Americans Abroad: Christian Pulisic

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.” – T.S. Eliot.

The odd case of Freddy Adu exposed Americans to the danger of overhyping talent – and they didn’t like it. Starting an MLS game at 14 and destined for stardom across the waters, he instead became a world traveler, playing for 12 clubs across eight different countries, shunned to the oblivion of the footballing world and consigned to wander the Path of Forgotten Talents. Since then, Americans have been wary to label young talent, and for good reason, but one boy from Hershey, Pennsylvania was determined to challenge that notion…

Young Christian Pulisic was always surrounded by soccer – such was the nature of having two soccer-playing parents. The sport was in his genes, but it was his path to forge. The world may never know whether the power of fate or the science of life led Pulisic to embrace his parents’ beloved sport. But for American soccer fans, we’ll live content in ignorance.

Christian Pulisic lived a nomadic childhood where adjustment was a major necessity, spending time in Pennsylvania, Michigan, England, and Germany. Perhaps it was this early exposure to European culture that influenced his later decision to seek opportunity playing abroad. In England, the sport was just around the corner for Pulisic – an availability that fostered a kindred passion for the game. As the Pulisics made their way around the States, the one constant in Christian’s life was soccer, and no matter where he lived, it always played an integral part in his lifestyle.

When Pulisic hit double digits in age, his parents enrolled him in PA Classics, the Manheim-based US Soccer Development Academy Team. His budding artistry and technical ability left Christian punching above his weight, constantly playing with and against older players. Similar to today, the American was often physically dwarfed by those who surrounded him on the pitch, but what he lacked in stature, he more than compensated with a footballing mind. As Andrea Pirlo once said, “football is played with the brain, and your feet are just the tools.” When there is such a physical discrepancy between opponents, only the strongest will survive, and Pulisic adapted his technical ability and honed his tactical awareness to thrive. Growing up in an environment that stacked the odds against him, Pulisic developed a quick mind. Vertical challenge inspired vision, anticipation, and unusual creativity, traits that inevitably set him apart from his American peers.

Pulisic’s exposure to European football wasn’t limited to his time in England and Germany; in fact, routine summer trips across the Atlantic saw Christian spend priceless time with several clubs, including Barcelona, Chelsea, PSV, and Porto. This deep immersion into international football immediately distinguishes the 19-year-old from 99% of prospects from the States, allowing him to absorb a diverse array of styles, whilst others were confined to isolationist teachings back home.

With such a unique childhood, and with prolonged exposure to football from an early age, one might be led to believe that Pulisic was a prodigy and that his rise to stardom was merely inevitable. The footballing gods smiled upon the offspring of Mark and Kelley Pulisic and created a predetermined path to a professional career. However, if you ask Christian, he’ll tell you otherwise – that hard work is the main factor for which he attributes his success. In his Players’ Tribune piece from late 2017, he points out that he “worked and sacrificed a lot to try to maximize what I was born with.” He points out that many kids today probably have way more talent than he had at his age, but his work ethic led him past talent-laden prodigies who refused to work hard.

Pulisic was a football connoisseur. Traveling far and wide to dip his toes into wildly different bodies of water, he acquired an eclectic footballing mind that was desperate for higher nourishment. In 2014, Borussia Dortmund came calling, offering Christian the perfect opportunity.

It was no easy decision by any stretch of the imagination. Leaving your friends and family, going to a country where you don’t speak the language, and having the risk of failure in a foreign country are all prominent factors that weighed heavily on the youngster’s mind. However, proving to hold a resolve and ambition that so many young American prospects are without, he took the massive jump without turning back. One trip convinced the Pulisic family that this would be a beneficial move, and upon returning to Germany the next time around, they made their trip permanent.

Family genealogy once again stood on Pulisic’s side, his transition to European life undoubtedly aided by the swiftness in which he was granted a Croatian passport. Thanks to his Croatian-born grandfather, Mate, he was able to secure EU citizenship, a vital element for early integration into Dortmund life. Without it he wouldn’t have been able to start playing in Europe until he was 18, which would’ve greatly stagnated his budding abilities. Pulisic said himself that those age 16-18 years are “everything (…) from a developmental perspective, it’s almost like this sweet spot.”

Another reason why Pulisic is leaps and bounds ahead of his American peers is his isolation from the negative aspects of the U.S. system. Although the population pool of the U.S. is high in comparison to Europe, the sheer talent per capita overseas is light years ahead of the States. When the talent pool is so much deeper and the bar is so much higher, it forces young prospects like Pulisic to put their head down and work. It enforces an attitude of humility, creates an intensity higher than the States, and forces those who can’t handle the heat out of the kitchen.

Luckily for American fans, Pulisic had his heat-resistant suit on and forged his way through the ranks. Their seemed to be a consensus, both on Dortmund and Pulisic’s side, that progress would be gradual and the adjustment may take time. But so often as great players do, he defied expectations, quickly asserting his dominance in the under-17 squad. It took the American only eight matches in the yellow and black to notch six goals and five assists, which earned him a deserved promotion to the under-19’s. As mentioned before, Pulisic was used to punching above his weight, so the move up in age group was met with rugged American determination. The youngest on the team chalked up four goals and three assists in his first seven league games.

In between his under-19 success, Pulisic joined the US team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in India. Three starts saw the Dortmund academy prospect earn a goal and an assist to his name. Ironically, his 2 goal contributions came against Croatia as he stood a bright stand-alone amid a dismal American performance.

Not only was he making waves for his country, but Pulisic’s rapid rise within the Dortmund ranks caught the attention of manager Thomas Tuchel. The American teenager had called enough attention to himself to earn a spot on the senior squad’s winter break trip to Dubai – and he never looked back.

Obviously, Pulisic did enough to warrant prolonged inclusion in the senior squad, a decision that every American fan should applaud Tuchel for. He didn’t stop there. Pulisic netted 2 goals during winter break friendlies, slotting in perfectly with the senior team. However, the big test came two weeks later in Pulisic’s Bundesliga debut against Ingolstadt. When he entered the field in the 68th minute, he became the Bundesliga’s eighth-youngest player to appear in a match and flew onto the radars of unknowing Americans back home.

A 17-year-old American featuring in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund? Now the heads were spinning, and for Pulisic, the records kept falling: 18 February 2016, youngest American to play in UEFA competition; 17 April 2016, youngest non-German Bundesliga scorer against Hamburg; 23 April 2016, youngest Bundesliga player to score 2 goals; 28 May 2016, youngest USMNT scorer in the modern era; 14 September 2016, Dortmund’s youngest UEFA Champions League player. His most noteworthy achievements were becoming the youngest American to score in the Champions League, when he netted a sumptuous chip against Benfica in the return leg of their Round of 16 meeting; and becoming the youngest American to win a major European trophy (DFB Pokal).

At 19, Pulisic’s credentials are some of the best for an American. His meteoric rise meant his name rolled off of every U.S. National Team supporter’s tongue in the blink of an eye, propelled to American stardom due to success abroad. His success story in Europe should serve as a beacon for emerging American prospects: hard work and risk-taking can lead to the greatest benefits. In a matter of less than 2 years, Pulisic has transformed from unknown American to the icon all Americans will stand behind. Yes, it’s a shame the national team won’t be heading to Russia this summer with Pulisic leading the frontline, but progress is gradual and the future holds potential.

For decades, the U.S. Men’s National Team was defined by its rugged determinism and grit. They were willing to play ugly and relished in it. Being the underdog was a role they assumed with great pride. However, their recent failings in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers exposed a vile case of missing identity, a team discombobulated and mediocre at best. The reliance on Christian Pulisic to score and create was a burden comparable to the role that Lionel Messi holds for Argentina, a role that requires both players to drop deep just to receive possession and sees their final-third genius greatly diminished. Pulisic defies the archetypical American player, his creativity and vision a stark contrast to the physical, determined attackers that have so long defined our nation’s force going forward. His technicality isolates him in a group categorized by their brawns, and his mold indicates a possible shift in style going forward for the national team. For the moment, Pulisic is forced to adapt to the styles of those that surround him, and naturally, his influence is diminished.

With a talent level that leaves him head and shoulders above his compatriots, Pulisic is expected to exert maximum influence on the outcome, which can only be achieved by thrusting him into a central role. One of the USA’s main struggles came during matches when he was unable to manipulate the game, and the result was stagnant attacking play and a dire lack of creativity. In terms of his best position for the national team, it varies based on opponents and formation. In the middle, he has shown excellence playing in a 4-4-2 during games when the Americans are expected to dominate possession, which allows him more freedom to roam. However, during tougher games, his defensive vulnerabilities hinder the U.S.’s midfield capabilities. Landon Donovan has slated him to play as a second forward, which would grant him sufficient freedom and lift most of his defensive responsibilities. We may be wrong to heap all our hopes onto the shoulders of a 19-year-old, but when you’re just that much better than the rest, you carry the majority of the burden.

Another possibility for where Pulisic could line up in the future depends on whether the USMNT experiments with the 4-3-3. In Pulisic and McKennie, two-thirds of the American midfield would be complete. It is yet to be seen who could slot in beside them, but Pulisic would assume the most advanced role in the midfield trio. His intricate dribbling and technicality would provide the U.S. with their best chance at an excellent half-spaces player in their entire history.

Over at Dortmund, Pulisic is primarily deployed as a winger, but has had positive showings down the middle of the pitch. His blitzing acceleration haunts Bundesliga defenders, but it’s his tenacious work ethic that puts other wingers to shame. In the black and yellow, he is surrounded by world class attackers, and he upholds his defensive commitments dutifully. He has an untouchable level of confidence that enables him to constantly take his defender 1v1, an important asset that leads him to try and try again.

Pulisic’s flexibility has been a key factor in his rise at Dortmund because it has allowed his managers to manipulate his role according to other squad concerns. When you’ve played alongside the likes of Marco Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Ousmane Dembélé, it’s important to possess adaptability if you want continued first team minutes. Pulisic has proven capable in various positions so far, which has allowed him to gain more experience than most.
What makes Pulisic unique as a young winger is his ability to combine incision, creativity, and finishing. Many wingers are hindered by their poor composure in front of goal, their silky skills and shimmies effective in beating defenders, but their own feet proving to be their own downfall. In contrast, at the tender age of 19, Pulisic has proven to hold more composure in his young legs than most wingers boast during their entire careers. His threat expands when you recognize his eye for a killer ball, his vision allowing him to split defenses open like the Red Sea. Such duality means he can’t be forced one way or another – defenders must respect his ability to create and to beat the man.

As mentioned before, his vertical challenge has bred a heightened footballing IQ and a brain that analyzes the game on the pitch faster than onlookers can process it. His understanding of spatial dimensions are most evident in his off-the-ball runs, which deliberately attract defensive attention to free up space for a teammate.

One trait Pulisic exhibits that connects him with his American teammates is his fearless mentality. In numerous qualifiers, he was scratched, clawed, and beaten by defenders, only to pick himself up, dust off his shoulders, and take the ball past that same defender time and time again. He never shies away from a tackle, and isn’t quick to go to ground either – his willingness to fight on is another trait that he shares with Messi.

At the raw age of 19, Pulisic has time to seal up any cracks in his game. His sometimes questionable decision-making will likely improve with experience, and frustration that breeds ill decisions will hopefully be cast away with maturity. What will be important with Pulisic will be maintaining consistency in the upper echelons of European play.

It’s rare an American with such potential and talent comes around. It’s rarer when an American sets foot on foreign soil and succeeds from the offset. But it’s an even greater rarity that a nation of 320 million people have stacked all their footballing hopes and dreams on the shoulders of a 19-year-old. When you have the game that Pulisic has, it comes with the job description.

For years, Americans have been known for their goalkeepers: Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, and Brad Guzan, to name a few. The red, white, and blue have been defined by their players who stand between the sticks, using their hands to protect the goal (quite ironic, given the popularity of American football, a game played with the hands). However, Pulisic may be a part of a new generation, a new breed. For all we know, the U.S. Men’s National Team may be experiencing the beginning of a revolutionary transition, from grit to skill; from physicality to technicality. Christian Pulisic is the architect of this movement, and he has moved an entire nation. There is now a generation of empowered American youngsters focused on technicality, and hopefully, we’ll be wise enough to recognize their potential.

Writer: Brandon Duran/@alcxntara6
Photo: Bundesliga