PORTLAND, Ore. — FC Dallas got lucky in Jan. 2012. That’s when when Matt Hedges, the best defender in that year’s draft, fell to them with the 11th pick. Hedges wasn’t supposed to last that long, but when he did, FCD had a potential solution at center back. With George John investigating options overseas, Dallas needed somebody who could step in next to Ugo Ihemelu.
Fast-forward 13 months and Hedges and John form one of the more intriguing center defense pairings in Major League Soccer, a tandem that leaves Schellas Hyndman with few doubts in defense. John’s authoritative presence combined with Hedges’ skill and athleticism allow Dallas’s head coach to focus on his skill-evolving attack.
The duo has the potential to be one of the league’s best central pairings, but that kind of status will depend on how Hedges progresses in his second professional season. ProSoccerTalk caught up to the former Tar Heel as his team was completing their part in Portland’s preseason tournament:
Can you talk a little about you and [George John], how you see your guys’ relationship as far as who plays which role and what you’re trying to do when you’re playing along side him?
I think we’re both taking a pretty active role. Communication is key. I’m trying to improve mine, and he’s fantastic at that, so I think he is more of the communicator of the two.
I’m trying to help him out. We’re kind of similar players. I think it’s going to work out really well for us.
I like to knock [the ball] around a little bit more, so him being big and strong, he can get up and win it. If we can keep possession through me, then I’m perfectly fine with that. And I’ll get into it sometimes, too.
On the perception of John as the “hammer” while he serves as more of the “all-arounder”: “Yeah, I’m alright with that.”
Last year you had Kevin (Hartman) behind you … This year, he’s gone, you have two relatively inexperienced guys behind you (Chris Seitz and Raul Fernández). What difference does that make for you? What difference do you see that making for the team?
Note: Fernández, a Peruvian international, has spent most of his career in his domestic league.
I definitely learned a lot from Kevin, and it was really helpful having him behind me. At the same time, Chris and Raul are both fantastical goalkeepers.
We’ll be alright, I think. They both communicate well. Raul’s English is getting better everyday. Seitz – you know what he’s going to bring. I’m not really worried about it at all.
What kind of goals do you set personally after a pretty successful rookie year?
Yeah, (it was) definitely had a very successful rookie year, but I’m just looking to get better every day, every game – improve. Make less mistakes, improve with the ball distributing, winning aerial challenges, being smarter. Just improving every facet of my game, every day.
It’s an obvious answer from any young player — just get better — but how Hedges improves will be the most intriguing part of Dallas’s center back duo. Still only 22, Hedges has the potential to develop into a rare MLS center back who can be a plus player distributing the ball.
With John to his right, the second-year pro should have the freedom to develop that part of his game, something that will help Dallas get the most out of their attacking talents.
The winner of the U.S. Open Cup gets a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Full schedule (June 5-6) New York Red Bulls vs. NYCFC
Louisville City (USL) vs. New England Revolution
DC United vs. North Carolina FC (USL)
Philadelphia Union vs. Richmond Kickers (USL)
Miami United (NPSL) vs. Orlando City SC
Atlanta United vs. Charleston Battery (USL)
Minnesota United vs. FC Cincinnati (USL)
Columbus Crew vs. Chicago Fire
Nashville SC (USL) vs. Colorado Rapids
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston Dynamo vs. NTX Rayados (LQ)
San Antonio FC (USL) vs. FC Dallas
LA Galaxy vs. FC Golden State Force (PDL)
LAFC vs. Fresno FC (USL)
Portland Timbers vs. San Jose Earthquakes
Sacramento Republic (USL) vs. Seattle Sounders
Christian Pulisic hasn’t played for the U.S. men’s national team since last October but next Monday he will step out onto the pitch for the Stars and Stripes once again, and he will be less than a few hours away from his hometown of Hershey, Pa.
It will be quite the homecoming for Pulisic, still just 19 years old, as the Borussia Dortmund star plays for the USMNT in a friendly against Bolivia at Talen Energy Stadium, close to Philadelphia.
In an exclusive chat with Pro Soccer Talk, Pulisic revealed that he is ready to be a leader, if that’s what is asked of him, as the USMNT continue rebuilding after their World Cup qualification nightmare eight months ago.
“We definitely have a younger roster this time around and I’m really looking forward to going in there and obviously I am young as well but I have a few caps to my name and I’m looking forward to being kind of a role model to these guys and helping shape our new team for the future. If it takes me being more of a leader out there that’s what I’ll have to do and I’m happy to be in that role,” Pulisic said.
Pulisic was speaking to PST about his new partnership with the Hershey Company and the playmaker was delighted to be linking up with his hometown brand as he received a Reese’s Outrageous Bar inspired cleats.
“I am super excited to be Stateside, always, so being able to spend a lot of time here recently has been awesome,” Pulisic said. “And I am super excited with everything with Hershey.”
As he returns to the state of Pennsylvania to play for the USMNT, Pulisic also played for Dortmund at LAFC in midweek before he links up with the national team in Philly on Thursday. Dortmund will also take on Benfica in Pittsburgh this summer in the International Champions Cup, as ‘the kid’ will be spending plenty of time with family in the Keystone State as he recharges his batteries from a tough season in the Bundesliga.
With 42 games under his belt for Dortmund this season in Germany’s top-flight (they finished in the top four but struggled throughout), Pulisic isn’t concerned with playing too many games in just his second full season as a pro. And with four goals and five assists in the Bundesliga, he set a goal and assist record for himself in league play.
He believes the best is yet to come as he gets set to work under a new coach, Lucien Favre, at Dortmund.
“There were definitely a lot of ups and downs this season but I’ve learned so much this year and obviously I feel that I have improved in the last season and I still feel that I have a long way to go,” Pulisic said. “Looking back at the season, finding things I can improve on and I will continue to work on those and hopefully we can do even better personally and as a team next season.”
“I just want to work hard every day in training and earn my spot every weekend. That’s always been the goal for me. Obviously I want to continue to build. Personally I have so much to build on, to be more clinical and get stronger, even trying to get my numbers up higher next season. That’s what I’m going to try and do and I’m going to work very hard to achieve that. Every player wants to score goals and get assists. I think I can do much more than that on the field, which doesn’t show on the stats, but of course that’s a very important part of the game.”
As Pulisic’s star has risen, rumors regarding his future have intensified and he continues to be linked with moves to Premier League giants Liverpool and Manchester United.
Do the reports frustrate him? Or is it flattering to be linked with some of the biggest clubs on the planet consistently?
“I really don’t look or read into it very much,” Pulisic said. “People know more about it than I do! Of course, the Premier League is a great league. It was a dream to play there when I was younger but I’m under contract with Dortmund and I’m just working hard there at the moment.”
So often American soccer fans say Pulisic shouldn’t move now to the rough and tumble of the Premier League and should instead spend the next few years improving his game at Dortmund and in the UEFA Champions League. When asked, the teenager didn’t set a timeframe on when would be the best time for a potential move to the PL.
“I’m very focused on the here and the now. Of course, you never know what can happen with professional sports but I am just focused on what I am doing right now,” Pulisic said.
Focusing on the past, Pulisic’s tears became the lasting image of the USMNT’s loss at Trinidad & Tobago back in October 2017 as he broke down on the field after the defeat which sealed their failure to qualify for the World Cup this summer.
USMNT fans won’t need reminding that the U.S. won’t be at the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
And Pulisic believes the USMNT not being at the big dance will have a big impact on the nation from a soccer perspective.
“When I was just a kid watching the U.S. at the World Cup, that gave me so much inspiration, seeing my country and seeing people playing with the U.S. crest,” Pulisic said. “Seeing them compete at a World Cup inspired me so much. Missing out on that is going to be a big thing but that doesn’t mean it’s over for U.S. Soccer. We are still growing a lot and we will do everything we can to be at the next one.”
As we edge towards the 2018 World Cup with excitement building across the globe, has time helped ease the pain for Pulisic?
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and it definitely hurt more right after the shock and that it had happened,” Pulisic said. “Now, leading into the World Cup, I am just going to watch the games, I have some time off now to rest, which my body could use. Watching the World Cup is going to get me even more excited and I’ll want to be in the next World Cup even more… I’m just looking forward to some good games, now that the U.S. isn’t there, I just want to see some good football.”
Pulisic admitted that he “hadn’t really looked into” the intense fallout from the USMNT’s failure as outgoing head coach Bruce Arena and several senior players had their say.
Wise beyond his years, Pulisic summed it up simply. But it’s clear that the pain still remains.
“I just think we had a great chance to qualify with one game and we had a little slip up there… a big slip up, actually, and that’s what happened,” Pulisic said. “I don’t look at the tiny little details as to what could’ve gone wrong. Because that would just drive me crazy.”
With interim head coach Dave Sarachan in charge for three friendlies since the World Cup qualification debacle, plus the friendly against Bolivia and then outings at the Republic of Ireland and France next month, the USMNT are in a strange place.
They have no permanent head coach. No General Manager has been appointed in the newly-created role. And there’s a real lack of direction as U.S. Soccer seemingly waits for coaches to be out of work following the World Cup this summer so they can then plan for the future.
“Not being in the World Cup has put us in a whole different situation but we still have good coaches and new players that they’re bringing in and trying to develop, so I don’t think it’s a real problem at the moment. We are going to put our heads down and continue to work,” Pulisic said.
Those given the chance to work hard include plenty of youngsters, with the average age of the squad to face Bolivia just 22 years of age. With Sarachan expected to ring the changes and go with a more experienced lineup for the games against Ireland and France, now is a big chance for the youth to shine as the road to the 2022 World Cup has well and truly begun.
There’s no doubt that Pulisic will be the leader of a new era in American soccer and with the likes of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga and Tim Weah building their professional careers successfully at big clubs home and abroad, the future is bright.
“The next step is just the Bolivia game and continuing to develop all of our players and getting them minutes,” Pulisic said. “Hopefully all of the young players, and I see a lot of American names in Europe, which is great, hopefully we will continue to develop and continue to make time for the national team and play some games together and create some chemistry and hopefully build a strong team going into the next World Cup.”
Still just a teenager, could it be a case of ‘Captain Pulisic’ blazing the trail towards the tournament in Qatar?
“I always dreamed of just playing for the U.S. men’s national team, not necessarily being the captain, but I’m happy to take on whatever leadership role it is, be it leading by example or whatever,” Pulisic said.
This is now his team. The kid from Hershey has the reins. And let’s be real, he’s had them for the past two years since he burst onto the scene.
The federation did not announce when tickets would go on sale, or how they would be allotted, saying that information will come at a later date.
The U.S. is winless in its last three matches against Mexico, with two losses to go with the 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca in June 2017.
Theoretically, the Yanks will be facing the Mexico test with a new permanent coach. Dave Sarachan has been running the ship since Bruce Arena resigned after an embarrassing loss at Trinidad and Tobago which kept the U.S. from reaching the World Cup.
Mexico is in tricky World Cup Group F with Germany, South Korea, and Sweden.