The No.10 jersey is the most storied number in the history of the game, not least of which because of the amount of players who have worn it, played the position associated with it, and elevated the game to an art form.
Names like Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldinho, Totti and Valderrama helped dazzle spectators the world over, while leaving American fans wondering when their own special creative midfielder would emerge. The desire to see a U.S. national team player who could astonish with the vision, timing and creativity of the world's best playmakers has led to years of frustration, and in many case has led to legendary American players being misidentified as playmakers.
Christian Pulisic has come along to give American fans hope that a true No. 10 has arrived, but there is some debate about whether he is a playmaker in a classic sense of the role. In fact, some, including Pulisic's own national team coach, would argue that the evolution of the game has led to the near extinction of the position in its traditional form.
"Let them know that there really aren't 10s anymore," Arena told Goal when asked about American fans yearning for an American playmaker. "There's no such thing in the modern game today because the game is much faster, all players kind of attack. It's a different kind of game than it was 30 years ago."
"In today's game there really aren't playmakers," he added. "Guys that play in the midfield have responsibilities on both sides of the ball."
The era where teams could afford to have an advanced playmaker who didn't necessarily have defensive responsibilities appears to have come and gone, with box-to-box midfielders more the norm in central roles, even on the best teams.
"The best midfielders in the world, by far in my opinion, are the midfielders at Real Madrid and you don't call any of them really playmakers and they're the best in the position," Arena said. "It's a different game. The Tottis no longer exist in the game."
"That position has evolved a lot," Landon Donovan told Goal. "In the 80s, 90s and even early 2000s that was a type of player that was more prominent. That type of player doesn’t always exist in the way that they used to.
"There’s no Maradona, there’s one Messi. So you really can’t have that type of player just touching the ball 150 times a game and dictating the game," he added. "The game doesn’t work that way as much anymore. Maybe it’ll come back, these things are cyclical, but at the moment that’s not really the way the game is played as much."
Donovan is part of an impressive fraternity of former U.S. national team stars who occasionally played in an attacking midfield rule as a playmaker, along with Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna. All three wore the U.S. No.10 jersey, but none of them was a true playmaker even if they may have been thrust into that role at times.
"We as Americans have not developed many players that can play at the highest level and sort of play that role," Donovan said. "I don’t consider myself someone who plays that way. I think Claudio was a little closer to that, and Tab was a little closer to that."
Much like Donovan, Ramos never saw himself as a No.10, even if coaches often used him there since many times he was the most skilled player on his team.
"I was also forced into the 10 role but I always saw myself as a right-winger type guy who could beat my guy every time and get the ball over and get good service to people," Ramos told Goal. "Get good assists to people. That was my thing. I wasn’t a 10 then either, I was more a one-on-one guy, beat you and get the ball over, get a good cross in, I could change the game that way."
"Claudio was more of an organizing type midfielder that spread the ball around, that really saw the game really well and kept everybody in the game," Ramos continued. "And then I see Landon as the more direct guy, more without the ball, that can make the run without the ball and kill you."
If the clamoring for an American playmaker died down over the past decade, it was in large part because of Donovan's impact as an influential force in the U.S. attack. Early in his national team career, Donovan could be found being deployed underneath a striker, or even underneath two strikers in a 3-5-2, as Bruce Arena used to beat Mexico in the 2002 World Cup. Eventually Donovan settled in as more of a true forward before closing out his career playing more on the wing.
"I was never comfortable playing in the middle of a two with two midfielders," Donovan said. "I wanted the ability to run beyond defenders when I didn’t have the ball, and I couldn’t do that if I was in the midfield with just one other player."
Pulisic has become the latest USMNT player who wears the No.10 that is also seen as a potential heir to the unclaimed American playmaker throne. His earliest days as a youth soccer sensation saw him as a speedy and skilled winger, much as he plays now at Borussia Dortmund, but his years in the U.S. youth national team setup saw him play more as a true playmaker. It is a role Pulisic enjoys playing, and one he believes he can fill with the USA.
"I really enjoy playing there," Pulisic told Goal. "I love obviously more on the attacking side of the game, and I think it really gives me a good chance to kind of link the defense and the attack. I think I’m good at that. I think I can change the game, and use my quickness and speed to kind of do that and I think it’s a really good position for me."
Anyone who watched Pulisic tear apart Honduras last March playing in that role would agree, though you can make the argument that the challenges presented by a tougher opponent would make deploying Pulisic in an advanced playmaking position much more difficult. The better the opponent, the more defensive responsibilities carried by the U.S. midfield, which would in turn lead to Pulisic having to play deeper than a true playmaker.
Donovan would also argue that Pulisic's greatest strength is in attack — the ability to go at people as well as making dangerous off-the-ball runs — are better suited for the wide role he plays more frequently.
"He may play in the '10' role, but he’s not the traditional No.10 playmaker the way he plays," Donovan said of Pulisic. "He’s different, but he has a lot of similarities to the way I always liked to play. He wants the freedom to run beyond people to, or run at people to. He’s not a guy who's necessarily comfortable touching the ball 150 times and making 130 passes a game. He’s a guy who wants to be more direct and effective."
Even Arena has acknowledged at times that Pulisic isn't a classic No.10, and perhaps it was a bit telling that Pulisic wasn't the American player he first thought of when discussing the position.
"[Darlington] Nagbe's a very good player in a central position," Arena said. "He can attack, he can score goals. He can make goals for other players. He defends well. And I think that's more the modern central player."
Are American fans really still clamoring for a No.10 anymore? Not since Pulisic's arrival, and the reality is that whether or not he's a pure playmaker in the classic sense doesn't matter all that much. Pulisic, above all, is an American game-changing attacking threat like we've never seen before, which is really what American fans were waiting for all along.