Tuesday, January 25

Can the glory of the Champions League launch Christian Pulisic to crossover stardom?

When American football’s Christian Pulisic crosses the field at the Estadio do Dragao in Portugal on Saturday afternoon, there will be something on the order of 800 million eyes on him. There is no greater annual global audience for a sporting event than for the UEFA Champions League final, and there is no greater reason for Chelsea’s presence in this game than the goals Pulisic generated in the team’s semi-final series.

In the sporting sense, Pulisic has become a big problem. At 22, just half a dozen years after leaving his home in Pennsylvania to start a professional soccer career in Germany, he is a featured player for one of the most prestigious clubs in the world’s most popular sport.

However, he is not yet a star, and by this we do not mean that he is not a star player. We mean in the sense of amassing a following on social media, signing huge endorsement deals, besieging our screens, our televisions, our laptops, our tablets and phones, whether or not we are prepared for the blitz.

The curious chemistry that such a figure engenders is elusive, and may be less related to performance in this age than ever. Yes, we have Aaron Rodgers and LeBron James, but we also have Tim Tebow.

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“I think we make a mistake in thinking that the celebrity is a meritocracy,” Pablo Torre, host of ESPN’s daily podcast and a frequent panelist for Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption, told Sporting News. “Because I think about the biggest crossover all the time, the biggest new names in American sports are Jake and Logan Paul. And it’s depressing.

“The attention economy that rules American society, the Internet, sports in general, the attention economy can be hacked in ways that don’t require you to be that good at sports. They don’t require you to be good at anything other than getting attention. “

New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro grew up in a sports world dominated by the Mets, Jets, Nets, and other teams whose names don’t rhyme. For a short period of their childhood, due to the presence of Pelé, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer, the New York Cosmos drew massive crowds to their home games, but that didn’t last, and neither did the team or the league. . The sport here was mostly inactive for more than a decade.

It was revived by the USMNT’s qualification for the 1990 World Cup and by the concession of the 1994 World Cup to the United States, leading to the formation of Major League Soccer. The dominance of the United States women’s national team for three decades has been a sustaining force in the growth of the sport.

In the men’s game, however, the best teams and players are not here. And that includes Pulisic, except for his home appearances for the USMNT.

“You can follow what you want to follow now. You decide what you want to worry about. I think now there are more possibilities for a guy like that, ”Vaccaro told SN. “The teenagers in my neighborhood that I know spend a lot of time worrying about sports, they worry about the Yankees, the Giants and the Knicks, but they also have their Premier League teams. Almost everyone does. Invariably, they have their favorite players.

“This guy, being an American, is an attraction to a lot of guys I know, including my next door neighbor. He may not be able to get the kind of huge rewards that someone in his position should be getting because of how good he is, but I think we’re getting to a place where such a guy will be appreciated nationally, more than he is. now.”

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To the extent that Pulisic is known right now from New York to Los Angeles, from Miami to Maine, from Seattle to South Carolina, it is entirely because of the magical things he does with his feet. He has scored more goals in the Champions League than any American player. He ranks 12th on the US men’s national team scoring chart with 15 international goals, although he is tied for 79th in appearances.

When he enters the game against Manchester City in the Champions League final, which he is almost certain, whether he is in the starting lineup or not, he will become the first American to play the Super Bowl of European football.

In the space of a month, Pulisic will have appeared in England’s biggest annual game, the FA Cup final, and in Europe. He will have conquered the Yankees / Cowboys / Lakers of world club football with his goal and will assist in the Champions League semi-final series.

Yet all of this is happening roughly 4,500 miles from the center of the United States. This would appear to be an obstacle to Pulisic’s elevation to media stardom. Except it could cross from the other side of the Atlantic, according to G Publicity’s Gail Sideman, who has done branding and public relations work for numerous athletes, team announcers and authors.

“Oh, no question. I think because football is growing a lot here. I think more than ever in the last 5 to 10 years, ”Sideman told SN. “As crazy as it is, it’s because of the women’s game.

“I think it would be great from a brand standpoint, and God knows football needs it. I don’t care that he is playing in Europe. They need that face. If you did it in a couple of interviews, it shows a bit of a sense of humor here and there… but I totally understand your apprehension about doing it.

“I saw a GQ article that didn’t hurt. He’s going to be that person girls go crazy for, and he can use that to his advantage. And not just because, ‘Hey, I was at GQ,’ but if brands want to engage with him, he can certainly use his looks as a tool. That, plus his game. I think it will take some time, just because of his personality. If he was out there and sociable, I think you would hear a lot more about him now. “

Pulisic lost the opportunity to spread the gospel of his brand when the United States did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It was surely not his fault; Still a teenager, he produced seven goals and seven assists during the playoffs, including the only goal in the team’s disastrous defeat in Trinidad and Tobago. However, it was his problem.

Pulisic would have been showcased across the country on Fox Sports World Cup broadcasts as the new face of American men’s soccer. Instead, the tournament unfolded without him and his teammates. But there is another opportunity coming up, with the 2022 World Cup scheduled to open next November in Qatar. The United States will face another challenging campaign to qualify, this one condensed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For Pulisic, the World Cup is the great lever in all of this,” Torre said. “For example, how do we invite soccer players to our homes? For Chris Paul, we do it through the NCAA Tournament when he was in college, and then we do it through the NBA and the postseason. It is about taking advantage of that audience that before did not know someone like Pulisic.

“But I think in terms of a guy who is certainly very, very good, a guy who earns a lot and has enviable leadership characteristics and… I think we’re waiting for a story. Unfortunately, a story is not the same as success. “

The essential element of having a story that connects with the American public is actually telling it. This could be the central ingredient of crossover stardom, and the one most absent for Pulisic, at least at this stage in his career: Does he want it?

There are athletes who earn significantly more from endorsements than from prize money or team salaries. We’re talking about Tiger Woods, the year after he won his fourth Masters title, earning $ 2.3 million on the field and almost 30 times more endorsements. So that’s a motivation to drive wider recognition. But it also alters one’s existence, and the differences can range from annoyance to a nightmare.

“There are two ways to do this. One is to lean to the end, and that’s the model of influence,” Torre said. “You want it, you know how to play, you’re good at it. This is your life.

“Mike Trout is someone who has deliberately rejected that, and a part of me says, ‘That guy really has this all figured out.’ It is the idea that ‘I like to walk down the street without anyone knowing who I am’. What the major leagues would like me to want, I don’t really want. Because I have a pretty good idea of ​​what that life could be like and it sounds horrible. “

Although David Beckham won the Champions League and league titles in England, Spain, France, and MLS, his fame occasionally had a negative impact on his game, even leading to a moment after an FA Cup defeat in which Sir Alex Ferguson kicked a boot that was sitting on the ground that accidentally hit Beckham over his eye. After that locker room incident didn’t stay in the locker room, Ferguson insisted to the team’s board of directors that Beckham be sold.

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So it could be that Pulisic fears that kind of disruption, or that he’s just waiting to establish himself as a soccer star before worrying about becoming more than that. The effort to become a major player could be hampered by outside distractions in a world of soccer that is still beginning to accept that Americans take the sport seriously.

When Pulisic arrived in the US with Borussia Dortmund in 2018 for a summer preseason tour that included a game at Soldier Field, he only dealt briefly with reporters despite being the American star attraction and was offered plenty of opportunities. . He has recently cooperated with major US broadcasters, sitting down with NBC’s Tim Howard and the CBS Sports studio team of Clint Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu, and Charlie Davies for extended conversations.

“He’s not the most outgoing guy in the world,” Jason Davis, host of the United States of Soccer program on SiriusXM FC, told SN. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be attractive and sociable, which is fine. You don’t have to be that. I don’t think it sounds like he doesn’t want to be there when he’s doing interviews and things like that, but he’s not someone who says anything interesting either.

“He’s not confident enough in himself, and maybe that will change, but he’s not confident enough in the public sphere to throw things away, make a joke. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a winger, sure, but that’s the type of player who gets a lot of attention. I mean, Zlatan has made ads in America, and you ask the average sports fan who he is, maybe 20 percent know who he is. But it has enough resonance due to its personality.

“Pulisic just isn’t built that way. The bar is very high to achieve something that will earn you massive recognition in this country. You have to win a Champions League, but also be the winning scorer to get a SportsCenter mention. He would have to help the US men’s team go to a semi-final, and then there would be a lot to talk about. “


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