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The Great American Soccer Hope Is Here (For Real, This Time)

There have been roughly 100 million males born in America in the past 50 years. Among that total, there appears to finally be one who can safely be called a legitimate international soccer star.

Eighteen-year-old Christian Pulisic of the U.S. men’s national team scored twice on Thursday night in Colorado, lifting the USMNT to a critical World Cup qualifying win over Trinidad and Tobago. With the game tied 0-0 in the 52nd minute, Pulisic’s smart run and cool finish put the U.S. up a goal, and 10 minutes later the teenager slipped in behind the defense to double the lead. This has become typical for the Americans. Against Panama, Pulisic held off two defenders in the box to get free and feed Clint Dempsey for the USMNT’s lone goal. He scored one and assisted two in the 6-0 romp over Honduras. All told, over its crucial last three competitive matches, the U.S. has scored nine goals and Pulisic has scored or assisted six of them.1

The team that has never quite had a scoring force to build around now seems to have a one-man army. As a result, the USMNT has nearly climbed out of the hole it dug under former coach Jurgen Klinsmann when it lost its first two matches in the “Hex,” as the North and Central American qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup in Russia is known. With two wins and a draw in its last three qualifiers, the U.S. has raised its chances for making the tournament from 60 percent to 83 percent percent.

Evidence of Pulisic’s quality is not limited to matches against Caribbean nations and middling Central American challengers. He has proved himself for German power Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. This past season, Pulisic scored four goals and assisted eight in the Bundesliga and Champions League. And there’s good reason to believe these numbers were no fluke or merely a function of a hot finishing run. By expected goals, a statistical estimate of the quality of scoring chances, Pulisic’s shots and passes created chances with an estimated value of roughly five expected goals (xG) and seven expected assists (xA). Among nonstrikers with at least 1,500 minutes played, Pulisic was eighth in the Bundesliga in xG + xA per 90 minutes, slightly behind Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa.

EXPECTED PER 90 MINS
PLAYER CLUB GOALS ASSISTS GOALS + ASSISTS
1 Arjen Robben Bayern Munich 0.39 0.36 0.75
2 Ousmane Dembele Borussia Dortmund 0.26 0.47 0.72
3 Shinji Kagawa Borussia Dortmund 0.29 0.41 0.70
4 Franck Ribery Bayern Munich 0.26 0.37 0.63
5 Emil Forsberg RB Leipzig 0.18 0.43 0.61
6 Paul-Georges Ntep Wolfsburg 0.25 0.28 0.54
7 Douglas Costa Bayern Munich 0.19 0.34 0.53
8 Christian Pulisic Borussia Dortmund 0.22 0.30 0.52
9 Marco Fabian Eintracht Frankfurt 0.31 0.13 0.43
10 Kerem Demirbay Hoffenheim 0.16 0.25 0.41
11 Salomon Kalou Hertha BSC 0.21 0.19 0.40
12 Joshua Kimmich Bayern Munich 0.31 0.09 0.40
13 Nicolai Muller Hamburg 0.26 0.13 0.39
14 Raphael Guerreiro Borussia Dortmund 0.24 0.15 0.39
15 Thiago Alcantara Bayern Munich 0.21 0.16 0.37
Pulisic was one of the most dangerous players in Germany

Statistics for the 2016-17 season.

Source: OPTA

The more advanced numbers show that the young American is not limited to shooting, either. For the Panama goal, Pulisic had to beat two defenders in close quarters. His ability to break a defense by winning one-on-ones helps his team create chances even when Pulisic doesn’t get the goal himself. With 72 successful take-ons (beating a defender in an open-field contest), Pulisic was fifth among Bundesliga players in take-ons per 90 minutes, just ahead of Bayern Munich’s world-class veteran wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.

And last night against Trinidad and Tobago, Pulisic scored twice after runs off the ball into dangerous areas. His ability to read space and slip unmarked into the penalty box is already elite. Thirty-six times in the last season Pulisic made a run to receive an entry pass into the penalty area, and 16 times he dribbled by a defender to get into the penalty area. In this statistic, Pulisic led all Bundesliga players. He outpaced even Bayern’s Thomas Muller, the 2014 World Cup hero for Germany who had made his name ghosting into scoring positions without alerting the defense.

Just this level of production would be enough to make Sam’s Army salivate. But at 18, Pulisic is hardly a finished product and has room to get even better. If you compare his production to players under 20 years of age in the top leagues in Europe, he stands out all the more.

YEAR PLAYER CLUB EXP. GOALS AND ASSISTS PER 90 MINS
1 2016-17 Ousmane Dembele Borussia Dortmund 0.72
2 2013-14 Raheem Sterling Liverpool 0.67
3 2015-16 Dele Alli Tottenham Hotspur 0.58
4 2012-13 Julian Draxler Schalke 0.54
5 2015-16 Marco Asensio Espanyol 0.52
6 2015-16 Leroy Sane Schalke 0.52
7 2016-17 Christian Pulisic Borussia Dortmund 0.52
8 2015-16 Kingsley Coman Bayern Munich 0.51
9 2013-14 Bruno Fernandes Udinese 0.49
10 2015-16 Julian Brandt Bayer Leverkusen 0.47
11 2015-16 Ousmane Dembele Rennes 0.44
12 2013-14 Leon Goretzka Schalke 0.41
13 2012-13 Raheem Sterling Liverpool 0.41
14 2011-12 Julian Draxler Schalke 0.39
15 2010-11 Jack Wilshere Arsenal 0.37
Pulisic has been one of the best teenagers in Europe since 2010-11

Includes players age 18-19 with highest goals and assists per 90 minutes

Source: Opta

Pulisic’s 0.52 expected goals+assists per 90 minutes is the best mark by any 18-year-old nonstriker in the top five leagues since 2010-11. Among under-20s, Pulisic is seventh and surrounded by high-priced stars such as Leroy Sane of Manchester City and Real Madrid’s Marco Asencio. In terms of receiving or dribbling the ball into the penalty area, he ranks only behind Manchester United’s young star Marcus Rashford and Kylian Mbappe, whose market value is reportedly north of $130 million. Right now Pulisic is not considered to be on the market, but high eight-figure fees are common for players at his level and age.

For the U.S. team, the emergence of a true star creates new tactical concerns. Opposing teams will key on Pulisic and look to shut him down. At home against Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, manager Bruce Arena — who took the reins after Klinsmann was fired in November– played Pulisic at the tip of a diamond midfield to give him freedom. Pulisic paid it off not only with goals but by being a consistent outlet all over the attack third. But at Panama, Pulisic mostly stuck to the wing, as he had under Klinsmann. These two maps show where Pulisic received the ball in the final third when playing a central role behind the striker as opposed to his pass receptions as a winger. As a winger, Pulisic plays on the wing or moves from the wing into the penalty area, whereas from the 10 he can move across the width of the field in the final third.

The toughest game the USMNT will play in the Hex is this Sunday in at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where it has never won a competitive fixture and only drawn twice in nine matches. Arena is unlikely to use the same attacking tactics he used against Trinidad and Tobago with the diamond and will most likely choose a more defensive formation with Pulisic on the wing. But if he wants to maximize the Americans’ chances of stealing a rare win in front of nearly 90,000 at the Azteca, he should look into finding a way to play Pulisic in the hole behind the striker rather than leaving him on the wing where his positioning is more predictable and he can be more easily contained. To play a more defensive formation while keeping Pulisic central would probably require benching the veteran Dempsey, who typically plays as the more reserved of two strikers.

A U.S. manager has never had the luxury of such a decision. But the moment to commit to Pulisic and the future of the USMNT may be Sunday.

Footnotes

  1. Sebastian Lletget’s goal against Honduras came from a rebound off a saved Pulisic attempt, and Dempsey scored a free kick after Pulisic won a foul, so you could count eight.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”

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