The United States men’s national team has had several players break out at a young age. That is nothing new. But when Christian Pulisic broke into Borussia Dortmund’s first team in January 2016 at age 17, it just felt different.
Immediately, the questions came up in and around the soccer world: Is Pulisic the generational talent the U.S. has always dreamed of? Is he the player to take this team over the top? Is he truly going to live up to the “Captain America” moniker?
Soon after, Pulisic was called into the World Cup qualifying window of March 2016 where he debuted for the USMNT, played well, and answers began to surface: Christian Pulisic is indeed going to be the savior of U.S. soccer. He will indeed be the player to take this much-maligned team over the top.
But six years later, he has truly lived up to the billing?
The USMNT has seen its share of teenagers finding success early on, but not quite turning into the player everyone hoped for. The biggest name in that world was Freddy Adu, the first player crowned as an American “superstar” across the soccer world in 2004.
That turned out to be — unfortunately — the furthest thing from the truth.
The Adu comparisons were abundant when Pulisic received his first USMNT call-up, and for that reason, many were cautious about giving him any more publicity. This felt different, though. The U.S. has seen players excel in Europe before. Players like Clint Dempsey, Claudio Reyna, Demarcus Beasley, and Michael Bradley had all amassed careers as serviceable players in Europe for mid-level teams, but never had anyone seen an American player as young as Pulisic contribute what he did to a team with the magnitude of Borussia Dortmund.
It became abundantly clear, early on, that Pulisic was not like those before him.
In fact, Pulisic became the youngest player to score multiple goals in the German top division at the age of 17 after putting his second goal of the 2015/16 season past Stuttgart to make the score 2-0 for Dortmund.
Emphasis on the word “player,” not “youngest American,” but “youngest player” began to gain some momentum. This was a big deal, not only for soccer in the U.S., but worldwide.
The records kept on coming for Pulisic as he continued to excel for Borussia Dortmund and the USMNT. He later became the youngest player to score for the USMNT, also at 17 years, when he put the Americans up 4-0 against Bolivia in May of 2016. It was from this moment on that people started to believe that Christian Pulisic was indeed going to be “Captain America.”
In the year that followed, Pulisic only grew more into the star many believed he could be with standout performances for Dortmund; namely his strong performances against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League at 18. What many wanted to see, though, was if the success at the club level would translate to the national team, and after the U.S. got off to a disastrous start in World Cup Qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup it became evident that Pulisic was going to be expected to carry an aging squad to the World Cup.
And he carried that team as far as his 19-year-old legs could.
In the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Pulisic was directly involved in 11 of Team USA’s 17 goals through ten matches as the USMNT disgracefully missed out on their first World Cup since 1986. Not qualifying brought up many tough questions for those at the top of the United States Soccer Federation. It was clear that the national team needed a change of leadership and culture, but the one thing that remained the same was Christian Pulisic would remain the center of the future rebuild.
And despite all the direct contributions that Pulisic had already made to U.S. Soccer and the national team, the indirect contribution that he made by his mere presence and success is probably the biggest contribution of them all.
Following Pulisic’s emergence, many clubs around Europe decided it was time to pay more attention to talent coming out of the United States in hopes of discovering the next “Pulisic.” Tyler Adams of the New York RedBulls and Weston Mckennie of Schalke were the first two teenagers to break into the national team after Pulisic. And these young players making waves in the world soccer scene gave many the impression that the U.S. was on the cusp of their “golden generation” of players.
Former USMNT player Taylor Twellman, now an ESPN commentator, warned that this was just the beginning when he said “four or five agents from the big clubs in England told me there will be 20 Christian Pulisics in Europe by the end of 2020.”
Many laughed at the time. But as the years peeled away, the laughs began to simmer.
Pulisic’s rise gave way to the likes of Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, and Sergino Dest, to name a few, to break into the first teams of big clubs across Europe. It was unheard of to have this many American players making impacts at big clubs in Europe simultaneously, and after years of continued success with Dortmund, Pulisic broke into a plane that was unknown for American soccer players.
In the summer of 2019, Christian Pulisic was sold to English giants Chelsea Football Club for a whopping $73 million, making him the most expensive American transfer ever and breaking the previous record by $54.5 million. The move to Chelsea made him an international soccer superstar. The legend of Pulisic grew exponentially as he became the first American to consistently play for one of the world’s elite clubs.
Pulisic’s Chelsea career has been the gift that keeps on giving for USMNT fans as he became the youngest American to score a hat-trick in the English Premier League when he put three past Burnley in October of 2019, the first American to score in the Champions League Semi-Finals, and eventually became the first American to win the Champions League after Chelsea took home it’s second title in 2021.
Many also like to recall the legend of “Lockdown Pulisic” as Pulisic became Chelsea’s talisman after the return to play following the Covid-19 lockdown where he had nine direct goal involvements in ten games and became the first American to score in the FA Cup Final; a finally Chelsea would go on to lose to rivals Arsenal.
His success at Chelsea put the other elite clubs in the world on notice as Juventus, Barcelona, RB Leipzig, and Borussia Dortmund all went in for their own American players. Having this many Americans excelling at, not only big clubs but, the world’s biggest teams was unheard of before Pulisic rose through the ranks of Dortmund. It is unlikely that this rise would’ve happened as quickly if not for Pulisic’s impact on international soccer.
Success with the USMNT followed as Pulisic led the national team to win the first-ever CONCACAF Nations League in 2021, he scored the go-ahead penalty deep in extra time as well. Pulisic also led the USMNT in its return to the World Cup as the nation qualified after missing out on the 2018 edition.
Pulisic has become an icon for U.S. soccer around the world. He has put the world on notice and he’s changing that notion that Americans can’t do it as the rest of the world can. He was given a mountain of pressure at only 17 years old to be the center of the next generation of U.S. soccer. He has largely lived up to that by proving that he is one of the world’s brightest young stars on the pitch, ushering and leading this new generation of American soccer stars that all followed the blueprint he laid out. His production on the field — and his impact off it — has changed the course of U.S. Soccer. Along the way, he has changed the way America is viewed in the world football scene.
But there’s no rest for “Captain America.” In this year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar, he — along with the rest of the Team USA “golden generation” he’s led — will debut at the pinnacle of the sport, where the USMNT has been grouped with England, Iran, and the winner of the UEFA Qualifying Playoff between Ukraine, Scotland, and Wales.
Indeed, that is a tough challenge ahead for Pulisic and the USMNT. But they’ve proven they can change the norm for Americans in soccer, and they will look to do it again with the world watching in November.