Becoming the next Christian Pulisic, by the man who brought the USA’s brightest soccer star to Borussia Dortmund
Rob Moore, founder of the London-based football consultancy On Target, argues that the best way for US soccer to recover from the disappointment of not reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup is to encourage the country’s most talented young players to take the plunge and move across the pond. In time, he believes that could transform the US Men’s National Team into a genuine force to be reckoned with.
Watch: Christian Pulisic tackles your pressing questions
“I’m trying to set the bar higher,” the South African explained in an interview with The Ringer. “I’m trying to play a small role in helping America have more world-class players at the absolute top, which by definition will be few and far between. But the biggest challenge is the step just below that – in other words, getting more Americans playing at good clubs in good leagues in Europe. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Moore was the man Mark Pulisic – Christian’s father – got in touch with when he was looking to find his 14-year-old son a place at one of Europe’s top academies. Pulisic had been invited for a trial with Barcelona at their La Masia academy, but Moore felt that the Bundesliga – with its emphasis on youth development – would be a better fit, and he consequently secured the American prodigy an offer from Dortmund in early 2015. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Together with Rob and my family, we could see that Dortmund was the best place for my development,” Pulisic himself admitted. “We haven’t looked back since.”
Pulisic has gone on to become the poster boy for American soccer abroad, breaking countless records at both club and international level and coming agonisingly close to hauling the USMNT to Russia, with seven goals and seven assists in their ultimately unsuccessful qualifying campaign. Yet it was a quirk of fate – the fact that his grandfather was born in Croatia, and he was therefore eligible for an EU passport – that enabled him to join Dortmund at such an early age.
“As a result of my dual citizenship, I’ve been able to play in Europe, training at the Dortmund academy, since I was 16,” Pulisic explained on The Players’ Tribune. “Without it, I would have had to wait until I was 18. And for a soccer player, those 16-18 years are everything. From a developmental perspective, it’s almost like this sweet spot, where a player’s growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way – where a player can make their biggest leap in development by far.”
Not all American players have had Pulisic’s good fortune when it comes to making an early start in Europe – although a handful of the Bundesliga’s current USA stars, including John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), were born in Germany and also possess dual citizenship. Others, such as Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie and Werder Bremen forward Josh Sargent, had to wait until they turned 18 before signing pro terms on the old continent.
“If you have the opportunity to come to Europe, I would say for me… 100 per cent take it!” McKennie told ESPN FC. “No offence to MLS or anything, but you can say that the Bundesliga is a better league. If it’s the right choice, if everything fits, if everything makes sense, I would say come.”
McKennie is one of three Americans on the books at Schalke, along with another two of Moore’s clients: Nick Taitague and Haji Wright, who is currently on loan at Bundesliga 2 side Sandhausen. In total, the 54-year-old has placed 11 young Americans at European clubs, and his latest unpolished gem – 16-year-old Taylor Booth – has been linked with a move to the Bundesliga.
“If you look at what MLS has done, they’ve done a great job for a certain level of player,” Moore said. “And that level of player is 99.9 per cent of the football-playing population.”
That remaining 0.1 per cent is where Moore comes in. Those players – the three or four who come through each year in the States, according to the South African – are the ones with the potential of a Pulisic and in need of European experience to reach that level.
“It’s in Dortmund’s academy where Pulisic matured from a raw American talent into a top European player,” Moore stressed. “People get defensive when you’re talking about a minute percentage, but these guys need to be developed at a higher level, for their sake, to maximise their potential.”
Former USA youth coach Hugo Perez echoed that sentiment: “If our best players want to leave, I think they should because whether we like it or not, Europe is where the top football is being played right now.”
Moore also aired a word of caution for those youngsters taking the plunge across the Atlantic. “There’s no doubt that the biggest challenge for American players is the change of mentality once you have got your first European contract,” he says. “It’s less of my challenge and more of their determination now. And yes, you can talk them through certain things off the field, but the real desire to make it must come from within themselves.”
That is where the likes of Pulisic stand head and shoulders above the rest. Even USA great Landon Donovan, who moved to Europe with Bayer Leverkusen as a 17-year-old, struggled to adapt to life across the pond. It wasn’t until six years after first joining Die Werkself that he made his Bundesliga debut, but even then only played seven times.
Dortmund’s Pulisic, however, has taken to German and European football as a whole like a duck to water. The youngest American to feature in the Bundesliga at 17 years, four months and 12 days, the Hershey, Pennsylvania native has already made over 60 top-flight appearances and is the only American this season to play in the UEFA Champions League.
In fact, only two players from the USA have played more in Europe’s top continental competition than Pulisic. Schalke’s McKennie has a chance of joining him in the tournament next season, yet bona fide American soccer stars remain scarce.
Moore is out to change that and believes that the evidence of his work will be seen when the USA turn out at the 2022 World Cup. He states that his aim is to “push the bar a little higher and help more Americans believe they can actually make it.”
Moore has certainly set the ball rolling with Pulisic. Still only 19, the story of the USMNT’s Player of the Year for 2017 can serve as inspiration for all aspiring American soccer players.