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Is a fresh face about to solve the US Mens' National Team identity crisis?

Tuesday 25th October 2016
So, Bill Goldberg is apparently coming out of retirement to stage a rematch with Brock Lesnar. If you follow the WWE, you'll know they've been bringing back retired stars quite a bit over the last few years. If they're too old to wrestle, like Rick Flair or Roddy Piper, they get beaten up by some young star (or stars) during an interview. If they've still got some game, their job, win or lose, and it's mostly lose, is usually to make one of those young stars look good. In Sting's case, it was to convince fans an old star, namely Triple H still had game. The WWE has been re-treading old stars because their current stable haven't exhibited the market-transcending charisma Attitude Era stars like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, and a younger Triple H had. The brand doesn't have the mainstream drawing power it once did because it has lost the identity it once had. The same can be said, on a smaller scale in terms of brand recognition, for the US Mens' National Team.
US soccer (and I'm going to call it that throughout this piece to distinguish it from American football, so fair warning to all you strange Brits who actually like MLS) reached its apex in 2009, when it surprised then Euro and soon-to-be World Cup Champions Spain 2-0 in the Confederations Cup semi-final, then went up by the same score against Brazil in the final, before conceding three second-half goals. The tournament began with unconvincing losses, 1-3 and 0-3 to Italy and Brazil respectively, before the Americans salvaged a place in the semis by thrashing Egypt 3-0, allowing them through at the Azzurri's expense on goals scored. Rather than an inexorable breakthrough, then, the Americans' sudden relevancy was more like flicking on a light. A group of talented players from a country where the game was not in the fore suddenly got it.

The player who led the way, of course, was Landon Donovan. Backed by Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, as well as Tim Howard in goal, the US would return to South Africa for the World Cup, where they would fight their way to the knockout rounds, but lose a heartbreaker to the lone African team remaining, Ghana. Donovan's memorable goal in stoppage time versus Algeria in their final group match put the US through. In all, Donovan would tally 57 goals for the USMNT, and, much like Goldberg in coming out of retirement this season to aid an injury-riddled LA Galaxy side, 155 and counting for his various clubs.
All but 21 came in MLS, where he is the all-time scorer. His preference for playing in the US, in lieu of fighting for a place in the star-studded Bayern Munich squad or, later, to force a permanent move to Everton after he had made an impact at Goodison Park during a short loan spell, have always been held against him. Critics attribute the decision to a lack of confidence. Yet, a player bereft a sizable pair does not guarantee a championship, as he did, then delivered in his farewell season with the Galaxy. Nor does he challenge a global superstar like David Beckham's commitment to club. He did that, as well, embarrassing the Englishman into putting as much emphasis on his club duties as he did his flagging England career.

A hesitant player certainly doesn't thrive under the pressure placed on a country's best player, either. Donovan's stats tell you all you need to know in that regard. He broke through as a teenager, scoring the winner, then assisting on the insurance goal, in a US victory over Mexico at the LA Coliseum. As a substitute. In his first US cap. The end was equally shocking. Left off the 2014 World Cup squad by Jürgen Klinsmann, who insists the snub was in fairness to better players available, not because Donovan had opted to take a break from international play ahead of the Gold Cup after nearly three years of non-stop play between his Galaxy duties, the USMNT, and two loan spells with Everton. From the first day to the last, however, Landon Donovan was consistently the United States' best, most prolific player.

It may be Klinsmann's single greatest error, having omitted Donovan from the Brazil-bound squad. LD's club play in wake of the snub proved he was still the best American player in the game, much less outside the top 23. Not only was Chris Wondolowski, the pure poacher whose lone skill was spacial sense rather than pace or technical ability, a less gifted player, but his howler in the US-Belgium match, still scoreless at the time, may have been the difference between the Americans advancing to the quarters or beyond and going home. I'm among many Landon Donovan fans who believe, vision-impaired linesmen aside, had LD been alone in the six with the goal gaping and the ball at his feet at the death, the match would have ended in an American victory, just as it did versus Algeria four years earlier.
In the interim, Klinsmann's US side has been embarrassed at the Gold Cup, then outshone at the Copa America Centenario. Despite Klinsmann's opinion, the downturn was because there were not better players available. Donovan had retired, rendering himself unavailable for selection even if Klinsmann underwent a change of heart. Clint Dempsey was too old to be effective. Tim Howard had been supplanted by Brad Guzman after taking his own international break (just sayin'). And Michael Bradley was struggling through a Wayne Rooney-esque ordeal, being auditioned in a more advanced midfield position, rather than being left in the deep-lying role in which he is most effective, starting counter-attacks with incisive passes or bombing forward runs. Experimenting with Bradley was the most telling clue as to the effect Donovan's absence left on a USMNT in search of new stars. Like the post-Attitude Era WWE, their identity had gone missing. The question for American soccer is the same put to Goldberg after he had decimated yet another opponent. Who's next?

Luckily for supporters, not to mention Klinsmann's job security, a new identity may be ready to emerge, defined by another young, talented phenom. While this new player isn't a Landon Donovan clone, with many differences between the two, there are some startling similarities. Like Donovan, Christian Pulisic made an immediate impression in the USMNT. It wasn't his first cap, but the seventeen-year-old calmly slotted home a Darlington Nagbe set-up to complete the US' 4-0 victory over Bolivia in a pre-Copa friendly. As Donovan did with Bayer Leverkusen II, where he netted nine goals before his struggles with the first team, then Bayern, Pulisic is making a name for himself in the Bundesliga. What's more, he's doing it at a higher level than his predecessor. In April, he became the youngest foreign player to score a Bundesliga goal in Borussia Dortmund's 3-0 win over Hamburg. Six days later, he became the youngest of any nationality to notch two strikes in the German top flight, at Stuttgart's expense.
While Pulisic was eligible to play for Croatia through his grandfather, he is not one of the many foreign-born US citizens who Klinsmann has successfully recruited. Bringing in so-called outsiders (despite their parentage) was another aspect of the German's program which altered the team's identity, making it more opportunistic than genuine to some, shall we say more discriminating, eyes. Born and raised in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Pulisic doesn't fall into the "imported" category so many detractors apply to players like Jermaine Jones, Mix Diskerud, or Fabian Johnson. Despite the likelihood he won't play in MLS until the twilight of his career, especially with clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona rumored to be monitoring his progress at Dortmund, his 'homegrown' status makes him more palatable as a candidate to succeed Donovan as American soccer's torchbearer to those with a more Trumpist view of what it means to be American.

Carrying a nation's hopes, even in sport, is admittedly an immense burden to drop on a seventeen-year-old's shoulders. Still, Pulisic is closer to Donovan's eighteen years in breaking through for the US than Freddy Adu's fourteen when signed by DC United. Nor is he being rushed. While giving him opportunities to shine, both Klinsmann and BvB coach Thomas Teuchel are bringing the youngster along slowly, neither thrusting him into a regular starter's role. There was, and remains, very little time or opportunity for young players at a club like Bayern. At the moment, Julian Green can probably tell you exactly how Donovan felt before deciding to come back to MLS. In the North Rhine-Westphalia, Pulisic will experience a much better environment for a prodigy.

Green's speed and direct approach are probably more reminiscent of Donovan than Pulisic's greater technical ability. The rap against the American style has always been its reliance on athleticism, however. Developing a player with skills, finishing ability, and vision is the next evolutionary leap the program faces. It's possible Pulisic has come along at exactly the right time.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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