Commentary

U.S. fans can hope Pulisic emulates Pogba's shrewd choices

By Samuel Charles
@SoccerIsArt

Paul Pogba is going to be the face of France as the host nation of Euro 2016 is one of the favorites this summer, but the kid from the suburbs of Paris didn’t get there by accident, and American teen Christian Pulisic  could do worse than to follow his lead.

From afar, Paul Pogba and Christian Pulisic don't appear to have much in common. Pogba is already established as one of the world’s biggest stars, a French central midfielder blessed with size, strength and physical gifts envied by even the most talented players. The American teenager is an attacker who has yet to play a competitive game with the U.S. national team, with his lack of size seen as one of his few shortcomings.


Christian Pulisic (Photo courtesy Borussia Dortmund).

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Pogba is known for flashy sports cars, Pulisic is known for being driven by his father Mark to practice in Germany (where you must be 18 to drive).

One would never have to hear Pogba speak to wonder if he's brimming with confidence, as almost everything the Juventus star does suggests "I was born to do this, to have all the world's eyes trained on me."

While Christian's haircut is standard fare, Paul updates his millions of social media followers after excursions to the barbershop for his latest escapades into hairdos (and many more hair-don'ts).

Pulisic has allowed his personality to show little by little, while his humility off the field is not always apparent on the field, which is a good thing, displaying confidence with the ball at his feet, always assuming his first touch will be pure, or even the subtle arrogance demonstrated when he's dribbling at opponents nearly twice his age.

And if you're able to see past Pogba's garish outerwear and his playful nature, you'll find an extremely loyal teammate, one who has made sound, almost impeccable, choices when it comes to managing his career, and developing his game.

They are entirely different players, and obviously different people, but Pulisic and his family have already made terrific choices helping him flourish, as a player and a person, passing up the opportunity to jump to Europe sooner, choosing Borussia Dortmund, a club with a rich tradition of developing younger players.

Soccer's annals are littered with tales of players who never reached their potential; Pogba is the rare prodigy who appears to be reaching his. When the masses descend upon France over the following month, Pogba will be ready for it, in large part due to the bold choices he's made with his club teams, choices that were often second-guessed at the time.

When Pogba left Manchester United in the summer of 2012 it was not the struggling United we know now, Man U won the 2008 Champions League final, was runner-up in 2009 and 2011, and the club had also won four of the previous Premier League titles. Pogba was a youth player considered a star of the future -- one with only three substitute EPL appearances to his name -- told by Alex Ferguson to wait in line and then it would be his turn. Pogba decided his time was now in 2012 and left for Juve, where immediately became a fixture in midfield, learning from some of the world’s best -- on the job.

Pogba, now 23, also realized his career was only beginning, so instead of chasing the money and huge clubs that were knocking on his door the last couple seasons -- obviously Juventus is a big club, but every team in the world wanted him -- Pogba chose to remain at Juve, a decision that was made even tougher last summer when Juventus turned over much of its roster after losing to Barcelona in the Champions League final last year.

Knowing there would be little chance this Juve team would compete for the Champions League title, Pogba chose to stay in Turin, assured he would have a larger role to play in distributing the ball and being involved in the attack -- while growing as a player.

And one year later, after winning his fourth Serie A title in four years at Juventus (of the club's five straight), having resisted temptation, Pogba enters Euro 2016 as an even more formidable player, one who tied for the Serie A lead in assists this season.

It would be hard to think of a better career path that Pogba could've chosen to prepare him for this summer than learning beside Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio in midfield for three seasons while watching his idol Andrea Pirlo manipulate opponents, prior to this season where he spread his wings -- a season where Pogba played poorly initially while doing so, with Juve nearly giving away the title, before finding his footing, a fourth title, and himself.

These Euros will see a much better player than they would had Pogba stayed at Man United, or chosen to leave Juve last summer without this year of individual development. On Monday, Pogba whipped in this ridiculous pass in France's friendly with Cameroon.

Of course, Pulisic is not Pogba, and even though Christian has already played more first-division soccer at this stage in his career than Pogba had at this point, the Frenchman's star was already glowing bright enough for all to see.

At just 17, it’s possible that Pulisic is already the most technically gifted player on this current U.S. team. Pogba didn't even debut for France until he was 20 years old, that is obviously much more about France’s talent, but all things are relative, and even at such a young age, having not accomplished nearly as much, Pulisic is more likely to become the greatest player in his country's history than Pogba, a young man walking in the giant footsteps of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Michel Platini etc.

Each case is different, but finding the right fit, style, and whether a player is featured at his club is immensely important in player progress. Bayern Munich is practically pushing Mario Goetze out the door right now, even though he's still an important part of Germany's national team, Goetze's progression has stagnated since leaving Borussia Dortmund, the same is true of Isco, once "the future" in Spain but now a role player at Real Madrid after leaving Malaga, and Vicente Del Bosque left Isco off his final Euro 2016 selection on Tuesday.

In my mind, the best 11 Jurgen Klinsmann could put on the field at this year's Copa America Centenario would clearly have Pulisic in it -- but would that help us see the best Pulisic for the USA in 2018, in 2022, or even in 2026, when Christian Pulisic will still be just 27 years old?

I don't know.

I do know this, Pulisic appreciates all the support, but this recent interview made it clear he's also just a 17-year-old kid who likes bad music (Justin Bieber), a privilege of youth he should not be denied, and he’d like to remind us all that he doesn’t want to forfeit his teenage years just because he’s awesome at soccer.

Regardless of how well Pulisic plays this summer, and I would expect him to be somewhere between good and great, when he returns to Dortmund this fall he's only going to be the second best teenager on the team, as Dortmund signed Ousmane Dembele recently, a 19-year-old French attacker who is elite at many of the things that Pulisic does well, one who was pursued by Barcelona, among others.

This will almost certainly be a good thing, with another season where Pulisic can play and train with some of the world’s best players on one of the world’s best teams while fulfilling a role. He’ll start some games, he’ll come off the bench, he may even play with the U-19s to stay sharp, all while getting better, and perhaps reassess his situation in a year’s time.

Pogba made terrific choices throughout his journey so that when he was in position, now, many years later, he would be ready for the burden of expectations. We’re all hoping that Pulisic will be in that position several years from now, but for now we should allow him to do what’s best to find that path.

There are bound to be American fans who may forget becoming great is a journey, Pogba didn’t lose sight of that, and I wouldn’t expect Pulisic or his family to lose sight of it either.

12 comments about "U.S. fans can hope Pulisic emulates Pogba's shrewd choices".
  1. Tyler Dennis, May 31, 2016 at 11:42 p.m.

    "... with his lack of size seen as one of his few shortcomings." Maybe from some of the American/British mental midgets. Size is not an issue... Watch La Liga, Argentina... Landon Donavan, the EPL Player of the year... Anybody says size is an issue has immediately discredited themselves as a soccer fan or professional.

  2. Samuel Charles replied, June 1, 2016 at 12:02 a.m.

    Size is, in fact, an asset for Pogba, but feel free to google 'Pulisic size' and read the very first article that comes up, if you want my thoughts on the matter. - Thanks for reading, Sam

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, June 1, 2016 at 1:40 a.m.

    My thought regarding size is that some other people tend to confuse strength with height. My thinking is Pulisic's weakness is his youth, and patience is the cure. A "well done" on both articles. It sounds like Dortmund has been very good for him.

  4. Samuel Charles replied, June 1, 2016 at 2:57 a.m.

    Thanks Bob. I agree, height and strength are two very different things. How can we call shorter players with tree-trunk thighs 'undersized' when they use being low to the ground to their advantage, and constantly overpower larger opponents? Pulisic is not short, and he's already stronger on the ball than one might expect. ~ But Tyler points out a common/valid lament among U.S. fans about our evaluation process, or even the American mindset about what an athlete should look like --- as so often some of our best young players get overlooked or labeled 'undersized and gifted', when in other cultures they'd simply be called 'gifted', and their coaches/country would be grateful to have them.

  5. charles davenport replied, June 1, 2016 at 8:52 a.m.

    size was a real issue for Messi, too.

  6. Gus Keri replied, June 3, 2016 at 1:29 p.m.

    The best player in the history of US soccer, Landon Donovan, is one inch shorter than Pulisic.

  7. Samuel Charles replied, June 3, 2016 at 3:54 p.m.

    No doubt Gus (although I think they're both listed at 5'8"?). ~ I was mostly trying to contrast Pulisic with Pogba's size/strength to highlight how different they are -- but i wish i would've avoided (clumsily) bringing up Pulisic's size altogether. It seems to have sidetracked the point of the piece -- which was to focus on Pulisic's career path. ~ And. I'm definitely someone who thinks the U.S. needs to be coveting smaller players who are technically gifted. ~ Pulisic is an inch taller, with about the same build even if he doesn't fill out, as my favorite player - and i don't think Iniesta's career turned out too bad?

  8. Gus Keri replied, June 3, 2016 at 8:51 p.m.

    Sam, I agree with what you wrote in the articel. I believe Pulisic is doing it the right way. I enjoyed the article and liked the correlation with Pogba's situation. It's very fitting comparison.

  9. Samuel Charles replied, June 6, 2016 at 10:23 p.m.

    Thanks Gus. Young players face very difficult choices. We should all be grateful that Christian has a great support system, and parents who are helping this remarkable young man strike the right balance.

  10. beautiful game, June 1, 2016 at 10:25 a.m.

    IMHO, Pulisic will learn as he goes along; what makes me pause is that coach JK will side him with players that have 1/2 his soccer IQ. This talk about height, weight, etc means nothing when the soccer IQ is below par.

  11. Pasco Struhs, June 1, 2016 at 10:34 a.m.

    (Apologies in advance for the long comment)

    Please let's get over the size thing. This is one of the biggest impediments to US soccer development at the youth level. Old school american coaches stuck in a 1970s american football mentality.

    Who would you rather have on your team - Clint Dempsey or Sergio Aquero (6'1" vs 5'8") - Jozy Altdore or Sebastian Giovinco (6'1" vs 5'4") not to mention Messi at 5'7". Even if you look at american football, who would you rather have at quarterback Terrelle Pryor or Drew Brees (6'4" vs 6'0") - JaMarcus Russell or Doug Flutie (6'6" vs 5'10"). Ok, to be fair, I hand picked QB failures over shorter QB greats, but the point remains the same. Skill should prevail over size and soccer (or any sport) IQ over speed. Don't get me wrong, I would take Zlatan over Aquero or Giovinco, or even Messi for that matter, but he doesn't lack skill or soccer IQ. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were great because they had it all, but everyone will point to Shaq as one of the the most dominant basketball players of all time, and he was but that is basketball and not soccer.

    The problem in the US is that too many soccer coaches just aren't sharp enough to recognize soccer IQ or to understand that skill can be developed into something much more valuable than being the fastest on the field or the tallest for set plays. Why?

    (1) In part, it's cultural - it's the american way - win at all costs with the best athletes - that'll do the trick. That's how american football and basketball (the two most successful american sports) are structured. It's what we grew up with. Its what we know.

    (2) In part, it's systemic. Club soccer (like most other businesses) depends on $$ to survive and thrive. $$ are driven by status and popularity. Where would you send your son or daughter and choose to spend your hard earned money? Unless you are fanatical about researching clubs and coaching styles, you get onto GotSoccer and look up the top ranked club and team at your child's age group in your area. How does GotSoccer, or any other soccer ranking agency, rank teams - wins and losses of course. What do you think the clubs' business people try to do? They try to get their teams ranked higher so that they will be able to attract more players who will spend money. How do they do that? They must win games now. If I'm a YOUTH (and I stress youth) coach and am charged with producing a winning season for my club, I would pick the fastest and biggest players and send them the long ball all day long. That works at the youth level, especially at 12 and 13 when some kids have already hit puberty while others have not.

    Just to be clear, I'm not saying that every US club and coach has this mentality. But it is a vestige and still tends to permeate US soccer, even at the national level for youth development. It needs to change.

  12. Wooden Ships replied, June 1, 2016 at 3:41 p.m.

    Pasco, good observations, like several above. One contention I have would be the 70's coaches. I lived the opposite of that in the 60's and 70's in St. Louis. There was a very high IQ if you want to call it that amongst the coaches and players ( yes, I'm biased ). We had a variety of backgrounds but the common denominator was technical ability and creative play. The indoor game hurt that to some degree as putting people in seats and making a living took precedence. I think where you grew up playing has a strong impact on how you view the game. Once the youth explosion took place across the country adults from all walks of life stepped forward. And then, if you don't know any better, you resort to what you think will work. Kick it far, run fast and do it over and over. Not just with coaches and players, you can see the sophistication or lack of with where referees are steeped. I know many might not believe this, but there were pockets of soccer playing cities back in those days that had excellent technical players that were also imaginative. The majority of big clubs and that machine has hindered quality and risk taking. Pay to play wasn't the way to go.

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