There’s a rush to say something: exegeses of movie and videogame trailers, election coverage that starts a year in advance, Here’s What We Know About The New iPhone, etc. We’ve got pages to fill, attention to win, and people generally seem to like the theoretical existence of stuff more than the stuff itself. They scarf down rumors and hype, previews and predictions. In fact, the arrival of something—the film is released, the game kicks off—is a kind of death: the beginning of us forgetting about it, the culture moving on. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got bone-deep anxiety about this, a feeling like a subsonic mumble, that something is happening all the time even when it isn’t, and a persistently distracted inability to truly reckon with what is. Norm MacDonald tells a joke that back in the day, the nightly news used to be half an hour, and that was it. That was the news for the day. As the news has become a boundless thing that you can tune into whenever on television, that greets you like a glowering jack-in-the-box every time you check your phone, we’ve learned that, huh: turns out half an hour per day was a fine estimate. There’s not much more actual news than that.
I have about the same amount of information on Christian Pulisic as you do. I’ve seen him at Dortmund, where he became a consistent starter last season, and I’ve seen him play for the US Men’s National Team, where he’s noticeably better than everybody else in the squad. He runs faster than you’d think his short legs would carry him, and there’s something pleasingly chickadee-like about him, the way he hops and skitters when he’s working his way through traffic. His two-footedness is impressive. I’d like watching him him even if he were Dutch or Albanian, but I definitely wouldn’t think about him as much as I do knowing he’s from Hershey, Pennsylvania. Dortmund produce many promising prospects; there are many speedy young wingers in the world—more than I can keep track of. Barcelona recently signed Malcom, for instance. I know about him only what I’ve seen in YouTube compilations.
Pulisic gets special scrutiny, of course, given that he’s ours, but all that scrutiny has been focused on a pretty unremarkable figure, as 19-year-olds who can dribble past Mats Hummels go. In late 2016, Vice Sports produced a video about him that’s largely unilluminating. He’s a middle-class kid from Hershey, PA. He was gifted at an early age. He had a difficult time transitioning to Germany when he was fifteen because he didn’t speak the language. This isn’t a critique of the journalism. There wasn’t a lot to be said at the time, when he was just then coming into Dortmund’s senior team, and there isn’t a lot now, though there is more to take in, since he’s playing regularly. This is the inconvenient thing: we’ll need to watch him play for a while longer before we can figure out how good he’s going to be. His career is still firmly in its developmental phase, and he’s a star only in terms of the attention he gets from folks who are eager for the USMNT to finally have a world-class player.
The way we talk about Christian Pulisic doesn’t explain culture circa now any more than the way we talk about anything else that’s exciting but hasn’t completely materialized yet. In 2016, a videogame called No Man’s Sky was released after a long and hilariously baroque hype cycle. It was supposed to be an exploration game with a humongous scope: you’d bop among trillions of planets, the vast majority of which only you would ever see, encountering and naming local flora and fauna, discovering unique landforms, getting into space battles, and a bunch of other interesting-sounding tasks. Some people violently hated it once they actually played it, partially because the game is tedious and bland but also because it didn’t let them, like, live in a fully realized intergalactic universe. They seemed genuinely surprised it didn’t radically redefine what videogames can do.
It’s easy not to go that far overboard, to place some reasonable limits on your expectations. But I’m not sure it’s possible, without going off the grid or forsaking sports and contemporary art altogether, to be totally zen about The Next Big Thing. I’ve got ideas about what Christian Pulisic will be in his mid-twenties, and so do you—so do a whole crush of people—and while that’s a little bit fun as a pointless barroom exercise, it becomes exhausting when it’s a constant drumbeat for two years and threatening to persist for at least a couple more, until he truly breaks through or flops or becomes, y’know, merely pretty good.
While there’s no saving ourselves from this vexation, Pulisic is fortunately nestled still in Dortmund, where he’s just another of their young guys—highly anticipated, sure, but not feeling the day in, day out brunt of being the focus of an entire nation’s hopes. There was buzz over the transfer window (possibly bunk generated to sell English tabloids) that he might join Liverpool or Chelsea on something like a $70 million fee. It’s probably best for his development that didn’t happen, as he would have entered some tough-to-crack side, with a huge price tag attached to his name, in the European league Americans overwhelmingly favor. In Dortmund, if he’s certainly not undercovered, he’s not suffocated by fans or the press either. We may be unable to really savor these early days of his career, because we’re so consumed by what’s to come, but there’s no reason Christian Pulisic shouldn’t. He’ll get where he’s going, one way or another. He would do well to stick to the quieter route as long as possible. If you make too much noise too soon, you’re likely to catch more grief than praise.