With the news of Christian Pulisic’s announced transfer to Chelsea, here is an excerpt from The Playmaker’s Advantage featuring the rise of the 20-year-old American and his #10 USMNT jersey. To read more from the book, please visit: http://a.co/d/34n2gBz, including a new paperback version being released on 1/29/19.
© 2018-19 Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson
If ever there was a flashing beacon to highlight a team’s top playmaker, it is wearing the number 10 jersey in soccer. While most sports don’t have a logical order to their uniform numbering (with the exception of American football), soccer has long had an association between jersey numbers and their role on the field. Defenders typically wear low numbers, from 2 to 5, while midfielders usually wear 6 through 8. The star forward usually grabs number 9.
But the number 10 jersey carries a legacy and responsibility that is instantly recognizable. Past legends Pele, Maradona, Ronaldhino, Totti, and Zidane wore the number 10 shirt, while today’s stars—Messi at Barcelona, Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain, Hazard at Chelsea, and Modric at Real Madrid—have followed in their footsteps.
While new tactical formations have tinkered with the traditional positioning of a number 10 (no longer anchored to the middle of the field), the symbolism of the team’s most creative playmaker still exists. Messi and Neymar are known for their goal scoring, but because of that threat they also have become disruptors who sense the open man when defenders flock toward them.
Luka Modric, a midfielder for Real Madrid who also captains his Croatian national team, is the calming presence in the middle of a team packed with world-class players. Yet, Zidane, his former manager, lauds him as the linchpin that holds the team together. “It’s his tranquility. It’s his tranquility with the ball,” said Zidane. “I have the best players and we could talk about any of them, but if you ask me about Luka, I have to talk about his calmness with the ball at his feet. La tranquilidad. That’s what he gives to the team when he’s playing well. He makes the rest play.”
Indeed, Modric finished tied for third with Neymar for the 2017 World’s Best Playmaker award given by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) based on the votes of soccer experts in ninety-one countries. To no one’s surprise, Messi won the title for the third consecutive year.
The double-edged sword of respect and expectation that comes with the number 10 jersey is reserved for the shoulders of a player that can handle the weight. So when Jürgen Klinsmann, former U.S. Men’s National Team head coach, handed it to seventeen-year-old Christian Pulisic before a 2016 World Cup qualifier game, he knew the load that was being placed on the young playmaker. “The No. 10 has a meaning,” Klinsmann said. “Ask him now how he feels with that heavy number on his back.”
That night, Pulisic responded brilliantly, scoring two goals and assisting on a third in just twenty-six minutes, making him the youngest U.S. player ever to score in a World Cup qualifier. Even Bruce Arena, who’s seen his share of promising prospects in his forty years of coaching at the college, pro, and national team levels, believes in Pulisic. “I think he is just a natural,” said Arena. “The game’s easy for him. He’s got exceptional skill, vision, he’s pretty smooth.” Wary of anointing him a savior too early, Arena did inch out on a limb when pressed: “It makes you think that this is going to be perhaps the first American superstar in the sport. You have to be hesitant about this but this is a very talented young man.”
Unlike Mallory Pugh, the young playmaker on the US Women’s National Team who has female American role models like Hamm, Akers, Foudy, and Wambach to follow, Pulisic is breaking new ground for American men. Other than goalkeepers, Pulisic is the rare U.S. player who is not just on the roster of a top European club but a regular starter and playmaker for Borussia Dortmund, a perennial contender in the German Bundesliga.
Signed at age seventeen, he scored his first goal for the senior team that same season. For a five-foot-eight-inch kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania, performing in front of 80,000 loud, demanding German fans against some of the world’s great players could be overwhelming.
However, like Pugh, Pulisic is grounded with his own expectations. “Of course, I hear about all the stuff people talk about, the hype and whatever, but I just try to keep it out of my mind as much as I can, because it doesn’t really matter to me. I put enough pressure on myself. I don’t need all this outside tension or whatever.”
Because both of his parents played college soccer at George Mason University, you would expect early pressure, even obsession, to have their kids excel at the game. But Mark and Kelley Pulisic purposely avoided the temptation to push too hard. “I just think what we did differently was made sure that we didn’t put him in a structured environment all the time,” said Mark. “He played for one team. He would practice twice a week and play a game on the weekend.”
But as Christian’s skill became obvious and he moved up the ladder of competition, his parents instilled one word into his vocabulary.
“He was always playing up against older kids so I said there was only one thing you can never lose—you always have to play with confidence,” said Mr. Pulisic.
What are the early signs that you might be raising a playmaker? Much like Pugh, Pulisic showed an unusual early passion for perfection and for the game.
“Everything he does has to be at a very high level,” said Kelley Pulisic. “He doesn’t like to fail. And he wants it to be perfect. When he was two years old he would color. And he would color out of the lines and just flip out. And that’s his personality in a nutshell, at two years old he had to keep in the lines. “He became obsessed with soccer and before he started kindergarten had mastered one of the sport’s most difficult skills: playing with both feet. He’d play for hours in the yard.”
Also like Pugh, being undersized while playing against older players has forced Christian to rely not only on his physical speed but also on his brain processing speed. “As he was playing U12, U14, and U16, you could tell he watched,” said Mark Pulisic. “He was trying things that he saw. He was tactically aware, and a lot of that came from seeing games.”
“I had to use other ways,” said Christian, “and try to outthink opponents even more.”
Playing at a top club with so many stellar prospects provides the deliberate practice environment that Dr. K. Anders Ericsson recommends for fastest growth.
“In the U.S. it’s very comfortable for players,” the senior Pulisic said. “If you’re successful as a young player, you’re told that a lot. But are players being taken out of their comfort zone? That’s how you improve. When you come to Germany and you’re training every day in January in the wind-driven rain and freezing cold, you’re fighting through that. You’re becoming stronger and better as a player.”
So far, the new number 10 is living up to expectations. In an eye-opening stat that compared Pulisic’s career prior to his nineteenth birthday to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age, the American has played more games and scored more goals for both club and country. Pulisic’s performance last season in expected goals and assists for Borussia Dortmund was fifth-best among teenagers across all of Europe’s top leagues in the last six years.
These days, advice for young playmakers is everywhere: Join the right team, play in all the right tournaments, travel hundreds of miles, hire specialty coaches, and eat ultra-healthy performance diets. However, the Pulisics, just like the Pughs, know that you still need to let kids be kids while they find their way. “After games, we were more Slurpees and Doritos,” said Mark Pulisic.
© 2018-19 Leonard Zaichkowsky and Daniel Peterson