My late doctor was a soccer player.
Former captain of Guatemala.
Played professionally in Mexico while in med school.
Dr. Kenneth Ewing used to tell me he drove east on the Long Island Expressway to watch weekend games in Latino neighborhoods.
“Those kids play better than our national players” the doctor said.
What he meant was that young players had moves they learned from their fathers and uncles and brothers, playing the game they knew and loved.
I used to argue with him, or rationalize. Not a good idea against an old defender.
I was thinking of the good doctor Friday night when I witnessed Christian Pulisic’s bag of tricks against Panama. The kid – 19 – has somehow shrugged off the volunteer coaches with an instructional book in one hand who urge the lads to cut all the fancy stuff and boot the ball upfield.
(“Stay back, you’re a midfielder!”)
Pulisic went to Dortmund at an early ago and German coaches fortified rather than nullified his instincts.
(What John Thompson, when he coached Georgetown basketball, used to scornfully call “The Boogaloo” – meaning that fancy stuff would immediately earn a seat on the bench.)
Christian Pulisic employed The Old Boogaloo against Panama on Friday night in a game the United States needed or face four years of shame. But the kid and his mates (and, yes, Coach Bruce Arena, with his go-for-it formation) staved off disgrace with a 4-0 victory that puts them in good position to play in Port of Spain Tuesday night and wrap up an eighth straight trip to the World Cup in 2018.
The best move was on the second goal. Pulisic had scored the first one. Now he took a luscious lead pass down the left side and busted downfield, with poorly-placed defenders trying to catch up.
One of them tried to square up against Pulisic and the kid performed a series of fakes and false starts, dragging his rear leg while actually accelerating. He turned the corner, lashed a lefty pass toward the goal where Jozy Altidore put it away.
First time I saw moves like that was, as a kid, watching the old New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference in Yankee Stadium, late ‘40s, when a little chunk of a scatback named Buddy Young, out of Illinois, practitioner of The Boogaloo, would jitter around defenses. Lovely man, Buddy Young, passed too soon. Wouldn’t I like to tell him he has a spiritual grandson, out of Hershey, Pa., who somehow escaped the inhibitions of local American soccer coaching to help win an absolutely vital match.
Pulisic’s story is just beginning. Opponents in regional play hack him cynically; I hope officiating in the Bundesliga is tighter.
Bless all the lovely players who have taken the U.S. this far – Claudio Reyna, Tab Ramos, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri, Jozy Altidore, you name ‘em.
The U.S. has a kid who can stutter-step. I’d love to hear my doctor react to that.
* * *
Best piece I’ve seen on Pulisic was written by Jacob Klinger 15 months ago:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.