Unfortunately for fans and, perhaps, the U.S. national team coach, American soccer’s glittering new piece of space-age hardware didn’t come with an instruction manual. The answer to so many prayers just generates more questions.
How much exposure and adulation is too much? How much pressure should a 19-year-old be expected to bear? Is Christian Pulisic already the USA’s best player, and can a team stocked with seasoned vets be built around him?
They’re concerns of a philosophical sort, and the responses will be matters of opinion. But there’s another question of a simpler, more technical nature that’s been asked—and asked again. And it’s of more pressing importance as the USA straddles the threshold between World Cup qualification and humiliating oblivion.
What position does Pulisic play?
The player has addressed it. Coach Bruce Arena has addressed it. Even the Bundesliga’s official website has addressed it: “On the wing or through the middle: What is Christian Pulisic's best position?” asked the headline on an August article. As the Americans (2-3-3) face Panama (2-2-4) on Friday evening in Orlando and then head to Trinidad & Tobago (1-7-0) for the final round of the Hexagonal four days later, finding the right answer could be crucial.
Pulisic has five goals and five assists in qualifying, including three of each during the Hex. The Americans are 4-0-1 with a +18 goal differential when the Pennsylvanian phenom gets on the scoresheet. The results when he’s been bottled up are what’s left the USA in this precarious position.
“He’s a very talented player and at his age, to break in with one of the top clubs in the Bundesliga is very impressive …. He’s still 19 years old and you have be smart about that, but he’s got a great flair in the attacking third of the field.” Arena said during a Sirius XM appearance this week. “The challenge with him is always going to be to find his position, and can he play in a position on the field with some consistency to enable him to grow. That’s the challenge he’s had with [Borussia Dortmund]. That the challenge he has with the national team.”
And it’s a challenge that’s multi-layered. The answer, if there is one, doesn’t impact only Pulisic. It affects the players around him and the tactical and personnel options at the manager’s disposal. Look no further than the Hexagonal opener against Mexico last November, when former coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he opted for an unfamiliar 3-5-2 solely to give Pulisic “freedom to roam and hurt Mexico at specific times, similar to what he does at Borussia Dortmund.”
But the domino effect was real. The USA looked lost, and the formation was abandoned before halftime.
Arena has spent more time training in the 3-5-2. The Americans used it to good effect in the return match against Mexico and then in the climactic closing moments against Honduras last month, when Pulisic shifted inside and helped sustain the pressure that led to Bobby Wood’s late equalizer. But the qualities that seduced Klinsmannn have been evident in the tried-and-true 4-4-2 as well. Pulisic started in the middle against Honduras in March and against Trinidad in June. The result: two wins by a combined 8-0, with Pulisic scoring three and adding two assists.
Those were home games against the two weakest teams in the Hex, however. The USA expected to dominate the ball and control the flow of play, giving Arena the luxury of leaving midfielder Michael Bradley and the center backs to cover for Pulisic defensively. But that luxury isn’t always available, and leaving Pulisic inside and adding an additional defensive or linking presence likely means sacrificing a forward. Conversely, the threat isn’t as immediate when Pulisic loses the ball in wider areas. He’ll have more ground to cover out there, but there's a lot more room and time to run at defenders. Although the USA doesn’t play the 4-3-3 employed by Dortmund, Arena’s instinct to put Pulisic on the flank, an area of the field he’s more accustomed to patrolling for his club, is logical.
So, the questions hang over these qualifiers. What spot is best for the player? And is that spot best for the team?
Landon Donovan has heard those questions before. After all, he once was the focus of them. Now a Fox Sports analyst and an investor in Swansea City and a potential MLS expansion outfit in San Diego, the retired star is American soccer’s closet approximation to Pulisic: quick, skillful and blessed with a keen ability to make defenders miss.
Donovan played out wide—quite memorably as a deep-lying, counterattacking threat at the 2010 World Cup. He also played up front, either as a striker or as a withdrawn forward looking to create and combine. Donovan’s goal-scoring exploits have been under the spotlight recently as Clint Dempsey matched his national team record of 57. But Donovan had 58 assists for the USA as well, more than twice any other player. He was an attacking Swiss Army Knife, and he recalls people wondering what position, focus and burden was the right one.
“There are many pieces to this,” Donovan told SI.com this week. “One, is where does Christian like playing? Where does Christian want to play? I’m sure he has an idea of where, in a perfect world, he wants to play. But he’s also just happy to be on the field.
“For me, early in my career, I didn’t care where I played,” continued Donovan, who became a USA regular at 19. “I just wanted to play. As I got older, there were two pieces. Where I liked playing and where I could be most effective in a given game. I remember having many conversations with Bruce about it.”
Addressing the position problem in March before his brilliant performance against Honduras, Pulisic said something that could’ve come straight from Donovan.
"I just like to be on the field really anywhere,” he told reporters. "Wherever I am on the field, I'm just trying to be an attacking presence and constantly be on their back four and try to make a difference in that way. So it doesn't matter where I play for my club. When I'm here, I'm going to try to do the same things."
The “I'm thrilled to be here and I'll play anywhere” part wanes as a player ages. But the need for flexibility, especially for a gifted attacker, doesn’t. Pigeon-holing such a player, Donovan said, makes little sense. The strengths and weaknesses of an opponent vary, as do the state of the game and competition. Orlando isn’t Mexico City, Panama isn’t Trinidad or Brazil and Friday’s game is a must-win.
“My guess is, knowing Bruce, he’s going to say, 'We’re going for it. If we can’t beat Panama at home, we don’t deserve to get the World Cup. So let’s go for it, let our guys feel confident and aggressive and we’re focusing on what we do well and not worrying about too much else,’” Donovan said.
Going for it means playing on the front foot, attacking defenders and the space behind them and looking to control the ball and tempo. If Pulisic plays on the flank in a 4-4-2, he’ll likely have some defensive responsibilities, and he’s going to have to retreat at times to help serve as an outlet—something that didn’t work in last month’s loss to Costa Rica. Similarly, if he’s in front of Bradley in a diamond, the U.S. will have to play relatively narrow in order to blunt the Panamanian counter.
“Christian is not in the team because he’s a defensive stalwart. He’s in the team because he can make [attacking] plays that other people don’t make. In my opinion, you get him as close to the goal as you can and get people around him that can put out fires if need be,” Donovan said.
If that means sitting Dempsey, Wood or Jozy Altidore, then that’s the price to pay for giving Pulisic the freedom to focus on the attack. His talent suggests it’s a trade worth making.
“I don't think it matters,” former USA defender Marcelo Balboa told ESPN when discussing Pulisic’s attacking starting point. “I think every coach has their thoughts of where they want him to play. We've seen Jurgen Klinsmann move him around to quite a few different spots. We’ve seen Bruce Arena do the same. My opinion: I like him playing as the second forward. I like him free. I like him being able to go find the ball and not have too much defensive responsibility. I like him to go find the game and get it.”
That, Donovan said, is what soccer’s best attackers ultimately want—the freedom to exploit the weaknesses they sniff out during the course of a game. Figure out what you have to do defensively given the system that day, but know you’re free to create going forward.
“A coach could say, ‘You’re playing attacking mid in a 3-5-2 or you’re playing outside mid in a 4-4-2 or you’re playing as a second striker or a lone striker'—the way I always looked at it first was, what did that mean my defensive responsibilities were,” Donovan said. “If I’m playing as one of the two forwards and I end up out on the left wing for 80% of the game because I’m destroying the guy on that side of the field, so be it. Nobody’s going to tell me to go back into the middle.”
Donovan said managers also will factor in the form of other attacking players. If you’ve got two forwards on fire, for example, designing a game plan that forces one of them to the bench probably isn’t in the team’s interest. Dempsey has been clutch for the Americans during qualifying, but Arena has said on several occasions that the 34-year-old no longer is a 180-minutes-in-four-days player. Altidore has recently returned from a short injury layoff, and no one else has been lighting it up in recent weeks or established himself as an obvious, every-game first choice. So, there’s a good chance Pulisic will be handed the keys to the U.S. attack.
“We’re coming out with an aggressive game plan tomorrow,” Pulisic told reporters in Orlando on Thursday. “We’re not worried about Panama, what they’re going to do, or coming out trying to hack us or something like that. We’re going to be ready for whatever comes. We’re prepared for anything.”
Preparing for anything—being flexible and adaptive—means true positional and tactical consistency might be impossible to nail down. Arena probably will be facing the “challenge” he discussed on the radio for as long as he manages Pulisic. He moved Donovan around for a decade. The very best players in any sport are creative and improvisational. They do things no one else saw coming. As Donovan said, if that means going after the right back all night, it means going after the right back. Position doesn’t define these players.
There were "many conversations with Bruce," after all.
“You’ve got to get him the ball and you’ve got to get him the opportunity to make plays,” Donovan said. “Whatever position you see that filling in best is where you play him.”