While the European footballing world doesn’t stop for American Independence Day (aka the Fourth of July), or quite frankly care about it, I thought we’d take a small break from transfer rumors (kinda) and shift the discussion towards the confluence of calcio, Roma’s American owners, and the power of “branding.” This nebulous concept has seemingly been at the heart of every move James Pallotta has made over the past several years; moving the club past the abstract and into the real, into the familiar, has been priority number one since August of 2011.
Roma can and should be lauded for the digital transformation they’ve undertaken since then, moving the barren wasteland that was asroma.it into the 21st century and, in many ways, into the forefront of sports social marketing. Between that shift and the global coverage afforded by Nike, James Pallotta’s group has the outward aesthetic portion of their branding mission down pat.
But there is something I’ve always found odd about this shift; they’ve never really gone all in to get an American star, someone they can use as a vehicle to spread the “brand” to the flyover states. And yes, the level of “star” America has produced thus far is up for debate, but bear with me.
Now, although I’m an American, I don’t claim to be an expert in U.S. Soccer, but I know enough about its past, present, and future to get by. Certainly, in the lore of American soccer, there is no figure that looms larger than Landon Donovan. The poster boy for U.S. Soccer was arguably at the apex of his powers when the Di Benedetto/Pallotta group took over Roma several years ago, having scored three goals in the 2010 World Cup. However, one can presume, given his aversion to life in Europe, Roma never broached the subject as far as we know. Plus, you know, he kind of has a way of grating people, so bullet dodged.
But there was another, slightly younger World Cup standout to whom Roma was connected shortly after the American takeover, Clint Dempsey. Dempsey’s goal against England in the 2010 World Cup was icing on the cake of arguably the best stretch of his career, one in which he scored 60 goals and contributed 21 assists in all competitions for Fulham between 2009 and 2012.
So it was no surprise when he became connected to Roma, a point not lost on us in the spring of 2012:
A potential signing of Dempsey would surely be a dream come true for the marketing department. Dempsey has effectively usurped Landon Donovan as the US’s best and most renowned player, he is, for all intents and purposes, U.S. Soccer. Having Roma mentioned with his every appearance would be a coup for the front office.
Dempsey was flashy, he was brash, and he could even rap; he was, in so many ways, the perfect player for the budding meme culture. Alas, Dempsey ultimately made the switch to Tottenham and, after scoring seven league goals in his debut season, failed to really latch on with Spurs, who presumably were disappointed he didn’t give them a stronger foothold in the American market.
During that same period, there were brief dalliances with DeAndre Yedlin and the occasional Jozy Altidore rumor, but Roma pinned their American hopes on the broad shoulders and bald scalp of Michael Bradley. While Bradley was a solid enough player, even if he did usurp Daniele De Rossi, he’s still not the stuff of matinee idols—box-to-box midfielders don’t sell shirts or put asses in the seats.
And whether it was due to the bad taste in their mouth from the Bradley experiment or simply a lack of options, Roma hasn’t really dipped their toes in the American talent pool after shipping Bradley off to Toronto in the winter of 2014.
With Roma generally considered and/or estimated to be one of the top 20 most valuable clubs in the world, the desire to be number one in America (or at least the number one option behind larger names like Barcelona and Madrid) might not be as pressing as we assume. Still, might there be a Son of Sam that Pallotta could land, one that is not only a bonafide player but would put a Roma shirt on the back of every ten-year-old in America? Surely a player of that repute and with that sort of reach is worth any price, right?
We’re talking, of course, about the golden child, Christian Pulisic, Dortmund’s highly rated and highly sought-after 19-year-old winger. The Hershey, PA product eschewed the typical American developmental path, signing straight on with Dortmund at the age of 16 rather than toiling away in US developmental camps or the NCAA.
After making his Bundesliga debut in January of 2016, Pulisic has experienced a steady ascension with the German club, as his minutes have increased over the past two seasons. During the 2017-2018 campaign, Pulisic solidified his place in the team, earning 27 starts while scoring four goals and registering five assists in league competition. So impressed was Dortmund that they handed him a fresh contract extension, locking him with BvB through 2020.
At only 19 years old, Pulisic isn’t exactly a household name yet, but his reputation in Europe is on the rise, so much so that Croatia even tried to persuade him to cash in on his Croatian citizenship (via his grandfather). While it would have been interesting to see him play alongside the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, Pulisic stuck with the country of his birth, for better or worse.
So, what gives? Why hasn’t Roma made a move for this kid? On the surface, it almost seems too perfect: not only is he American, but he’s actually good, like really good, connected to Chelsea good.
With the best sporting director in the game, a behemoth of a kit manufacturer, and a lucrative sponsor behind them, not to mention playing in the semifinals of the Champions League, at the very least, Roma is on par with Dortmund, if not slightly better, so we can’t really say it would be a step down for Pulisic.
Is it the cost? Pulisic is rumored to be valued at approximately €45 million, which, depending on how it’s structured, isn’t entirely out of Roma’s reach. After all, it’s only three million more than they’re paying for Patrik Schick, so it wouldn’t be inconceivable; plus, one would imagine they’d do quite well in shirt sales if his career really took off.
The point being, for a club and ownership group that is so often assailed for being so crass and commercial, it seems odd that they wouldn’t put all their cards on the table and make a run at this kid. Pulisic is, in many ways, the first real European-style player America has ever produced; that is to say, he has the creativity, the expression, the intuit, and the feel for the game seldom seen in American players; he is not a tactically rigid robot from the ODP pipeline.
If ever there were an American player capable of being a true star, surely it’s Pulisic. While he won’t be mentioned in the same breath as Neymar or Mbappe over the next ten to twelve years, he is, to paraphrase James Pallotta, good enough to be every kid's second favorite player.
And there’s a lot of money to be made off that. It’s the American way, after all.