My early memories of football are a fractured and fuzzy affair. I have vague visions of a Milk Cup final involving Nottingham Forest and a man of the match display from Des Walker. There are patches of an FA cup final when the mighty Manchester United overcame the scrappy underdogs of Crystal Palace despite the efforts of a young upstart by the name of Ian Wright. Somewhere between those two is a blurred image of men in orange dismantling England before going on to win the European Cup.
But then there is the moment that is burned forever in my mind’s eye. My first fully focused football memory. Paul Gascoigne is by the touchline just outside of the Dutch penalty area, Ronald Koeman is at his back and another defender is approaching from his right-hand side. Gascoigne performs a Cruyff turn, dances away from his would-be assailants and teases the ball across the six-yard box, agonisingly close to the toe of Gary Lineker, before rolling harmlessly away for a goal kick.
In the grand scheme of things, it is a non-event. Since then I have seen thousands of football matches, a great number of them involving many more moments of greater significance. But it is that moment that made me sit up and take notice – of Paul Gascoigne, of the skills involved in the game, of the fleeting flashes of ecstasy and agony that occur within each match, of football. It was Gascoigne’s virtuoso displays during Italia ’90 that transformed me from a boy interested in football to one obsessed with the beautiful game.
In Christian Pulisic, the USA may well have a player capable of capturing the imagination and attention of the American public like no soccer player from their shores before. A player capable of ‘sit up and notice moments’.
A genuine-could-be-world-class-talent. At just 18 years old, he has established himself as a vital part of Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund side and has already made as many appearances for the Bundesliga side as Landon Donovan ever did for Bayer Leverkusen. He has registered as many assists and ‘chances created’ as current media darling Kylian Mbappe (5 and 17 respectively) and has a better take-ons record than the Frenchman too. He is also out performing last seasons Golden Boy Award runner-up Marcus Rashford.
Comfortable and capable with either foot, possessing the composure that all the greats have. Time seemingly slows down as a defender is drawn towards the ball, a shoulder is dropped or an elastico produced, and space appears that mere mortals cannot see, let alone exploit. And just like that Pulisic is off on a run – slaloming through the defence, creating opportunities out of next to nothing.
He is, of course, a long way from being the finished article. He isn’t even the best or most promising player in the current Dortmund side. But the fact that he is in the mix with these young stars of the future and doesn’t look out of place is the promising thing for American fans. For all the furore around Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan as ambassadors for soccer in America, Donovan spent the vast majority of his career in the MLS and the biggest club Dempsey played for was the then middling Tottenham. Neither will be remembered as players in the elite bracket of the game. Pulisic could well be.
His performances for the USMNT against Honduras and Panama help to illustrate the role he could have in elevating the game on his home soil. Against Honduras he scored one and assisted three others, exhibiting all the hallmark attributes of one destined for greatness. A few days later versus Panama, it was his tenacity and composure that enabled him to out manoeuvre two defenders before laying it on a plate for Clint Dempsey to slot home the USMNT’s goal in a 1-1 draw. Both these results, and subsequently his performances, have helped steady the sides ship and put them back on course to qualify for the World Cup. After these games, social media was awash with praise for the youngster with ESPN, Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times all leading the plaudits.
Whilst interest in the MLS is growing it is still a significant way short of the NFL or NBA. However, one thing Americans always make time for is their country competing. In anything. And soccer is no exception. The 2014 World Cup in received average viewing figures of around 14 million. The more successful the team becomes the more people will watch. Tim Howard and co., following their success in Brazil, earnt them trips to the White House and time in the spotlight not normally afforded to soccer players. Howard’s heroics in nearly helping the USMNT to a quarter-final raised the profile of the game.
If they watch and see Pulisic showing his potential on a global stage, his and the games profile could sky rocket. The USA might well find their equivalent of Paul Gascoigne, inspiring many more to take up the game. If he fulfills that potential and continues to play amongst the games elite Pulisic may be uttered in the same breath as other American icons such as Michael Jordan-and then who knows how much the game will grow!