It’s been nearly three years since Landon Donovan was last a talking point in the US Men’s National Team, some half-hour up the road when Jürgen Klinsmann cut the American legend from his final World Cup 2014 roster during the team’s training camp at Stanford. Donovan’s dismissal left a gaping hole in the USMNT, and US Soccer fans been eagerly expectant of America’s next great superstar ever since.
Three years and fifteen miles away, at a stadium that didn’t even exist in 2014, perhaps the USMNT have found Donovan’s spiritual successor in Christian Pulisic, an eighteen-year-old attacking midfielder for Borussia Dortmund. Head coach Bruce Arena, speaking to reporters at Avaya Stadium ahead of the USMNT’s crucial World Cup Qualifier versus Honduras on Friday night, didn’t shy away from the comparison.
“I’ve been asked that question a lot,” he said. “[Pulisic] does remind me of Landon. He has a long way to go, though…Landon had a tremendous career at club and international levels, and Christian’s just starting.”
And, with perhaps the most common line regarding Pulisic’s USMNT future, which simultaneously inspires bullish anticipation and guards against hyperbole: “We don’t know what he’s going to look like.”
Pulisic, for his part, is flattered with the comparison but is ready to pave his own legacy. “He was an idol of mine, it’s obviously an honor,” he told reporters. “But I’m my own player as well.”
The midfielder is likely to appear as the US face Honduras in their third match of their final World Cup Qualifying group, the Hex, a position he dreamed about in his younger years. However, he never imagined the sacrifice the job demands. “When I was a young kid I just wanted to be a professional soccer player and play for Team USA,” he said. “You don’t think you’ll be in such tough situations like this.”
“We need three points tomorrow. We obviously didn’t have a great start [to the Hex], so we have to bounce back with a big performance.”
Though the US endured a disastrous 0-2 start to the group with losses against Mexico and Costa Rica, Pulisic has only gotten stronger in the past four months. “Every day when I go out to training I try to get better and better and over four months time, playing more big games with Dortmund and gaining experience, I feel even stronger than I was then,” he said.
Pulisic should expect a supportive audience in the USMNT’s first match at the San Jose Earthquakes’ Avaya Stadium, which is outfitted with bleachers in place of standing seats in front of LOBINA, though the capacity remains 18,000. The supporters will be particularly keen to watch hometown stars Chris Wondolowski and David Bingham, both late additions to the squad. Though Bingham, the squad’s third-string goalkeeper, is unlikely to appear, the absence of Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris from Thursday’s training session leaves room for a potential cameo from Wondolowski.
However, it will be an entirely different story when the team travels to Panama City on Tuesday. “CONCACAF games are tough,” said Pulisic. “People don’t realize that it’s not always the best surrounding, the best situation, the best field or whatever the case may be. It’s different of course, but it’s still soccer so you just have to play hard and try to win the game.”
The pressure is already weighing on Pulisic, who spoke in a hushed, cautious tone as he faced a gaggle of twenty-or-so reporters ahead of USMNT training.
Though the media attention can be daunting, he is thankful for the guidance of his teammates. “I’m really close with Geoff Cameron and [Alejandro] Bedoya, and the younger guys, though there’s not a lot of them, like Kellyn [Acosta] Walker [Zimmerman],” he said.
International games are of distinctly different flavor than Champions League matches, he says, but the experience is key regardless. “It’s definitely a different situation, but I always bring those experiences with me and it will definitely help in these big games, I feel much more comfortable and confident,” he said.
Whether he’s asked to play centrally, where he has started for Dortmund in recent games, or out wide, he says: “I’m ready.”
Other than that, his only instructions have been to win the game.