Pulisic and putting the United States back on the right path

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Mark Pulisic has been on both sides of the pond as parent and coach. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

Mark Pulisic has had a long and distinguished career in soccer. He played collegiately at George Mason University, then professionally with the Harrisburg Heat. He’s been both an assistant and head coach for professional teams, college teams, and even as a youth academy staffer in Europe. He’s currently an assistant with the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

The average American soccer fan, of course, doesn’t know him by that curriculum vitae. They know Mark more as “Christian Pulisic’s father.”

That may be unfair to a man who is an esteemed soccer professional in his own right. Certainly, though, his experience with his son – currently in his third season with Borussia Dortmund (who sit third in the German Bundesliga), and undoubtedly one of the public faces of the United States Men’s National Team – has helped him get a wider breadth of experiences in the soccer world.

Following the USMNT’s failure to qualify for this Summer’s FIFA World Cup, the topic of player development has been a hot one. Simply put, what are we doing wrong in America?

“It’s not so much that they’re doing something right or better than us as far as the sporting aspect: training sessions and things like that, it’s not so different,” he explained. “The biggest difference is the culture that’s built in the country where soccer’s the biggest sport. Kids are following their heroes on TV every weekend and wanting to be that – want to become a professional footballer. That’s their dream, and that’s all they think about.

“The biggest difference in training sessions is the competitiveness of the kids. Even at nine, 10, 11 years old, they’re training so hard and they’re so physical, and they’re so committed to a training session, their concentration level is so high. As a coach, you almost have to tame them down a little bit, whereas here in the States, it’s the opposite. You’ve got to continuously motivate kids. You’re wondering where a few kids in your training sessions are here in the States, and they’re at band and other activities, whereas I was there two and a half years, and these young kids, I don’t think they missed a training session the whole time. It’s just a culture, it’s inside of them that ‘this is where I want to be, I’m able to follow these Bundesliga teams on TV, and I see the life they have, and I’m going to do everything I can to be that.’

“Here in the States, you might have a handful; there, you have a bucketful of kids that want to be the best and are committed to work for it. Here, if something doesn’t go right, whether a coach doesn’t play a kid, they make excuses: it’s the coach’s fault it’s difficult. There, there’s no excuses. There’s no – or very little – parent involvement. You either have to sink or swim as a young player. You’re learning the hard knocks of the game from a young age. Here, those kids are coddled at young ages, and it’s very difficult for them to break out of their parents’ grasp.”

Pulisic’s time in the Dortmund academy allowed him to observe those differences first-hand. He worked with various youth teams in the system, and with the now-famous Footbonaut training machine. Marvel of modern technology aside, he was able to see that the issue is not with a given training method or curriculum. To the extent that we do have an issue with developing talent in the United States, it’s more about that drive to succeed, and a larger subset of youth within the country not only playing the game, but playing it with the goal of becoming a professional footballer or eventually working up to don the colors of Die Mannschaft.

It’s certainly a mentality that his son demonstrated from an early age. Christian’s desire fueled a work ethic, and that work ethic has led to success on the pitch. He’s starring for one of Europe’s top sides before turning 20.

“He has that mentality, we saw it in his eyes and his desire and all of our conversations,” the elder Pulisic said. “It’s something he wanted to try, and be successful at, and push himself. That’s the biggest thing: you as a player need to understand how you’re going to get better. You have to be put out of your comfort zone. Christian was the best player on his teams here in the States, even a year or two up. What’s really pushing him and motivating him outside of his own motivation? It wasn’t that. He wanted it, he wanted to be pushed day-in and day-out by players at the same level, not only soccer-wise physically, but that have the same mentality and goals to improve – getting pushed out of your comfort zone. That’s exactly what happened in Dortmund: he would go every day and fight, fight, fight, fight, and he’d have bad days, and he just believed in himself and kept pushing and pushing, and all those difficult days of very good players competing against him definitely raised his level of his play.”

That’s not to say every young American who has the opportunity should necessarily feel an obligation to hop across the pond in order to reach the highest levels of the game. Rob Moore, who helped facilitate Christian’s move to Dortmund, has advocated that there’s no other reasonable path to reach the highest levels of the game. Mark Pulisic, however, knows that there’s more to development than simply the on-field fit. In moving to Germany with his son, he got to experience first-hand the culture shock that can exist – and fortunately, both father and son were able to grow through it together.

“I’m not one to say every kid should go to Europe, because every kid’s not prepared or not ready to go to Europe,” Pulisic said. “Christian was ready: he had a mentality that, as parents, we saw that he would be able to survive. We didn’t obviously know that he would survive as long as he has, and been as successful as he has, but we knew that he was ready to give it a good shot.”

The younger Pulisic’s ability to excel in Germany naturally draws comparisons to another American who headed to Deutschland and was unable to make that adjustment. It’s likely premature to compare Christian to Landon Donovan on the field at this early stage of his career, just like Donovan’s stints at Bayer Leverkeusen and Bayern Munich happened under completely different circumstances than Pulisic’s arrival at Dortmund.

Photo by Reto Stauffer (Creative Commons license).

The loneliness of a culture shock can be mitigated in a big way with a familiar face. Mark Pulisic’s profession – in the soccer world as a coach – gave him the opportunity to make the move as well.

“Having a parent there was extremely helpful [for Christian],” he said. “Just to be able to talk to me and help him get through some tough days. The first few months were very difficult: obviously for anyone, but also for Christian learning a new language, going to a German school, teammates that don’t really want to see a good [foreign] player around because he’s going to take your spot. There were challenges for sure that I helped him get through, but to say that he wouldn’t have been able to do it on his own, I’m not going to say that, because it’s quite possible he would have.

“We got through [the language barrier] together,” he added with a laugh. “We both started taking lessons right away, and he picked it up much quicker than I did, being younger. That’s a whole other thing, too: you gain respect by showing others that you’re willing to commit to being there. Part of the commitment to being in another country is learning the language, and that’s something Christian wanted to do is learn the language, because then you become more comfortable in everything you’re doing: talking to teammates, going out. He fully went in with everything to try and embrace the opportunity that was given to him.”

So what is there to be gained from the Pulisic experience? There’s no one way to skin a cat, and there’s no one way to develop an individual’s soccer talent to reach the professional level. Donovan became an all-time great despite his initial move to Germany not working out, whereas the young man many see as his heir apparent is thriving in the Bundesliga.

Nor is there a magic bullet to solving the woes that many see with the way we develop talent in our country. Mark Pulisic has seen it on both sides of the pond, and the training methods are more similar than they are different. It has long been a hard-and-fast belief of this site that there is no one answer, but rather that the solution is finding the best development path for the individual. It’s our task as a footballing nation to make those paths clearer, and the choice between them becomes a much easier one for young players to make.

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Pitch Points writes in its diary

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Alan Winn, thinkin’ ’bout soccer ball. Photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

Alan Winn, writin’ ’bout life. The Nashville SC rookie striker is writing a diary for the PDL website. That’s actually secret code for “does a weekly exclusive interview,” but there are still some interesting tidbits.

“I thought Pittsburgh did a wonderful job of staying organized. They had their 3-4-3 system going on and defensively they dropped to a 5-4-1, so they were very organized and structured and, credit to them, they were hard to break down.”

Good tactical talk (obviously something very near and dear to this site).

Also: :galvao: The fan favorite on his move to the USL side from last year’s PDL roster:

“It’s like the whole city has a positive energy,” said Galvão. “I feel positive vibes in the city, and that’s something that I haven’t felt in many of the other cities I’ve visited in the States. It’s definitely great to be in a great city with a great team with a great staff, a lot of good people and experience. The whole package together makes me feel very happy and very excited.”

What he said.

MLS players polled. Many of the questions are lame. But there are nuggets of goodness in some of this MLS player survey.

“There’s an emphasis right now with this league on signing young players from abroad with the TAM money, which is good from a business perspective. But if we want our young players to develop, if we want our federation to develop, if we want our national team to develop, these guys need to get games.”

Agreed – though I always point out that it’s not MLS’s job to help the federation develop talent, it’s the coaches’ job to win games and help the team make money. That said, I have wondered if TAM ends up resulting in comparable talents getting more playing time if they’re not domestic, from a simple “we have invested in this guy whereas that guy was cheap, so let’s not waste our money” perspective.

Do you favor promotion/relegation in MLS?

Yes: 63%
No: 36%
No answer: 1%

Editor’s note: In 2017, those in favor of promotion and relegation numbered 54 percent of those asked, compared to 49 percent in 2016 and 64 percent in 2015.

What the players said:

“To play on a team that’s fighting against relegation, it makes games mean something. In MLS, where we haven’t made the playoffs, those games are dumb at the end of the year. Because people just tune out. Fans tune out.”

“Where we haven’t made the playoffs” is pretty key here: As currently constructed, the playoff race (where every team that makes it has a chance for a championship) is similarly interesting to a relegation race. The difference is where in the table it happens – and of course to a certain extent, the seriousness of the consequences when you lose.

Click through, because there’s quite a bit more, including a pretty popular opinion (and one I agree with) that the playoffs in MLS take way too long. They ultimately make for a ridiculously long offseason for teams that don’t make the playoffs, among the many things that’s an issue with MLS’s ability to develop talent.


USMNT. Dave Sarachan extended as the USMNT’s interim manager through June. Kind of “blah” (especially after Tuesday night) but at the same time, if you’ve come this far, you may as well wait until after the World Cup to see who is and isn’t available. Gotta get him working in the best interests of the federation and MNT program rather than the interest of just worrying about a result, though.

The lack of a general manager thanks to a moronic job description plays a role here. Sarachan’s goals and those of the federation are not necessarily aligned right now. That isn’t to say they’re opposed, just orthogonal to each other.

Landon Donovan enjoying his mentor role in Mexico. I’ve brought this up before, but Donovan is a guy that US Soccer needs to get involved. However much of his “I’m here to help teach, not to play” is BS, that he’s at least saying it is meaningful. He can also be a help to young guys in figuring out a career path – because of, not despite, his failed stint(s) in Germany – and that’s what I’ve advocated for USSF to involve him doing.

In that vein, going along with obvious development things that the federation doesn’t think to do, how about a program through MLS (or maybe through the national team program, to include guys playing at a higher level overseas) that has career development stuff for post-playing days for these guys? I know there are some limited programs, but if Landon Donovan had the opportunity to earn USSF coaching licenses, or get front office training right now, wouldn’t that benefit the federation (in a huge way) going forward? Lack of quality coaches problem gets smashed in one generation of players.

A lot to unpack from this story about NYRB’s development. There are certainly legit arguments from the Columbus side of things (before even getting into #SaveTheCrew talk) that central Ohio doesn’t produce enough talent for a full USL side, but… doesn’t it still make sense to have an owned/operated team that you populate partially from your academy and partially from traditional USL signings?

Save the Fairgrounds, a topic that just won’t die. Steve Glover is engaging in a disingenuous, bad-faith effort to try to prevent a stadium from being built at all. “I don’t want a stadium” is a fine position to have (though one I – like probably every reader of this site – obviously disagree with). Misrepresenting that position to try to undermine Metro Council legislation that has already passed just makes you a bad guy (which every constituent from District 12 that I’ve talked to mentions is not a newsflash).

Now District 2 Councilman DeCosta Hastings has hastily (no pun intended but I REGRET NOTHING) joined forces trying to get the stadium moved to Metro Center. It’s a delay tactic for Glover, a face-saving one for Hastings after he rather embarrassingly showed he forgot what he voted for in November – or never read it in the first place – and now has to look like he’s sticking up for his constituents. After last week’s meeting, the chances that this goes anywhere are exactly zero, but Glover seems to get enjoyment out of the constant embarrassment he subjects himself to, and Hastings has put himself in a position where not proposing a #MMLSSTMC bill is no more embarrassing than the 37-2 annihilation his proposal is bound to take on the chin.

In actual productive stadium talk, not Metro Councilmembers putting their egos above the good of their city, NPR has a piece on the community benefits agreement meeting that took place last Thursday.

Etc.: ‘grats to former Michigan striker Francis Atuahene, who was assigned to OKC Energy by FC Dallas and scored his first goal opening weekend. … A ban on heading in youth soccer may be on the way around the world after the US started it. … The differences between the focus of the Canadian Premier League and MLS are interesting as a case study at the very least – and could be another factor forcing MLS to step up its game, at best. It launches in 2019. … Profile of US Youth International Indiana Vassilev from local media – to Aston Villa (where he just signed). … Talk on college soccer’s role in the development world. For now, it obviously doesn’t really fit in. I’m willing to wait for this thing to blow up in the next 2-3 years before I bother figuring out the way to shoehorn it in. … Nashville Scene talkin’ Goalden Ale and Nashville SC.

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Pitch Points is the USMNT’s all-time leading scorer, but…

Breakdown of the Ottawa Fury friendly (what we saw of it) coming later today. 

It’s the only path to a World Cup.

Landon Donovan wants an American for USMNT. Color me “meh” on that idea:

“Personally, I would like to see an American,” he said. “I think Americans as a general comment understand the American player better. They understand the league better. They understand the culture better. And it’s better for the development of our coaches in this country to have that experience.”

There’s value in understanding American Soccer Exceptionalism (in both its positive and negative aspects, mostly the latter). Pooh-poohing that the USMNT job has challenges – and maybe some opportunities – that are unique among countries that want to be among the global elite is closer to how we got into this problem than the Eurosnobs who espouse that opinion would care to even think about. I’m not on the side of “absolutely no Americans” (which far too many people are, for what it’s worth), but nor do I think there’s a particular point in limiting the pool of candidates on either side. If a dude is a good manager, he is a good manager. Saying he must be one thing or another – other than “successful leading the team” is pointless and counter-productive.

I also agree with Donovan that it’s also good to build toward developing American coaches for the job… not sure how “the USMNT manager must be an American” plays a huge role in that. In the grand scheme, it’s one job. Yes, it provides something to aspire to, but if a dude goes into the coaching profession if and only if he wants to be the manager of the USMNT, that’s a problem in its own right.

Youth soccer and development. There’s something to be said for youth soccer’s existing for purposes other than developing elite talent. It’s too easy to contextualize these interviews to include only that frame of reference. That said, (at least for the time being), I’m more focused on it as well, and Stars and Stripes FC’s Stephanie Yang landed an interview with US Club Soccer CEO Kevin Payne.

Payne estimates there’s about 3.5 million players affiliated with US Soccer total. “I believe that the total spending in that universe in the cost of a year is probably somewhere around $5 billion,” he said. “So the idea that there’s going to be a single payer for that or somehow we’re no longer going to be asking parents for money, it’s just crazy…. The $150 million, even if all of the $150 million was available, that’s a drop in the bucket. And it took the federation years to accumulate that.”

That’s a little bit of playing around with the money in a way that’s unfair – if $5 billion is spent by people affiliated with US Soccer, fewer of them are involved in youth/club, and even further the group that needs a subsidy or scholarship to be able to play is an even smaller subset of that.

Much farther downstream, there’s still an issue with young Americans getting time in MLS. Allocation money has made the quality of play in the league better overall, but has continued – even exacerbated – the trouble in getting youngsters onto the field. Obviously, that falls within the scope of this site, but is more a topic for the off-season (and another season of data on that playing time with be interesting. Can Atlanta keep their talented young Americans off the field this season).

Dennis te Kloese speaks. This interview is way, way too Jonathan Gonzalez-focused at this point in the process, when the far more interesting aspect should be what a Director of National Teams does (that’s the title in the Mexican federation, the United States is expected to have a “general manager” title, but the concept remains the same). That’s a major missed opportunity by Soccer America, but there are still some good tidbits in there.

We have a scouting department where currently we have a number of scouts full-time in Mexico, and three full-time scouts in the U.S. We have several departments — video analysis, technical stats — all these new technical development programs. We have a nutrition department, a medical department. A sports psychology area. Basically, I oversee the entire administrative side.

Hey, sounds like a good idea.

Barcelona rebuild. Sort of an overstatement, but hey, hyperbole is fine, right? The Ringer takes a look at this year’s Barca side and finds that a guy who had basically been tossed aside at the highest levels of soccer is a major catalyst to their success.

This year, Barcelona are more concerned with dropping back and getting into a defensive shape, rather than always immediately disrupting their opponent. The result is that while Barcelona may be conceding more shots than ever at 10.6 per game—Enrique’s squads topped out at 9.61—they’re conceding fewer shots on target at 3.22.

If you’re a tactics and/or stats nerd, read up.

Etc.: Another day, another USL D3 announcement. … The latest update on the next MLS announcement is sort of “there is no update,” though it certainly gives the impression that one is coming.