Whew! What a night it was for the USMNT on Friday. After being bogged down by cartoon megavillain and pernicious tinkerer Jurgen Klinsmann for five years, the USMNT found themselves in a gleeful rout of Honduras in World Cup Qualifiers with with old timer Bruce Arena back at the managerial helm. The final tally on the night was 6-0 in a free-flowing offensive triumph, complete with a Clint Dempsey hat trick and captain Michael Bradley scoring for the first time since 2015. It felt like a merry stroll through the patchwork memories of only the good USMNT times—like a Candyland board marked with Carlos Bocanegras and Joe Gaetjens and the first 94 minutes of that Portugal match.
But while the nostalgia was certainly flowing, the focal point in that flurry of a match wasn't just a giddy memory of the past, so much as a projection of a ceilingless future. (The game worked all your pleasure centers like that.) You could hardly open your internet browser without it directing you immediately to him: Christian Pulisic.
The 18-year-old wonder from Chocolatetown Hershey, Pennsylvania was trusted in an extremely important central No. 10 role—different from his wing work at Dortmund—in a high-stakes game as the U.S. sat woefully at the bottom of The Hex with a goal differential of -5. And he certainly, certainly did not disappoint. After scoring a gorgeous goal and providing two of the cleanest assists in recent USMNT memory—and not to mention fairly consistent play across his short career with club and country—pundits have been lauding Pulisic with messianic praise, claiming that he's the second coming of Landon Donovan.
But the comparison feels askew, aside from the fact that they're both American soccer players. And that's no insult to Donovan, who was a true spectacle in his day (Confederations Cup, 2009, anyone?). Donovan was a brilliant counter-attacker, executing deft crosses from the wing, and taking on his opponents head-on as more of a striker.
But the important distinction between the two is that the flow of Pulisic's game is much more pass-oriented—almost reminiscent of the kind of vision that Mesut Ozil has on his best days. Pulisic proved he could be a pure No. 10, a playmaker: showing he was able to pick locks, drifting and floating the ball over befuddled defenders' heads and hitting his teammates squarely on the mark. (His second assist to Dempsey had an astoundingly precise weight on it.) Regardless of how new Pulisic is to the team—and whether it bodes well to make your veteran teammates look good instead of gloryballing it—his generous of play makes for a promising future for the U.S.'s offensive connective tissue.
Just take a look at all of his touches against Honduras in this video—he's always looking for a link-up:
The ball also seems to adhere tighter on Pulisic's feet than Donovan, who favored using his speed to play into space. Donovan's era with the USMNT was marked by that lob-balled counterattack with sweeping crosses, whereas this generation has found a way to at least try to be more centrally possession-oriented. That doesn't mean that Pulisic promotes a stagnant style of play. On the contrary, he always seems to be pushing things directly at the goal, as if to say, "I don't know exactly how we're going to get past you yet, but we will." (At Dortmund, his efforts to get to the goal line for a cross are sublime.) And "we" is the operative word here. Because he's showing a knack for using his teammates as an extension of his own intentions. That's a next-level skill, typically the province of well-studied veterans.
The passing distances are shorter for USMNT nowadays, and Pulisic's comfort with fiddling the ball close in to his feet with multiple defenders on him makes for an excellent contrast to his spot-on touch at middle distances. But we have to put this Donovan comparison to rest. Because while it's not quite apples and oranges, it feels like the USMNT is looking at a brand new species of orange here.