Christian Pulisic has the weight of a nation on his teenage shoulders.
This was always the plan for the Hershey, Pennsylvania native, now just 18 years old and being hailed as the next great hope of American soccer by his coaches and teammates, plus pundits and fans.
[ MORE: Pulisic’s potential “limitless” ]
Working away in the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range in central Pennsylvania, Pulisic grew up with an incessant hunger to achieve. He would often take his training and games seriously, very seriously, but he was guided by a close-knit group of soccer experts and enthusiasts who led him on the path to greatness.
His parents Mark and Kelley were both standout players at George Mason University, while Mark went on to be a star for indoor soccer team the Harrisburg Heat. Along the way he met Steve Klein and Bob Lilley, two former pros and now coaches who would help form a tight knit unit to help nurture Pulisic’s prodigious talent.
Still, his rapid ascension has stunned everyone. Even those closest to him who knew of his special ability from a young age.
At the age of 15 Pulisic was spending training stints with Barcelona, Arsenal, Chelsea, Porto, PSV Eindhoven, Villarreal and Borussia Dortmund. He plumped for the latter as the scouts started to flock to watch him play after standing out as a 15-year-old in the U.S. U17 side which beat Brazil in the prestigious Nike International Friendlies tournament in December 2013. Dortmund watched him again in a tournament in Turkey a few months later and the rest is history.
Pulisic’s story gives thousands of others hope that the USA can indeed become a breeding ground for talented, creative players capable of performing on the biggest stages on the planet, as he has done in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League with Dortmund as a starter this season. He is 18.
Ahead of the huge 2018 World Cup qualifier against Mexico on Friday, he is ready to rise as the next star of the USMNT and is expected to start for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side.
As far as the U.S. soccer community is concerned: this is Christian Pulisic’s world and we are all just living in it.
What goes in to making a superstar, international caliber soccer player? It is the question which has baffled the American soccer system for decades.
In Pulisic’s case it was lots of hours of training. But not too much. Does that go against everything you’ve ever heard? Probably.
At the age of 10, 11 and 12 he was getting offers from all over the place to play in three or four travel teams but his close circle of father figures steered him in the right direction. Train more and play less was the simple mantra.
The Pennsylvanian Classics, a highly respected youth team Pulisic played for from the age of 10-15, agreed with these principles.
Steve Klein is the director of coaching with the PA Classics and a close family friend of the Pulisic’s. Klein knew Christian from the age of four and he believes one of the key things for youngsters growing up and playing the game in the U.S. is to play for less teams.
“From the age of 6-9, he was playing other sports. The family weren’t just all soccer. There was never a situation where it was just one sport and that was it. But definitely at a young age, he loved soccer the most and I know he would play on his own in the back yard with his dad. He was always playing,” Klein told ProSoccerTalk. “The one thing I would say for sure about his dad, mom and the family, he never played for multiple soccer teams. A lot of these kids, and this is something we struggled with at our soccer club a lot of times, kids just want to play so much, so many games and guest for so many teams. They never did that.
“We never had him playing for two teams in the club. He would play for an older age group and we never put him down into a younger age group just to win a State Cup. He would get opportunities to go and play at the Dallas Cup with teams from other states but he would never do that. I would say he played a ton of soccer but all the extra was on his own in his backyard. He played a lot but he was not playing on two or three teams.”
Did that lack of playing games help Pulisic develop his sublime first touch, passing and dribbling skills?
“For sure. That’s what we try to tell people in our club. You tell them you don’t need to play for multiple teams. You can play every day but it needs to be on your own terms, at home doing stuff on your own,” Klein said. “Kids get burned out when they play on multiple teams. They don’t necessarily get burned out when they’re playing every day. If the kid is going into the backyard to do something, that’s because he wants to do it. You know he is choosing to do that. Kids aren’t always choosing when their parents are driving them to places. They are just going along for the ride.”
Pulisic wasn’t along for the ride.
He would spend hours in his backyard, practicing drills and skills rather than endless running around and chasing the ball in a crowd of other players. In the same way golfers spend hours on chips and putting rather than trudging around a course, Pulisic was honing his first touch, his Cruyff turn and his dribbling. It sounds simple, but the truth is far too many kids are pushed into the “play, play, play” mantra by parents and their coaches at a young age.
Klein, he was also an assistant coach for the U.S. youth U14 side, always had the feeling there was something special about Pulisic. Even though he was always one of the smallest players on the pitch.
“We have been friends of the family since he was a little kid. I knew Christian when he first started playing when he was four, five, six years old. We kind of watched him grow up and you could definitely tell at seven, eight years old that he definitely had some ability at that age. No one at that age would have been thinking he is doing what he’s doing now,” Klein revealed. “You definitely knew at an early age that he was going to be a very good player. Without a doubt. At those ages, it was just his feet… and at such a young age he had a sense on how to play through balls. You could see he had some natural instincts.”
Those natural instincts have been nurtured expertly at PA Classics, within the U.S. youth national team setup and now at Dortmund since Pulisic moved to Germany at the age of 15. Jurgen Klinsmann, the head coach of the U.S. national team, revealed his delight about Pulisic’s development and onward potential.
“This player’s potential is limitless,” Klinsmann told FIFA.com. “I’ve always said, you need to write your own story and he’s doing it right now. I think it’s rare in America for a player to be so developed at such an early age, but in Europe if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. He’s taken things in his own hands. He’s the piece of the puzzle we were hoping for this year and he’s a great example to other young players about how to go for it – to play at the highest level and prove yourself.”
With the U.S. and Klinsmann desperate to unearth more players out of the Pulisic mold, particularly ones with natural attacking instincts, can coaches teach what he has?
“I don’t think you can teach a lot of the stuff that he has,” Klein admitted. “That’s why I am very happy that he is doing great. It is great for our club and it is great for people to see someone having success. He is just a very humble kid. It is good all round seeing a good person having success and I don’t think any of us can take credit for what he’s done. The only thing I think coaches can really help kids like that with is to keep them in a good environment where the kids’ ego stays in check. For me the humbleness, these traits and character issues, they are so important.
“There are so many talented kids who are nine or ten years old and they just get ruined because their character isn’t where it needs to be. We have issues with the parents and issues with the club. For him to go over [to Dortmund] at that young age and to be immersed in that culture and have to fight with grown men, you need strong character. I think that’s where everybody can help pinch in. With the character of a young kid like that. That’s where his parents have done such a good job, at not going crazy when they’ve seen they have a very talented player. That’s because they are also involved in soccer, Mark and Kelley, and that helps. But there are a lot of soccer people who have kids and go nuts because they dream of what their kid is going to do and they ruin them. Sometimes you are better off being a parent having no idea what soccer is about and you just let your kid go. Other times a soccer background helps. I don’t know if there is a right formula but clearly to me, lots of times coaches are afraid to coach a very talented kid because they are afraid the kid will leave their club. It is a hard thing to do but I think that character is so important for these kids with that talent.”
It is clear that Pulisic had natural talent, but it always helps if your father was a former pro. Look around sports and soccer in general. Success breeds success.
Mark Pulisic met Lilley (the current head coach of the Rochester Rhinos in the USL) while they played together at the George Mason University. The rest is history. Klein and Pulisic linked up in the Harrisburg area and have been close friends ever since.
Whether they knew it or not, the trios bond and love for the game nurtured one of the greatest hopes, if not the greatest hope, for American soccer. People like Klein and Christian’s godfather, Lilley, plus Pulisic’s entire family, have had a huge influence in getting him to where he is today.
Growing up, his nickname was Figo after the famous Portuguese winger. Figo was Pulisic’s favorite player and his father still calls him Figo to this day. His family is obsessed with the game.
FIgo aside, is Pulisic the best prospect Klein had seen at his age?
“There are a lot of kids who get success at 15, 16 or 17 and it goes to their heads very quickly and they kind of lose it at that age,” Klein said. “Some kids they get called into national team camp and they think they’ve arrived. They don’t realize there’s five, six, seven more steps after that. That’s the hardest part, when kids start having success. I think that’s been his best asset. Nothing fazes him. He is dreaming big and going after it. That’s the hard thing to have mentally for kids of his age.
“When he was younger nobody knew how he was going to mature. That’s a big issue for a lot of these kids. They may have great vision, tactical awareness and training habits, but you didn’t know how his body was going to develop. Now, he has grown into a young adult and has quickness and pace, if he didn’t have that quickness and pace it would be a lot harder for him.”
With the rise to stardom comes the pressure of expectation as comparisons to U.S. stars Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan continue. Does Pulisic have the mentality to be able to handle the pressure already being placed on him?
“All I know is I think he’s in a very good spot right now,” Klein explained. “I think his character he has right now can only help him as he moves into a fully-fledged adult. I think he is set up well to do well but you have to have adversity. That’s when the character will come in for him. You are not just going to have a straight line and rise to the top. I’d be shocked. Most players have had some adversity, whether it is injuries or whatnot. It is about how he deals with that adversity.
“How players deal with adversity and success is what defines them. If you have success, does it go to your head and you stop working hard? That’s a problem. If you have adversity, get down on yourself and lose confidence, complaining and make excuses… that’s a problem. Even with him you know he’s going to have to deal with adversity to get success. I think that’s why the good structure around him with his family will balance it out and keep him in good shape. We will find out.”
When Pulisic was seven years old the entire family moved to England with his mother, Kelley, accepting a one-year placement on a Fullbright scholarship to be a teacher.
That’s where Pulisic’s love for the game grew and somewhat of a lightbulb moment occurred.
He trained with Tottenham Hotspur as a youngster. Chris Ramsey was a friend of Klein’s as he’d played for the English coach at the USL’s Charleston Battery back in the day. Always helping to nurture him along the way, Klein arranged for Pulisic to go along to Spurs’ training ground and have a few informal sessions while his father Mark pitched in with some coaching.
Those moments playing in England stuck with Pulisic.
“A lot of people don’t realize but it really brought on my passion for the game,” Pulisic told the Daily Mail. “After school every day, I was just out for hours in the park, playing with my schoolmates. That’s really where my love for the game started to come alive and that was a big part of my development.”
While living in England he lapped up the enthusiasm levels for the game. Playing soccer anywhere he could, the experience of getting a taste of what a soccer mad nation was like left a lasting impression on the American.
Pulisic and his father would travel around and watch Premier League games whenever they could and they became fans of Manchester United.
“I do think one thing that was a big positive for him was that they went over to England. His mom got an exchange teaching job over there and then that’s when Mark stepped down from coaching college at Lebanon Valley college and they just took their family to go over there and live for a year. For Mark it was nothing about him trying to get his kid over to England or anything like that, it was just being able to go there for a year, go to games and get immersed in the culture and I think that really helped catch the bug for Christian,” Klein said. “Then they came back and it was only for one year. It wasn’t like he signed with an academy or anything like that. They definitely went over there to get immersed in that culture that is there. That helped set the bug in Christian that this is what he loves.
“I know he did some stuff with Tottenham and did some training there because my old coach Chris Ramsey from Charleston Battery was the Tottenham youth director at the time. So we kind of set him up to just get involved. He was too young but I know Mark got involved and volunteered. He wanted to go over there because it was a good experience for him as a dad with his kids and to live in a different country and was like ‘hey, it might be good for my young kid who loves soccer right now.’ It wasn’t some pre-planned thing to map out Christian’s future but I think it was something like ‘ah man, Christian loves this stuff. We may have something here.'”
You can say that again.
Fast-forward 10 years and he was making his debut for the U.S. national team as a 17-year-old.
As soon as he joined up with the USMNT, everyone knew right away just how special this kid was.
“He is a special talent,” U.S. national team defender and Stoke City star Geoff Cameron told ProSoccerTalk. “In training with national team camps he just had something different. He’d keep running and running at you all the time. He is fearless. Relentless. All of the more experienced guys on the team sat back and took notice. He has a big future, for sure.”
After becoming the youngster player to ever play in a World Cup qualifier for the U.S. at the age of 17, Pulisic then scored against Bolivia in a friendly back in May to become the youngster ever goalscorer. He has since become the youngster ever American to score two goals in the same game and the youngest to start a World Cup qualifier and the hype around him at international level is building all the time. He is expected to start against Mexico and be the USA’s main attacking threat from midfield.
Along with Pulisic there is a band of talented players who could become the USMNT’s future after also being nurtured in European academies. Ethan Horvath, Lynden Gooch, Julian Green and Cameron Carter-Vickers are all in the latest U.S. squad. In five years from now, those players could be the new spine of the U.S. team. Horvath in goal. CCV in central defense. Gooch in midfield. Green up top.
Even now, though, the other young players in and around the U.S. setup know Pulisic will be the main man the USMNT looks to for inspiration for a long time to come.
“I played against him in preseason when we played Dortmund but obviously I’ve seen and heard him play. Even here at Sunderland people are talking about him in the dressing room so everyone can see how good he is and what he brings,” Sunderland and USMNT midfielder Gooch told ProSoccerTalk. “Being so young, he just turned 18 years old, he is doing fantastic. It will be great to play with him.”
We know what he’s like as a player but what is Pulisic, the person, like?
Klein revealed that there’s always been a strong desire to push himself as far as he can go. Sometimes, he pushed himself too much.
“He is very serious kid. When we had him in national team camps, I worked with the 1998s when they were 14 and he was a very serious kid. Sometimes you had to say ‘hey, come on, lighten up a little bit Chris and don’t put so much pressure on yourself.’ He is very serious, he is not so much quiet but he is a humble kid who is just focused on what he needs to do. But when you get to know him as well, he’s a funny kid,” Klein revealed. “He loves watching other sports and is a big LeBron James fan. He is very serious and very focused and he doesn’t want to get derailed. He has been like that since he was 13, 14, 15 when he was old enough to make his own decisions and say I want to be a professional player. He sets his goals and he went for him. Unassuming is a good word to describe him but he is serious but messes around too. He is just a normal kid.”
Pulisic still visits Hershey to visit his mom and family (his cousin, Will, is a goalkeeper for the U.S. U17s and has also just signed for Dortmund) when he gets time off from Dortmund and during the last winter break he was at Klein’s house on New Year’s Day, chatting about the NBA and anything else aside from soccer.
“Whenever they come back we see them. We had a party at our house on New Year’s Day and Christian came over as well. They haven’t changed. Mark is working at Dortmund as well, he is coaching in their youth system. They are just living the dream,” Klein said. “He’s involved in the club, Christian is playing and Mark was a big part of our club and he coached Chris a lot at U13 and U14 age in our academy here. Mark was a big part of our teams here. He was a very good coach and I think that definitely helped Christian that Mark and Kelley have always been able to keep him level-headed.
“They haven’t changed as people with all the success. They clearly just want to focus on Christian. They are very careful and just want to let Christian develop. They try to keep him somewhat sheltered and let him just focus on playing. Ultimately, he is getting a lot of attention now. But he hasn’t arrived fully. There is a lot of pressure on him. He’s on the right path but they are not out there trying to get attention. They’d be fine just being left alone, to be honest.”
Mark and Kelley will likely not be left alone as their son continues to rise to stardom. What does Christian make of playing for the USMNT?
“You are playing for the country you grew up in, the one your whole family is from and your friends. You love that country so much,” Pulisic told Vice Sports. “Being able to represent them in a game, it is just such a special feeling.”
Where will this journey take the special youngster from Hershey next?
Currently a regular for Dortmund at the age of 18, Pulisic is part of a bright, young, attack-minded team put together bravely by Thomas Tuchel.
He has scored twice in the Bundesliga this season and added five assists in league and UCL play. He starred after coming off the bench in a draw against Real Madrid in the UCL and he very much looks the part on the biggest stage in world soccer.
Interest from other clubs, including Liverpool, is real. It makes sense after Jurgen Klopp left Dortmund in 2015 and eventually ending up at Liverpool.
Pulsic and Klopp talk all the time and it is fairly clear that the man who brought this young kid from Hershey to Dortmund now wants to take him to Anfield. ProSoccerTalk asked Klopp about Pulisic in the last transfer window as transfer talk intensified but he was coy on any move for the talented young American.
“No transfer rumors. I have no comment for this. Absolutely nothing to speak about,” Klopp said. “That’s for all the other cases too. When we know something and when we are close to doing something then we will inform you… or a little bit later.”
Right now though, while he is playing and contributing regularly in the Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League for Dortmund, Pulisic is absolutely fine where he is. The club suits his main skill set remarkable well.
“I would say he is very strong mentally and able to take guys on one-on-one,” Klein said. “He will take guys on three or four times and even if he gets stopped he will keep going. I think that’s a trait we need in our players, to be willing to take players on one versus one. It seems like they are encouraging that at Dortmund. I’ve been watching a lot of their games and they want all of their guys taking people on.”
When you look at Liverpool’s stacked offense, is he going to get ahead of Adam Lallana, Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane, Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino in the attacking roles? Perhaps not. Still, it’s an intriguing storyline to follow in the coming years as Pulisic heads towards the ripe old age of 21.
And the entire U.S. soccer community will be following, watching, waiting and hoping Pulisic can be the next big thing.
What about Pulisic? Well, he’s just going with the flow.
“I couldn’t even imagine it being as far along as it is right now,” Pulisic told Vice. “I am just really excited and thankful and count my blessings for everything that has happened. Everyone says, ‘he’s this big American hope.’ But I don’t look at it like that. I’m just out here trying to make it for myself. I’m not doing it for my country back home or really anybody. I wanted to do this because it is my dream.”