When Borussia Dortmund kicks off the second half of the Bundesliga season on Saturday, it will do so with an American trying to break into the lineup. Christian Pulisic, the United States Under-17 international who impressed with his performance at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup, has been with the Dortmund first team since reconvening after winter break and is on the club's official roster for the rest of the season.
“It’s incredible, first of all. Just an honor to play with these players,” Pulisic, 17, told SI.com via telephone from Germany. “They’re all helping me, and they want me to really be a part of the team. It’s just a great experience for me.”
Despite his slight 5'8" frame, Pulisic has quickly established himself as the most promising player coming through the U.S. youth ranks. His showing was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal U-17 World Cup for the U.S., and after winning a U-17 German championship with BVB, he scored four goals for Dortmund’s U-19s in the first half of this season.
He and German U-17 captain Felix Passlack, a teammate at the U-17 and U-19 levels, have been touted as academy players who could make an impact on the first team in the immediate future.
“It’s cool that we’re such close friends,” Pulisic said. “It’s always helpful to have a guy who you know, is your age and you can always rely on him and talk to him about stuff.”
Both players’ opportunities with the first team have grown since Thomas Tuchel took over as the manager at the start of the year.
“[Tuchel] is a great coach from the training perspective,” Pulisic said. “Getting to learn from him every day is really good, and it’s getting me a lot better. I know that for sure. I definitely need a coach like him, and I know he’s going to help me in my development.”
After a 45-minute appearance against St. Pauli in a September friendly, Pulisic joined the first team for its midseason training camp in Dubai this month. He appeared in both matches there, scoring in stoppage time of a 4-1 win over South Korean top-flight leader Jeonbuk Motors on Jan. 15.
Previous BVB manager Jurgen Klopp, now at Liverpool, also lauded the Hershey, Pennsylvania, native when he trained with the first team in 2015.
“In a very intense training session with narrow spaces, he did not stand out in a negative way,” Klopp said at the time. “This is a real sign of quality.”
Pulisic said Turkish international Nuri Şahin has been particularly welcoming as he takes his initial steps with the first team. Şahin followed a similar path to Dortmund, making his first-team debut at 16 years and 334 days to set the record for youngest player to play in the Bundesliga. He became the youngest to score in the league three months later.
“Almost every training when I first came in, he’s the guy who would put his arm around me, help me out and tell me kind of how things work around here,” Pulisic said, “And he’s just always giving me advice on just simple stuff.”
Pulisic has appeared primarily on either wing for BVB, though he played as the playmaking No. 10 for the U.S. at the World Cup. He turned heads with his fearless, repeated runs at opposing defenses, showing great technical ability and a cool head in deciphering the proper situation to dribble or pass.
“It’s been great to see the success he’s had and how he’s developed,” former U.S. U-17 head coach and current Real Salt Lake assistant Richie Williams told SI.com. “[He’s] a very talented player, and he’s a good person as well. You’re always rooting for those players to continue to develop, to be successful.”
Growing up, Pulisic could draw plenty of soccer inspiration from his parents, who both played for George Mason University. His father, Mark, also played for the Harrisburg Heat indoor team from 1991 to 1999.
Christian Pulisic spent the majority of his youth playing days at Pennsylvania Classics, a U.S. Soccer Development Academy club, before joining the U.S. U-17 residency program. He also played for Michigan Rush when his father coached the Detroit Ignition of the Major Indoor Soccer League in 2006-07.
PA Classics director Steve Klein said what struck him most besides Pulisic's talent were his drive and humility.
“That’s his best quality, so I think that’s what’s enabling him—plus, obviously, his talent—to keep things in perspective and keep climbing the ladder,” Klein told SI.com. “The thing that we always felt was going to help him through was he seemed to be very grounded and focused about his training and his goals.”
Said Williams: “On top of all of those great qualities that he has, he’s a competitor. … He’s a smart kid, and he’s mature. He gets it, and he’s measured in what he says, and he thinks things through. That’s only going to help him continue to grow as a soccer player.”
Before joining BVB’s academy in July 2014, Pulisic also completed various training stints in England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Having played alongside some of the world’s best players from such a young age, it’s no surprise Pulisic hardly thinks about the credentials of those with whom he shares the field anymore.
“Some of these guys just won a World Cup, and you’re maybe a little star-struck at first,” he said, “and now they’re all my teammates. Of course, I have to give them that respect, but I’m also fighting for the same positions that they all are.”
The next step will be playing in competitive matches with those players. Tuchel tried Pulisic on both sides of midfield in the midseason training camp, and Jonas Hofmann’s departure to Borussia Monchengladbach on New Year’s Day leaves an opportunity out wide.
“It’s definitely hard to say if I’m obviously going to be on the field playing in these Bundesliga matches, but that’s the goal for me,” Pulisic said. “Of course, there are always some injuries, and that could be an opportunity, but right now, I’m just doing everything that I can every day in training and trying to earn my spot on that team.”
His former coaches don’t seem to doubt that his moment will come. However, Williams pointed out that Pulisic is still only 17, so his continued success might not be as rapid as his ascent so far.
“He has all the tools to be successful, and I think the one thing we need to be is patient,” Williams said. “If you had to put money on it, you’d think he’s one of those players who would do well and would succeed.”