The number 10 shirt in football carries with it a special kind of significance. The greats of the game — Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, and Lionel Messi to name but four — have worn the iconic number and have literally carried their nations on their backs in the process.
The fresh-faced, 18-year-old Christian Pulisic, who will still be a teenager by the time of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, is starting to get used to the weight of that responsibility.
He has not only become an integral part of his club side Borussia Dortmund’s midfield — where he wears the number 22, as German World Cup-winning goalscorer Mario Gotze has a lock on the 10 shirt — but has also been essentially entrusted with the keys to driving the US men’s team (USMNT) to Russia.
It’s been a bumpy ride to say the least, but the side still has their fate in their own hands with two qualifying games to go in the CONCACAF group.
Those bumps prompted the former US international Alexi Lalas to label the current crop of USMNT players “underperforming, tattooed millionaires.”
Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were singled out for particular criticism by Lalas, before the former US international turned his attention to Pulisic.
“And, oh, by the way, to all the guys that I didn’t mention, it’s because you don’t even warrant a mention,” Lalas told Fox Sports on Sunday. “That includes you too, Wonder Boy.”
However, USMNT coach Bruce Arena is in no doubt as to what he has at his disposal, which is understandable, considering Pulisic has scored seven goals for the national team in the past year alone.
“I was very fortunate in 2002 to have two young stars on our World Cup team in Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, and Christian’s ahead of them at this point,” Arena told CNN in New York, ahead of the home defeat to Costa Rica.
“He’ll be 19 if we qualify for a World Cup, and he’s an outstanding player playing in one of the great club teams in Germany, and in the world. His future’s incredible and I think Christian’s a player that will be around in 2026 as well.”
As well as being the youngest player to represent the US and score for his country in a World Cup qualifier, Pulisic is also the youngest foreigner to find the back of the net in the Bundesliga.
For good measure, he’s Dortmund’s youngest-ever goal scorer in the Champions League, and he’ll need to be at his best in a group against the holders Real Madrid, as well as Tottenham, who the Bundesliga club face on Wednesday.
Dortmund has a good track record in developing young talent, which will likely continue under the tutelage of new coach Peter Bosz, who most recently worked wonders with Ajax Amsterdam.
Unsurprisingly, the player himself has relished playing in Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, telling CNN World Sport’s Patrick Snell earlier this year that his deftly-taken debut goal in the Champions League against Benfica, “was truly special … it’s such a big moment to do it in that style,” going on to say: “it’s up there with the debut, the first goal, it could be on top.”
While Pulisic himself has been entirely humble about his remarkable rise — “It’s been amazing. Everything has happened so fast. Of course I’m still so young, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It really is a dream come true to me” — his USMNT colleagues are far more effusive in their praise.
“Christian’s attributes are countless, I think he has all the physical tools to be a superstar,” affirms goalkeeper Howard.
“He can go wherever he wants to go,” adds Pulisic’s midfield teammate Dempsey, who knows a thing or two about lofty expectations.
“I think he’s just so smooth on the ball. He has such a change of pace, causes mismatches because he’s able to glide past the first defender; someone has to step to him and other players are open.
Dempsey added: “Great vision, he can thread the pass so he showed that he’s getting clinical in front of goal and has a very, very bright future, I can’t wait to see all the stuff he’s able to accomplish.”
No wonder that former USMNT goalkeeper Kasey Keller believes Pulisic could become the first US player to command a transfer fee of $100 million, “by a Barcelona, a Real Madrid, a Manchester United, a Chelsea, a Bayern Munich.”
Arena concurs, telling CNN that “he may end up at one of the elite clubs in the world.”
And when it is put to Dempsey that perhaps Barcelona opted for the wrong Dortmund player in Ousmane Dembele, rather than Pulisic, to replace Neymar, he responds that, “I think he can play for any club. He has to follow what’s best for him. Everyone has their own path.
“He’s playing Champions League now and doing great there so we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.”
Pulisic’s bright future is arguably a product of his past. Both his parents played at university, and father Mark played professional indoor football and coached too.
Pulisic’s Dad didn’t just hone his son’s promising skills in his birthplace of Hershey, Pennsylvania. At the age of seven, Pulisic spent the year in England, and in 2005 played for the youth team of Brackley Town in Northamptonshire, 70 miles north of London.
While his stint overseas was brief, Pulisic has said England is where his love for the game started to come alive.
Howard is of the opinion that Pulisic’s upbringing and the journey that’s taken him to Germany have played their parts in the boy wonder quickly turning into a man.
“From everything I know, he comes from a very good family,” Howard explains to CNN. “He has learned his football at a traditionally powerful club, a world-renowned club, and the mental side and the longevity side is up to him. The sky’s the limit for him; the rest of it is in his hands.”
Paradoxically, Pulisic has been witnessing firsthand that age-old sign of respect from his international rivals, who have at times kicked out at him in frustration, while referees have arguably not given the young playmaker the protection he needs.
The same scenario was experienced by a certain Pele at the World Cup in 1966, while Maradona and Messi have had to deal with their shins being targeted by defenders. It’s part and parcel of the blessing and curse that comes with wearing that number 10 shirt.
In fact, in his country’s crucial 1-1 draw away to Honduras in early September, Pulisic had spent 85 minutes trying to unlock the opposition’s defense with a key contribution but to no avail.
The same scenario had played out in the previous match at home to Costa Rica, which ended in a damaging defeat.
But four days on in Honduras, Pulisic didn’t allow his head to drop, and a late burst resulted in a free-kick being awarded in a dangerous position.
From the resulting set-piece, the USMNT scored to claim a precious point. Even when not directly involved, Pulisic’s contribution had yet again proven pivotal.