’s only one player (Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling, 45.7 percent) who plays forward for a top-four side and has a lower percentage.
Nor is Pulisic the best passer on earth, although there is optimism; his completion percentage has ticked up this year, he’s become a much better long passer, and his number of key passes (which are passes that lead to a shot) is near his career-high in league play, which was set in a year where he played 834 more minutes. Think of him like you would a 21-year-old point guard, one who is capable of doing the absolutely breathtaking stuff, but who still needs to grow into and fine-tune their mastery of their position. They turn the ball over more than you’d like and can get tunnel vision in spots, but as they year goes on, they more and more frequently remind you why they’re such a promising youngster.
It is impossible to know exactly what the future holds for Pulisic. There is an outcome where opposing clubs, now knowing exactly what he is capable of doing and the tendencies that make him dangerous, put the clamps on him and he’s not capable of consistently looking like one of the best wingers in England. The good news for him with this regard is that Chelsea’s attack next year has the potential to be among the world’s best — they’re adding RB Leipzig goal-scoring maestro Timo Werner and Ajax talisman Hakim Ziyech, and rumors indicate that Bayer Leverkusen attacking midfielder Kai Havertz could end up in London.
Even if Havertz doesn’t come, Werner and Ziyech are tremendous players, and as we’ve seen with Liverpool and Manchester City, opposing teams cannot focus too much on stopping one member of a blistering attacking trio because the other two guys will shred them to pieces. This bodes well for a player with Pulisic’s skill set, as he could find himself in plenty of 1 v. 1s and situations where chance creation is frequent. He assuredly won’t play every game — Werner playing on the left and Abraham lining up at striker is a dangerous option at Chelsea manager Frank Lampard’s disposal — but unless he hits an absolutely abysmal run of form or he misses time due to injury (something that has been a problem at points in his career), starts and minutes should be plentiful.
The United States has never produced a men’s player who is discussed in these terms. For every Dempsey or Donovan, there are handfuls of perfectly respectable players who just aren’t quite at the level of the Premier League or the Bundesliga. But even among that upper echelon of Americans, a player being a productive and promising contributor to the extent that Pulisic is on a top side in a top-flight league, let alone at his age, is unheard of. The “Golden Generation” talk could end up being premature, because none of us possess a crystal ball, but in the context of the men’s national team, even if he retires by the time you finish reading this sentence, there has never been anyone at the level of the precocious Pennsylvanian.