Article Thumbnail

Will American Soccer Players Spoil the Joys of the Premier League?

U.K. soccer used to be a respite from U.S. domination. But now Christian Pulisic is invading the pitch — and cleaning up

The “perfect hat-trick,” as the name might suggest, is a rare commodity in soccer. The feat, comprising goals with the right foot, left foot and head in the same game, has been achieved just 33 times in the near-30-year history of England’s Premier League. England’s all-time leading goalscorer, Wayne Rooney, never achieved it in competition. Nor did Alan Shearer, who is way out in front in the all-time Premier League goalscoring charts.

Christian Pulisic, however, managed it in his seventh game.

There are a few factors that make Pulisic’s achievement a notable one. For starters, this was the first time he had scored a hat-trick of any kind, and the first time he had scored at all in a competitive game for Chelsea, the London-based club that picked him up in January 2019 for around $75 million. Second, we have the fact that he doesn’t play as a central striker, the position responsible for the majority of those 33 other hat-tricks. Thirdly, there’s the fact that he’s American — only the second from his country to score a Premier League hat-trick (after Clint Dempsey) and the first ever to score a perfect one.

European fans, and especially those in England, have a curious relationship with American soccer. It can veer from paternalistic and patronizing to angry and insecure, but these mindsets can often all be brought back to one core premise: England invented football (as many will remind you without much provocation) and this matters more than anything else to certain supporters, to the extent that American success cannot be separated from that prism. As we’ve seen from the sometimes ugly reactions to the hugely successful U.S. women’s team — criticism of everything from Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping celebration against England at the 2019 World Cup to the 13-goal margin of victory over Thailand in the same competition — widespread American success can spark identity crises in those from the home of soccer.

So if more Americans achieve this level of success in a soccer institution as beloved as the U.K.’s Premier League, would that then affect its popularity?

“There’s a (correct) tendency to look at European football’s fascination with the U.S. as both cynical when it comes to marketing, but quaint when it comes to level of competition,” Mike Goodman, Grantland veteran and managing editor of soccer data and analytics platform StatsBomb, tells me. “Pulisic, for example, was pretty obviously a young star, but in some corners, the fact that he was American blocked people’s ability to see that, as all they saw was possible pandering to an American audience.”

That need to prove that Pulisic was signed on merit, and not just to break into new markets, is an idea that Chelsea beat reporter Nizaar Kinsella is well aware of, too. “The commercial side will be something Chelsea takes advantage of, regardless of how well he plays, and that’s only natural because it’s something the club’s side can control,” Kinsella explains. “But they also wouldn’t have gone for this deal without it being a player they could really use, especially in a season where they lose Eden Hazard, their best player at the time they lost him and arguably for the nearly 10 years before that.”

Soccer in Pulisic’s home country is almost necessarily regarded as different to its European analogues: Major League Soccer (MLS), the top U.S. domestic league, is entering its 25th season in 2020, while many top European leagues have existed in something akin to their current format for a century or longer. It’s also fair to say that soccer isn’t exactly the No. 1 sport, culturally, in the U.S. the way that it is in England, or even in Germany, where Pulisic played before signing with Chelsea.

Within this context, European fans can take comfort in the idea of an American presence as something of a sideshow, capable of coexisting with their familiar home leagues without ever threatening to usurp them. In England especially, it presents an avenue to see the U.S. as a junior partner in a way almost directly at odds with the respective countries’ political positions — something to feel safely smug about in the face of what has essentially been 70-plus years of American global domination. But any threat to this status quo can easily provide a shock to the system and play on deep-rooted insecurities separate from sport.

Pulisic’s own story adds a unique extra layer to this. Every so often, a British person will go viral after tweeting a picture of Hershey’s chocolate, America’s best-selling candy brand, and pointing out that it wouldn’t even be legally classifiable as “chocolate” in the U.K. It allows Brits to exercise their superiority over a country with ubiquity in so many other fields. It’s a way of acknowledging America can have all the money and resources in the world, and create their own versions of anything and everything, but there will be some areas where that will never be enough.

How exactly does this relate back to Christian Pulisic? Well, he was born and raised in Hershey, Pennsylvania, near enough to the eponymous factory that, as he told Chelsea’s official program, “you could smell the chocolate in the air.” His birth provides a microcosm of an American identity that people tell themselves they want to resist, even if he projects none of those qualities himself. He’s the manifestation of British fears about chlorinated chicken or “lite” beer or health care that isn’t free at the point of use. He lets them tell themselves this is bigger than soccer — and maybe it is.

Ultimately, you don’t even need to be American to fall foul of preconceptions about Americans and soccer, as Chelsea season ticket holder Keir Beales found out in 2016. Beales, who lives in London, had traveled to a New York City FC match to watch former Chelsea player Frank Lampard (now Chelsea’s head coach) and jokingly changed his Twitter display name to “New York City FC fan” in the aftermath. However, he quickly found out what happens when a Brit — in this case, legendarily acerbic Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle — believes you to be an American wading in on “their” sport.

“A few weeks after [the New York trip], Chelsea had lost to Liverpool,” Beales recalls. “I saw a Frankie Boyle tweet and sort of took exception to it, but then he fired back, basically calling me an ‘American cunt.’ Everyone was replying, thinking he’d put someone in his place, but it just so happened not only was I not American, but actually I’d been at the game.”

* * * * *

There’s a case to be made that antipathy toward the U.S. in a soccer context doesn’t need to be related to any direct notions of success — rather, a fear that American ideals or ownership might be imposed on a sport whose followers have long considered it a safe space, free from notions of “American sports” that apply to NFL or NBA athletes, but have no equivalent outside those leagues. Women’s professional soccer can be instructive in this sense: The U.S. has won four Women’s World Cup titles — two more than any other nation! — and players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan have significantly higher profiles outside of North America than their counterparts from a European soccer tradition.

“They very much have the feel of the ‘baddies’ [within the women’s game],” writer and journalist Darren Richman says, emphasizing the extent to which any dominant team — at club or international level — can attract resentment when the playing field is seen as uneven. “More money is being pumped into the [U.S.] women’s game than anywhere else in the world, so it can feel a little bit like anything less than America winning the World Cup would be deemed a massive failure by themselves and by everyone else around. I think it’s undeniable that the second [the U.S. men’s team] were to go from also-rans to world-beaters, it would make a big difference. I actually think, if they were to get close, people would turn on them more.”

“I do wonder, if they were to get to a World Cup semi final or final, whether people who had previously quite liked them would now not be wanting them to win — whether there’d be a feeling that, ‘Oh, this is going to be insufferable,’” Richman continues.

Indeed, there has already been a notable backlash to the success of the U.S. women’s team that almost feels like a foreshadowing of a dominant men’s soccer setup. As noted earlier, when the team beat Thailand 13-0, they were widely criticized for excessive celebration to the point that Morgan felt compelled to publicly defend the position, arguing that a decision to ease off would have been a real sign of disrespect.

This isn’t to overlook the uniquely sexist elements to the criticism, of course: It will sadly follow far too many scenarios where female athletes become the center of attention, and an underlying misogyny around “unladylike” behavior — coupled with double standards compared to male counterparts — was never likely to disappear in some circles, even when those athletes’ achievements speak for themselves. But perhaps in correctly calling out the sexism of many of the commenters, some might have missed that it was driven not just by anti-female sentiment, but by anti-American sentiment, too.

“America tends to mostly stick to its ‘own’ sports — American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey — so I do think some British fans get a bit weird when it comes to Americans playing soccer, as if they don’t belong there,” says Alex Finnis, who has witnessed both sides of the dynamic as a London-based NFL correspondent and Chelsea supporter. “If the USWNT was from any other country, I don’t think they would have got anywhere near the criticism they received last summer.”

Within that context, it can be easy for European fans to recognize soccer’s status as a secondary or tertiary sport in the U.S., and treat a Christian Pulisic differently than they would a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo on the grounds that a foreigner from a soccer-first country and a foreigner from the U.S. are different animals. Similarly, when Germany’s men beat Brazil by a record 7-1 score in a World Cup semi-final, there was praise for the winners and remonstration around the losers, but the result was taken for its merits. There’s still a sense that an American team doing the same would have that extra layer to the surrounding conversation.

This, however, conveniently ignores not just the lengthy history of the game in the U.S., but the similarities between the American tradition and its counterparts elsewhere in the world. “The English fan [who pushes back against American success] will often like to pretend it’s just soccer-related, but there are so many complicated elements in the relationships between England and America that I think it’s often a disguise for, by no means xenophobia, but maybe a mild case of the anti-American sentiment that Brits maybe feel, hidden under a veneer of politeness,” Nathen McVittie, a creative director who has worked with some of the biggest teams, leagues and brands in global soccer, tells me.

McVittie, who is from England but has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, would often find himself in offices made up of Europeans and Americans, and on the occasions where both he and an American colleague stood up for an American player or coach, his part in the defense would always hold more weight. “There are elements of, ‘We know what we’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing, we call it football, you call it soccer’ — that whole tired argument that’s been going on since the 1980s or so,” he continues.

He points out that, as in England and many other traditional soccer heartlands, American soccer can draw on a history of clubs grown in immigrant communities or as an outlet for factory workers. One of the dominant American clubs of the early 20th century was made up of steelworkers and based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, less than 100 miles from Pulisic’s hometown of Hershey. Yet all of this is frequently overlooked by those for whom it’s convenient to view the U.S. as an interloper.

* * * * *

That old cliché of the U.S. and U.K. being “two great countries separated by a common language” arguably couldn’t ring more true than in soccer: highlighting the linguistic differences is a convenient way to push back against similarities that go much deeper. Those creating a mental wall to keep out an American invasion of “their” sport could do worse than bear that in mind before the next generation of Christian Pulisics rolls around.

We’ve arguably already seen some progress in this regard when it comes to American ownership of European clubs. There aren’t many things that will feel more invasive than American capitalists making money from a product built by someone else overseas, and the backlash has been visible, from the Glazer family’s unpopular acquisition of Manchester United in the early 21st century, to Swansea City’s American owners appointing U.S. national Bob Bradley as head coach in 2016 and highlighting the “stigma” around Americans and soccer.

There’s been a recent acceptance, though, that this level of intrusion is never going to disappear. Liverpool are now in the hands of Fenway Sports Group, but their owners’ American origins matter less when the team is winning trophies. Shifting attitudes toward the money men is no guarantee of the same applying to players, of course — no American sports fan will take pride in Manchester United or Liverpool solely because they’re American-owned, after all — but it can at least point to a potential willingness to soften attitudes toward the U.S. when it’s convenient to do so.

Still, as Finnis notes, “I’ve not found any mistrust of myself as a Brit covering an American sport, but I definitely do see a resistance to American sports culture over here. To be honest, I would hate if the Premier League started becoming ‘Americanized,’ with loads of pomp and ceremony outside of the game itself, but at the same time, I think it works perfectly for the NFL and other U.S. sports. I think a lot of British football fans still think it’s the only ‘good’ sport, and other sports that try to do things differently are wrong. But it’s not that hard to enjoy both for what they are.”

It’s one thing having a more “European” American like Pulisic come through and work his way up in the same way any young German or Englishman might do, of course: The real test will come if and when an American who plays up to European insecurities — what Finnis calls “the stereotype of Americans being loud and brash” — makes his mark without compromising on that side of his personality.

On top of all of this, there’s often a temptation to extrapolate an idea that American soccer players aren’t even the country’s best athletes, thereby increasing the resentment around a success story on a Pulisic level, but it’s not that simple. “It’s less that America’s great basketball players would have been great soccer players (though I guess some might have been) and more that a bunch of athletes that will never become NBA players still end up playing basketball, despite the fact they might have become great soccer players,” Goodman says. “Pulisic is 5-foot-8. If he grew up playing basketball, even as the elite athlete he is, he’d have topped out at the collegiate level. So the question is, how do you find more guys like him, not, how do you convince LeBron James to play soccer?”

We’re arguably moving closer to this tipping point at a youth soccer level, increasing the chance of the next great American talent being genuinely homegrown without an assist from Europe (Pulisic moved to Germany at 16). MLS clubs are investing more in their own academies and becoming more sustainable. For now, Pulisic has developed almost in spite of the U.S. system rather than because of it, but the resources are there for this to change. Within a generation, if not sooner, we could easily see not just an American national team able to hold its own against European rivals, but one that’s able to do so while drawing from its own system.

“If in 50 years, America is the best at soccer in the world and they have a couple of [Lionel] Messis and [Cristiano] Ronaldos, I wonder if the conversation would then shift to, ‘These fucking Americans, they’re good at everything! They just throw all their money behind it!’” McVittie says. “Then it becomes an anger toward their resource, or an anger toward them trying to be good.”

For now, we’re at the stage where there’s an acceptance of an American presence within what’s ostensibly a European sport. It’s not so much a concern about this continuing, but rather a fear of Americans dominating on merit, thus making it tougher for Europeans to keep them in a little box off to one side and dismiss their way of doing things as a quaint curiosity.

Christian Pulisic might not be the best in the world at the moment, but his rise has reminded those outside the U.S. that a dominant American presence in men’s soccer may be closer than we’d thought. If and when that happens, it’s not as if fans from traditional soccer-first nations will be able to bite their tongues and retreat to the comfort of their domestic leagues: It’s a genuinely international sport in a way American football and baseball are not, and internationalism goes both ways.

There will always be a desire to bounce back, of course, and to knock a dominant American team or player off their perch, but we can’t rule out the possibility of these fans just quietly seething as they watch talent from the U.S. flood the European market. “Can’t they just let us have this one thing?” they’ll think to themselves, while refusing to recognize such a thing was never possible to begin with. And then they’ll turn on their TV or head out to their nearest stadium and watch the next Pulisic score the winning goal and reassure themselves with the fact that, hey, at least he’s doing it for their team.