I n my heart, I knew it was over when we walked off the field.
I think we all did. There were all of these complicated mathematical scenarios, but we knew the biggest one: We had to at least tie. Had to have that last goal. And we were grinding for it like crazy, right up until the very end. But we didn’t get it. And once we didn’t get it, and we were walking off that field — well, that’s when I pretty much knew.
I knew it was over.
But I still had to know.
I asked one of our assistants, “What were the other scores?”
You ever have a question that you really need to ask someone, but you’re almost too embarrassed to say it out loud — so you just sort of rephrase it? That was me, I think, right there in that moment, asking our assistant about the other matches.
What were the other scores?
That was my way of avoiding the question that I really needed the answer to, but couldn’t bring myself to ask.
Are we going?
And I’ll just never forget the look on his face, or the sound of his voice, or the feeling of utter devastation in my body — when he turned to me and said, “We’re not going. We didn’t make it.
“We’re not going to the World Cup.”
There have been many opinions voiced over the past few weeks about our failure to reach the World Cup — and I hope people can understand why one of them hasn’t been mine. Playing for the U.S. in the World Cup has been my dream ever since I can remember. World Cup Final … minute to go … ball on Pulisic’s foot … and he scoooores! — that’s what I would dream about. For me, that’s always been the pinnacle of what I could accomplish in this sport.
I remember watching the 2014 tournament in my cousin’s basement in Virginia. We threw this big party for the first U.S. match against Ghana — and before I could even sit down with my food, I’ll never forget it: Clint made that sweet cut to the right, put the ball on his left foot, and went post-and-in.
29 seconds in, 1-0, USA.
We went crazy.
I couldn’t believe the electricity in the air after that goal. It was like the entire country was with us in that basement, running around with our hands in the air, screaming out, “Gooooooooaaaaaaaaaaal! Gooooooooaaaaaaaaal!” Just going insane. It was this amazing realization of, like, “Wow — American soccer can do that. We can do … that.”
So to have come this far, in these four years since that goal was scored — to have made the team, and to have been a goal away from qualifying … and then to have fallen short? It hurt more than I can really put into words.
Ashley Allen/Getty Images
Which is why I decided to wait a few weeks and write something like this on my own time. I do have a lot of thoughts on American soccer — and I have definitely wanted to get them out. But I also wanted to make sure that I had enough time, first, to pause and reflect. And that when I did write something, it wouldn’t be to look backward.
It would be to look forward.
The first thing I want to say here, obviously, is that I’m not an expert. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who know a lot more about national soccer programs than I do — and I hope those are the people we’ll have in charge of American soccer over the next World Cup cycle. Me, I’m just a 19 year old, in my first full year with the national team. So any insight that I can offer is only based on what I’ve experienced and observed in my career so far.
The second thing I want to say here is that 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. In fact, I’m sure there are kids who are going to be reading this article who are more talented at their age than I ever was.
And then the third thing I want to say here is that I love American soccer. Which maybe sounds obvious — but I think a lot of people have this weird idea of USMNT players who have come up in Europe. They’ll talk about how we’re somehow less passionate about U.S. Soccer, or less American about it. That we’re these ringers or something — these outsiders brought in as, like, a cheat code to beat European sides. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.
It really frustrates me when people say, “Oh, he’s barely American,” or, “He grew up in the Dortmund academy,” or anything like that. First of all, it’s not true: Until I was 16, I came up through the U.S. youth system. I did all of the camps, the academies, the residency programs, the travel teams, and everything else it had to offer. I’ll always be a part of that system, and I’ll always be indebted to it. Second of all, I think that’s just a dangerous attitude in general: Having a closed-minded view of what does or doesn’t constitute being an American. And I hope it’s an attitude that we can keep out of this conversation in the years to come.
When people ask me what has been the biggest game-changer of my career — when they ask me, you know, “What’s the one thing that has had the biggest impact on your game so far” — that isn’t the easiest question to answer. I’ve had a lot of good fortune over the years: from supportive parents, to amazing youth academies, to incredible teammates, and on down the line.
But one thing that I’m not sure people realize, when they talk about my game, is just how lucky I’ve been to have a Croatian passport — and just how much of a difference it’s made for me.
As a result of my dual citizenship, I’ve been able to play in Europe, training at the Dortmund academy, since I was 16. Without it? I would have had to wait until I was 18. And for a soccer player … man, ask anyone and they’ll tell you — those age 16–18 years are everything. 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.
Without those experiences, there’s simply no way that I would be at anywhere close to the level that I am today.
And so I really just wonder, you know: 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? And in the meanwhile, as long as some of our best young players aren’t getting the opportunity like I had to go to Europe when they’re 16 … 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? 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?
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire
Anyway, I’m not sure what the answers to all of these questions are … but I still think they’re worth asking. And I am sure of this: 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.
Another thing that I’ve really found myself thinking over is the idea of American soccer as culture.
Soccer … it’s just this way of life in other countries. It’s part of the fabric of who they are, and of what they do. There’s this sense of identity that I think is baked into global soccer — that touches everyone, and connects everyone together. If your city’s club team is having success, or if your national team is having success, there’s just this amazing sense of personal pride that comes with it. I saw a spark of that with Clint’s goal in 2014 — it almost felt like that one moment changed the mood of the entire country. And it’s hard to put into words how powerful that is.
Which is why I feel so crushed that we won’t be giving people that feeling this summer.
Something that I think is important to point out, though, is that — even with us coming off of this terrible loss, and even with everyone wanting to talk about what’s wrong with American soccer — our soccer culture in the U.S. is getting better all the time. MLS has made great strides as a league, over the last few years, and there are so many incredible American soccer markets that have emerged. You look at what they’ve built in cities like Portland and Seattle, and what they’re building in places like Atlanta and Cincinnati, and what’s happening with the movement to try to save soccer in Columbus — and it’s inspiring. And I mean, the atmosphere that we had going on that field in Orlando, in that stadium, for our qualifier against Panama … it was unlike anything that I’d ever experienced in the U.S. before. Those fans were unreal — and I was so proud to be a part of that match. It really felt like we were all working together that night to make something special happen.
Mark Thorstenson/ISI Photos
And it’s not just American fans of American soccer now — what’s just as inspiring, to me, is how many people I’ll see from the U.S. who are invested in soccer in other places. Like, catching a kid at the airport in a PULISIC USA jersey is one thing. And that’s obviously such a thrill. But to catch an American kid in a PULISIC Dortmund jersey? This … club team in Europe? That’s, like, another thing entirely. Once I started seeing those around — man, that’s when it really hit me: that this is a country where people are starting to take their soccer seriously, at a global level.
And to me, the global level — that’s the next big step for our country. Because that’s when soccer stops being this “cool new thing,” this novelty item that is part of our lives once every four years … and becomes something so much better than that.
It becomes part of our culture.
Growing up, my dad and I, we used to play H-O-R-S-E in our driveway pretty much every night. I’d come home from training, and we’d take out that basketball, and we’d just play game … after game … after game. And it’s funny, because — the idea was, it was supposed to be very low-key, you know? After a day of taking soccer so seriously, we’d get to come home, and just shoot a ball around for the fun of it. But man, for the life of me … I could never do it. I could never do it just for fun.
I had to win.
I’m telling you, it was like, this thing — no matter how many times in a row my dad beat me at H-O-R-S-E on a given night. I’d have to keep playing, and keep playing, until I finally won one. Some nights, honestly, it’s like I would even take it more seriously than soccer training. I don’t know how else to describe it, other than as an obsession. I would be obsessed with winning at H-O-R-S-E.
And the more I think about it, you know, I’ve really been like that my whole life. Obsessed with winning. No matter what I’d be doing — whether it was a game of H-O-R-S-E with my dad, or capture the flag as a little kid, or FIFA with my friends, or a match with Dortmund … the idea of needing to win … it would just eat at me. Which isn’t to say that I’d even win all the time. Like — I’m not even that good at FIFA. But I’ll just get so angry about it, so consumed by it. If I’m doing a thing, then I want to be the best at it. I’m not sure what that means … but it’s just who I am.
It’s who I’ve always been.
And I won’t lie — I’ve been feeling pretty depressed this past month. The thought of having to wait four more years, just to get the taste of losing our last qualifier out of my mouth … just to find out if we’re going to the next World Cup? Man, that’s tough. Four years, you know? It feels like a lifetime. I mean, in soccer, four weeks can feel like a lifetime! Look at my last four: failed to qualify for the World Cup … first defeat in the league … lost to Bayern at home … and now facing a very hard task to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. For a guy obsessed with winning, lately I’ve been doing a lot of losing.
But I just want you to know — I’m still obsessed, all the same.
I just want every USA soccer fan reading this to understand, that no matter what decisions are made over these next couple of years … no matter what changes are implemented … no matter who the coach is, or what the roster looks like: I’m going to be obsessed with winning. And I’m going to be obsessed with doing my part to help U.S. Soccer get over the hump.
Because yeah, O.K. … we’re not going to the World Cup.
But there’s going to be a World Cup after that. And a World Cup after that. And a World Cup after that. And I think — I hope — that we’re going to be able to build something, here, with U.S. Soccer, where it’s not just going to be about one lost match, or one lost cycle, or one lost team. It’s going to be about an entire country, rallying around an entire sport, in a way that lasts.
So let’s plan on it, then — 2022.
Get your basements ready, and mark it down.
We’ll be there.