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ESPN FC  By ESPN staff

Christian Pulisic: U.S. must better develop top players from ages 16-18

After Christian Pulisic's post for the Players' Tribune, the FC crew debate how to improve U.S. player development.

In the wake of the United States' failure to qualify for the World Cup, Christian Pulisic has called for top American teenage players to be given more opportunities to develop at an earlier age.

At just 19, Pulisic was an instrumental part of the U.S.'s qualifying campaign, and he admitted he's been "pretty depressed" since the Americans lost to Trinidad and Tobago last month. Since then, youth development in the U.S. has come under question, particularly from candidates for next year's wide-open race for the U.S. Soccer Federation presidency.

In a story for The Players' Tribune, Pulisic suggested the best American players aged 16-18 need to be better tested during the most crucial years of their development.

"For a soccer player ... man, ask anyone and they'll tell you -- those age 16-18 years are everything," Pulisic wrote. "From a developmental perspective, it's almost like this sweet spot: It's the age where a player's growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way -- and where, with the right direction, a player can make their biggest leap in development by far.

"In the U.S. system, too often the best player on an under-17 team will be treated like a 'star' -- not having to work for the ball, being the focus of the offense at all times, etc. -- at a time when they should be having to fight tooth and nail for their spot.

"In Europe, on the other hand, the average level of ability around you is just so much higher. It's a pool of players where everyone has been 'the best player,' and everyone is fighting for a spot -- truly week in and week out. Which makes the intensity and humility that you need to bring to the field every day -- both from a mental and physical perspective -- just unlike anything that you can really experience in U.S. developmental soccer."

Craig Burley uses his own experience to support Christian Pulisic's comments on how to improve American player development.

FIFA rules prohibit players from leaving their native countries for clubs in other countries before they turn 18. In 2014, FIFA gave Barcelona a transfer ban for a full year for breaching these regulations, with their Spanish rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid also subsequently punished.

The only exceptions are if "the player's parents have moved to another country for non-related reasons; the move takes place within the European Union if a player is aged between 16 and 18; [or] the player's home is less than 50 kilometres from the national border being crossed."

Because his grandfather was born in Croatia, Pulisic was able to obtain dual citizenship and move to join Borussia Dortmund at age 16, and he said "there's simply no way that I would be at anywhere close to the level that I am today" had he not made the switch at that time.

But he questioned why FIFA allows European players to move countries, which he sees as an unfair advantage to some players.

"Why is it that E.U. players are allowed to move country once they turn 16 ... but non-Europeans can only do so at 18? Why aren't we campaigning for a level playing field, where our best 16-year-olds -- who may not have an E.U. passport like I had -- are free to move when they turn 16, like the best young players in Europe can?"

Herculez Gomez rues the missed opportunity of Christian Pulisic playing on the biggest of stages at the World Cup.

And for those Americans who can't go early to Europe, Pulisic urged Major League Soccer teams to give top players in their academies more opportunities to play at the top level, though he also said the league has made "great strides" in improving "soccer culture" in the U.S.

"Are we doing everything in our power to make sure the level of play in U.S. soccer is high enough so that they can continue to develop up to their maximum potential?" he asked. "So that they can continue to develop until they are allowed to play at the top level their talent dictates -- wherever that is in the world?

"I also understand, of course, that -- even with the option to leave -- leaving the States might not be for everyone. Staying is fine, and I totally respect it.

"But at the same time, I've gotta say: It really does frustrate me, when I watch MLS, and I see our best U-17 players -- who, again, are so talented and so capable -- being rostered ... but then not being put on the field much to actually play. I watch that, and I just think about how I was given a chance ... a real chance ... and it changed my life. Why then are we seemingly hesitant to allow these other talents to blossom?"

Pulisic also insisted that his emergence on the world stage at such a young age is not a fluke, and that more players would be able to follow in his footsteps if giving the same opportunities.

"I'm not a prodigy -- or a 'wonderboy,' as some have put it. I was always, you know, a decent player growing up. And yes, I was born with a certain amount of so-called 'natural ability.' But I also worked and sacrificed a lot to try to maximize what I was born with -- which I think is important to point out. I think it's important to make clear, you know, that the problem with American soccer ... it isn't talent."

He added: "The path to the U.S. winning a World Cup -- it doesn't start with having 'more talent.' It starts with developing the talent that we already have, in the right way."

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