The Brightest Stars of the Stars and Stripes

Christian Pulisic is the first of many for the USA.

The United States of America, home to some of the best athletes in the entire world is yet to produce a “Golden Generation” for the beautiful game. Some people believe this is due to the large variety of sports the country offers to the youth, while most other countries give their kids far less choices on the menu. With soccer becoming the fastest-growing sport in America, all this may change. America has produced the best superstars basketball, baseball and American football have to offer, but is it finally time USA puts together a group of kids that could contend for a World Cup? While you might scoff at the crazy notion that the USMNT could possibly undergo a golden generation, you’ll be surprised to hear all that America’s youth teams have achieved in the past few years.

Christian Pulisic moved to German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund in February 2015 and has exceeded expectations since his arrival. The Pennsylvania native arrived in Germany at sixteen years of age and made his senior debut less than a year later. After impressing Thomas Tuchel in friendly matches with the first team, the manager decided he had earned his chance to play in a Bundesliga match. Pulisic was substituted onto the pitch in a 2-0 win over FC Ingolstadt and got his first taste of Bundesliga action. Pulisic was so impressive that Tuchel decided the American had earned a place in Borussia Dortmund’s starting XI. Tuchel praised Pulisic’s performances, saying, “He’s a teenager in his first year of professional football. His first two games in the starting eleven were in Leverkusen and here today in Schalke – not the easiest of tasks. It shows our huge appreciation that we see him as a full-time player on our team.” Little did Tuchel or Pulisic know what the future would hold.

A week after an impressive outing vs Schalke, Pulisic bagged his first career Bundesliga goal in a win over Hamburger SV. This made him the youngest foreigner to ever score in a Bundesliga match, but Pulisic did not stop there. The American scored just six days later, making him the youngest player to score two goals in Germany’s top division. In his first competitive game this season, Christian became the youngest player ever fielded by Borussia Dortmund in a UEFA Champions League match. A week after his Champions League debut, the kid grabbed a goal and two assists just one day after his 18th birthday. Pulisic enjoyed his birthday month of September as he was brought on as a late substitute vs. Real Madrid when his side was down 2-1. Again, the American delivered. Pulisic helped set up a late, dramatic equalizer and changed the look of the game due to his impeccable dribbling. A month later, Pulisic saw himself used as a super sub once again, coming on when his side trailed 3-1 to Ingolstadt. Assisting a goal to bring his side within one goal was not enough for him, so he decided to score a late equalizer to rescue a point for his side. Pulisic helped his side reach the Champions League Quarter-Finals with a win over Benfica, becoming BVB’s youngest ever goal scorer in the Champions League.

During his rise, USA knew they had to tie up the kid because he had received an offer to play for the Croatian national team as well. Pulisic applied for and successfully received Croatian citizenship when he arrived in Germany to avoid having to apply for a German work visa. Christian Pulisic has exceeded expectations in Germany, and it’s no surprise that he has done the same for his national team. Pulisic is the youngest American to ever appear in a World Cup qualifier. Just two months after his international debut, Pulisic became the youngest goal scorer in USA history. Christian Pulisic is undoubtedly the best player USA has at their disposal at the moment and he’s still just 18. During his time with the national team he has also displayed his versatility: while he usually plays on the wing for Dortmund, he quickly slotted into the number ten role for his national team, becoming the country’s main playmaker. While all of this is really impressive, Christian Pulisic cannot single handedly help his nation win any trophies, he will need help. Luckily for him, he might just be the start of a “Golden Generation” for America.

United States supporters are known to get ahead of themselves in terms of believing they have “the next big thing” in soccer. The biggest example of this would be Freddy Adu. Making his professional debut at 14, he looked to be the most promising talent in world football, and even drew comparisons to Pelé. Being linked with the biggest clubs in the world, the future looked bright, but he was never able to a lasting impact for neither club nor country, and will forever be remembered as one of the biggest flops in the entirety of the sports history, not just America’s. While it was not just USA supporters that were hyping him up, they are probably at fault for allowing the hype to build as much as it did. Adu went on to have an overall disappointing career, and at 27, he is playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL, the second tier football in America. However, Adu being the most popular of the bunch, does not make him the only one. Players like Gedion Zelalem and Julian Green have also proved to be disappointing. Gedion Zelalem is definitely a talented player, after all, you have to be good at the game to play for a club like Arsenal, but he has never proved that he is worth the hype. The twenty-year-old is currently on loan at VVV-Venlo, where he recently scored his first professional goal, but is yet to make a Premier League appearance for the Gunners. The Arsenal kid has also never made an appearance for his nation’s senior team and doesn’t look to be the most promising talent in his midfield position at America’s disposal. At only 20, it is certainly too early to write him off, but he has not lived up to expectations. Similarly, Julian Green showed promise for the national team, impressing enough in the spring of 2014 to earn a place on the 2014 World Cup roster. Julian Green scored on his first ever touch in the World Cup in a crazy 2-1 loss to Belgium. While he did not play much, the promise was still there for the kid who played for Bayern Munich at the time. However, staying at Bayern until 2017 was not his smartest move. Seeing almost no first team football stagnated his development drastically. While he is only 21 years of age and it is too early to write him off, his progress has stalled like Zelalem.

So, if the USA is known to overhype their players, what makes the current youth capable of overturning that label? Well, the youth teams have improved drastically and currently possess some of the sport’s most exciting products. The U17 team in particular have proved to be incredible, winning the 2016 Nike International Friendly tournament, where they defeated the likes of Brazil, Portugal and Turkey. The United States conceded only two goals to Portugal and Turkey in the opening two games. Beating Portugal, a country on the brink of a golden generation themselves, is impressive enough, but the fact that America scored 15 goals in the tournament. USA opened up the tournament with a 7-1 thrashing over Portugal which opened up a lot of people’s eyes around the world. USA then proceeded to beat the weakest team there, Turkey, by a score of 5-1. After a very impressive start to the tournament, the USA side only needed to draw Brazil to lift the trophy, but they wanted to win it in fashion. USA went out and beat the South American giants 3-0 and lifted the trophy that could be looked back on in the future as the first of many for this group.

Perhaps the most exciting prospect from this bunch is none other than Atlanta United homegrown, Andrew Carleton. The attacker is versatile enough as to where he can play anywhere in a front three but is most productive on the left wing. At 16, he could become the player Christian Pulisic needs to play with if USA want to achieve the unthinkable. Similar to Pulisic, Carleton is another terrific dribbler catching the eyes of clubs around Europe. Atlanta United beat many European clubs to his signature, but the club’s technical director Carlos Bocanegra refused to say which clubs were interested. Carleton scored a goal in Atlanta United’s preseason friendly against Chattanooga FC but is yet to make a competitive appearance for the side as he currently sits behind some of the most dangerous attackers in MLS, from Miguel Almirón to Josef Martinez. Andrew Carleton recently helped the U17 side qualify for the U17 World Cup which will take place in India and will last most of October. USA finished the CONCACAF tournament 5-0-1, only losing to Mexico in penalties in the final. However, Andrew Carleton grabbed a delightful goal as he chipped the Mexican keeper to give his side a 1-0 lead. USA looked very dominant throughout the entire tournament and it was not just a one-man show.

Even more impressive than Carleton in the CONCACAF tournament was Joshua Sargent. The captain scored five goals in the six games and led his nation in scoring for the tournament. Sargent has trained with sides in Europe as well as MLS side Sporting KC. In October of 2016, prior to winning the Nike International Friendly tournament, Sargent took a week-long trial with Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven. Then, at just 16 years of age, he trained with USA’s U20 national team. Soon after, he joined fellow youth internationals Haji Wright, Weston McKennie, and Nicholas Taitague at Schalke’s youth team. Sargent will look to continue to score goals as he progresses up the national team youth levels and may even look to find a home in Europe if the right club comes knocking on the door. However, despite what Sargent has already achieved, he is not the only star striker for the U17 side. Ballon d’Or winner George Weah’s son Timothy is also in that squad and has impressed supporters as well. The 17-year-old out of New York City is currently playing for Paris Saint-Germain and has been scoring in France as he recently won the U17 championship with PSG. The NYC native once scored five goals in a single match for PSG and has been on people’s radars ever since. Two attackers who are scoring goals for fun is surely enough for this side, right? While it may be sufficient, the Americans are blessed to have another class prospect in Ayo Akinola. Akinola has the most impressive goal scoring record for the side as he has scored 24 goals in 25 games for America’s U17 side. While players like Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood might be the people to take over when Clint Dempsey retires, this crop of kids could very quickly take over in the United States’ senior side.

All of this attacking talent is just in one single youth national team. Gio Reyna, son of U.S. soccer legend Claudio Reyna, is attracting plenty of attention due to his performances with NYCFC’s youth team. Said to be one of the most promising talents in world football at his age, he proved his worth as he helped his U15 side win the Torneo Della Nazione title early in May of 2017. Captaining his nation to the finals against England wasn’t enough for him. His side went down 1-0 in the match but found an equalizer through Reyna’s NYCFC teammate Joseph Scally. Reyna found himself through on goal with just three minutes remaining in the match and coolly slotted it home to win his side the match and lift the prestigious Torneo Della Nazione title. If European clubs didn’t know the name prior to the tournament they definitely do now.

Another player who is exciting fans in the Big Apple is James Sands. The 16-year-old center back is just another star in the U17 side that participated in the CONCACAF tournament and was named into the “Best XI” of the tournament. His right back, Jaylin Lindsey was also named into the side as well as the goalkeeper Justin Garces. Moving further up the pitch, Chris Durkin and Josh Sargent were also named into the tournament’s “Best XI”. The United States unsurprisingly had the most players named to this team with five players. James Sands received praise from Patrick Vieira and MLS MVP David Villa, and even partnered Andrea Pirlo in central midfield, as he was the only NYCFC academy player called into the preseason camp.

While this is the most promising crop of talent the nation has ever seen, none of these players are likely to be ready for the 2018 World Cup. However, there are a few players who are on the brink of becoming players for the USMNT side or players who have recently began playing with the senior team and could play a big part in the next World Cup. Perhaps the most capable and ready is none other than FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta. The 21-year-old has been in and out of the senior team in the past but is currently enjoying his soccer more than ever, helping his side to an unbeaten start to the season eight games in. Like the rest of this crop of American talent, Acosta is very versatile, able to play as a holding midfielder or as a more advanced #8. Improving his game every season, it seems as if he has found his niche a box-to-box midfielder, a position the nation is desperately lacking in.

America also need to find a partner for John Brooks who is having a terrific season with Hertha Berlin in Germany and who, despite his young age (24), is the best defender the country have as their disposal. Matt Miazga of Chelsea is definitely an option to take into consideration as he is enjoying a loan spell at Vitesse, helping his side win the KNVB Cup. The promising 21-year-old has improved his game drastically since joining the Eredivisie and will be hoping to represent his nation. Erik Palmer-Brown of Sporting KC is drawing the attention of the biggest clubs around Europe and is definitely a player for the future. With Juventus, FC Porto (where he was previously loaned to), Sporting CP and Ajax all interested, he is definitely a player to keep an eye on. Cameron Carter-Vickers of Tottenham is also another terrific prospect who could make an impact on the United States senior team in the future, having captained the U20 team in the past. However, he has yet to make an appearance for the senior team, which could prove problematic; the English FA are also interested in tying the Tottenham prospect up and USA and England are in a race to cap-tie the 19-year-old. Carter-Vickers has a physically imposing body and is almost built like an NFL Tight End, but this does not slow him down, and his athleticism and strength make him an extremely promising defender. All of these players are great options to partner John Brooks in the very near future.

Moving further up the pitch, USA has a plethora of talent to look upon in the future. Emerson Hyndman, currently on loan with Scottish side Rangers FC, is loving his temporary home. He has made thirteen appearances since arriving, scoring four goals from the midfield, including a few vital winners and equalizers. However, the Texas-born kid is not limited to just goals, as he assisted a winner in his debut for the club to win Rangers a full three points. Hyndman will hope his brilliant spell in Scotland will help him get more first team minutes for his club, Bournemouth. Moving even further up the pitch, there is Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch. One of the quickest players in the Premier League, Lynden found himself playing more games than he expected at the beginning of the 2016-17 Premier League season but a lengthy injury delayed his progress. However, getting back to full strength could see the player generate a lot of well-earned hype.

In attack, Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood are two players who are already in and out of the XI but will both be hoping to cement their spots in the national team XI before the start of the 2018 World Cup. Bobby Wood is an out and out striker, whereas the quicker Jordan Morris is still trying to figure out if he would get the most out of himself by playing on the wing. Jordan Morris made his senior team debut for USA when he was still at college and definitely seemed to fit best as striker, but with Clint Dempsey leading the attack in Seattle, he has found himself out on the wing more often than he would have expected but has done so with great success. Despite having a trial with Werder Bremen and being offered a contract, he opted to sign as a homegrown player for Seattle Sounders, the club he had been with his whole life. In addition, Brooks Lennon of Liverpool is just 19 and has been very impressive in Liverpool’s youth academy, earning praise from senior manager Jurgen Klopp. A lot of healthy competition for the striker position in the future is expected, but healthy competition is never a bad thing.

This could be the golden generation for USA. However, it is not “now or never” because of the progression of the United States youth setup; players like this are expected to be placed into the senior team for years to come. So, who will be the next big star like Christian Pulisic? Will it be Andrew Carleton? Will it be Joshua Sargent? Will one of the U17 players break into the senior team at 17 or 18 years of age similarly to Christian Pulisic or will we have to wait to see these players grow into their potential? Nobody has any of these answers, but one thing is for sure, Christian Pulisic may be the first world class prospect of his generation, but he will certainly not be the last.

Photo Credit: MEXSPORT

By: @JayStucchio