The Education of Christian Pulisic: Inside the Dortmund, USA rising star's rapid growth
- What has gone into Christian Pulisic's meteoric rise for club and country? The inside story on the growth and rapid maturation of the Dortmund and USA midfielder.
DORTMUND, Germany – Michael Zorc, the sporting director for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, is one of the most respected talent spotters in world soccer. He has to be, since his main competition, Bayern Munich, is blessed with enough wealth not just to buy superstars from around Europe but also to poach Dortmund’s best players, as Bayern has done with brutal repetition over the years.
“We have a rival who makes €200 million more per year in revenues,” Zorc explains on a rainy fall day in Germany’s Ruhr Valley. “So we have to have a different approach to compete with them. We have to be quicker and earlier to find young talent.”
Dortmund casts a global net in its pursuit of prospects. In January 2014, Zorc sent his scouts to a youth tournament in Turkey to take a close look at the U.S. Under-17 national team and its promising forward, Haji Wright. But a funny thing happened that week: While they were observing Wright, Dortmund’s scouts fell in love with another U.S. player, a slight 15-year-old midfielder named Christian Pulisic. A native of Hershey, Pa., Pulisic (pronounced puh-LISS-ick) possessed a combination of speed, vision and soccer IQ that Zorc had never seen in an American his age before.
“We said, ‘Hey, [Wright] is a really good player, but there’s one fantastic, outstanding player [Pulisic],’” Zorc says, “and from this time we followed him and tried to realize the transfer.”
Pulisic moved with his father, Mark, to Germany in the summer of 2014, and this year he has broken through with Dortmund and the U.S. national team to become the best American men’s soccer prospect since Landon Donovan. In April, Pulisic scored his second goal in the German Bundesliga, the youngest player ever to do so (at 17 years, 218 days). In September, he was the best player on the field in the U.S.’s 4-0 World Cup qualifying win against Trinidad and Tobago, his first national team start. Three weeks later, Pulisic came on against Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale in a UEFA Champions League game and delivered the final pass on Dortmund’s equalizer in a 2-2 tie. Not bad for a kid who would celebrate his 18th birthday on Sept. 18 by attending a Justin Bieber concert in Cologne.
Watching Pulisic in full flight on the ball is to witness the real thing. Modern soccer is about speed, skill and quickness of thought, and Pulisic is as relentless as time itself. From his position out wide in Dortmund’s attack, he can drive hard to the byline and deliver a pinpoint cross or cut inside and break down defenders who just can’t keep up. His first touch is a baby’s breath.
“I like to think of myself as a creative player,” says Pulisic during an interview in Dortmund’s fan store, where supporters from ages 6 to 56 ask him to sign autographs. “I try to have an impact on every game, whether it’s by making runs or using quick moves to try to get by defenders or making a nice pass to help my team.”
Whenever the competition level is raised, Pulisic meets it. In his confidence and even his appearance, he’s a post-millennial version of Tom Cruise’s Maverick taking out the MiGs in Top Gun.
“He’s fearless,” says Dortmund teammate Nuri Sahin. “He has so much speed, but what I like the most is his first touch. When he gets the ball, his first touch opens him a huge space even if there is no space.”
Adds Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel: “He’s the kind of guy who’s very self-confident and showed his talent on the pitch and doesn’t show any nerves under pressure. That’s a wonderful combination.”
Now the world is noticing, too. Pulisic recently signed a lucrative deal through 2022 with Nike, which is aching to find the first U.S. men’s soccer superstar, and he was the subject of offers in last summer’s transfer window from Liverpool, Red Bull Leipzig and other clubs worth as much as $20 million—which would have made him among the most expensive 17-year-olds of all time.
“There have been some offers for him in the summer window from England and from German clubs,” says Zorc, who turned them down, “but we would like to have him here and develop him here. We didn’t educate him to sell him. We have a long-running contract until 2019, but because of his development the club is ready to speak to him to prolong his contract at any time.”
Every week brings a new reason for excitement if you’re Pulisic, but the three games in nine days starting this Friday will take things to a fever pitch: The U.S.-Mexico World Cup 2018 qualifier in Columbus, Ohio; the Costa Rica-U.S. qualifier in San José on Nov. 15; and the Borussia Dortmund-Bayern Munich showdown on Nov. 19 before more than 80,000 yellow-and-black drenched Dortmund diehards who now give Pulisic his own Bieber treatment anytime he leaves his modest apartment in his modest Volkswagen.
How pumped is Pulisic to have a role in all three games?
“It’s pretty crazy,” he says. “If you asked me that question a year ago, there was no way I would be thinking I would have a chance to play in all those games. It’s going to be an amazing few weeks coming up, and I’m just really excited for the challenges ahead. I’m ready for it.”
In many ways, Pulisic’s life in Germany is nothing like that of typical 18-year-old Americans, most of whom are in their senior year of high school. But he still clings tightly to a few teenage joys. Every Sunday at 7 p.m. local time, Christian and his cousin Will, a goalkeeper for Dortmund’s Under-19 team, whoop and holler in front of a laptop watching NFL RedZone and keeping track of their fantasy football teams. (“I should take a win this week,” says Christian, who’s hypercompetitive, “so I’m 5-2.”) Last May, Pulisic found time to attend the high school prom back in Hershey. And like most teens, Christian is enjoying the freedom that comes with finally being able to drive a car in Germany upon turning 18.
“Now he doesn’t have to have Dad pulling into the parking lot and dropping him off,” cracks Mark, “and having all of his teammates see Dad dropping him off.”
The father still calls his son “Figo.” Always has. Mark Pulisic played and coached in the pro indoor soccer ranks, and from the time Christian was 3, Mark would kick the ball toward Christian’s left foot so that he could work on his weaker peg. Christian loved the sport—his mother, Kelley, was a defender, and Mark was a forward, both at George Mason—and the family would regularly watch Real Madrid’s Galácticos on television. Christian chose former Portuguese World Player of the Year Luís Figo as his favorite player, not least because of the way Figo would take on opponents out wide and dribble past them and be courageous with the ball (much as Pulisic plays today). Christian’s first pro jersey was Figo’s Real Madrid shirt.
The highest levels of soccer are far easier to watch on U.S. TV these days than they were in the 20th century, and as a result young Americans can grow up much more easily with soccer in their blood. “As he was playing U-12, U-14 and U-16, you could tell he watched,” says Mark of his son’s soccer IQ. “He was trying things that he saw. He was tactically aware, and a lot of that came from seeing games.”
The pace of Christian’s soccer education was breathtaking. At age 7, he absorbed English football culture while living with his family near Oxford for a year when Kelley, a teacher, was on a Fulbright scholarship. At age 8, Christian attended training sessions of his father’s indoor team, the Detroit Ignition, where the Brazilian players would challenge the youngster to learn ball tricks (which he invariably returned the following week and performed).
At age 10, through his father's coaching contacts, Christian trained for a week at Barcelona's famed La Masía youth academy. He was invited back for two more subsequent stints (though not in an official trial capacity). Meanwhile, he was developing all the time with Pennsylvania Classics, a respected youth club, and joined the U.S. Under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., at age 14 in 2013.
Small for his age, Pulisic couldn’t rely on sheer size to dominate the youth ranks, as is so common in U.S. soccer culture.
“I had to use other ways,” he says, “and try to outthink opponents even more.”
The high point of those formative years came in December 2013, when Pulisic’s U.S. U-17 team thumped Brazil 4-1 to win the Nike International Friendlies event. Internet highlights of that game show Pulisic, still small at age 15, clowning Brazilian defenders on his way to a goal and assist and tournament MVP honors.
“That event was the biggest one I’ve had this far in my career,” he says. “It really changed my mindset on the game. I realized that I can take this game somewhere, that I can do this. That changed everything.”
Dortmund saw Pulisic a month later in Turkey, joining other European clubs in pursuit, and the family hired an agent. Christian and Mark made visits all around Europe—to Chelsea, Porto, PSV Eindhoven, Villarreal and Dortmund—but Dortmund stood out for its history of developing young talent and for its warm welcome of the family by the club’s senior figures.
“I kind of knew it was the right place for me,” says Pulisic, “and it’s been the best decision.”
But that doesn’t mean the transition was simple in the fall of 2014. Pulisic was dropped into a German public high school despite not speaking the language.
“I only did well in English and art class,” he says.
Nor did it help to be separated from his friends, his mother and his sister, Dee Dee.
“It was a sacrifice, especially in the first six months not knowing the language,” says Pulisic, who became fluent with daily lessons and now conducts interviews in German. “Every day, even now, I’m still missing home. I don’t think people understand that aspect of it. It’s not just some crazy, amazing life all the time. You miss home every single day. During the first six months I wasn’t able to play in games because I didn’t have any European citizenship at the time. I was working so hard to try to get a spot on the team, and knowing I couldn’t play on the weekend was just heartbreaking.”
A controversial FIFA rule prevents players younger than 18 from making international transfers. Intended to protect minors, many of them African, from being signed by clubs and later discarded onto the streets of a foreign land, the rule was recently challenged by a U.S. 15-year-old named John Hilton. He had his appeal to sign for Dutch power Ajax denied by the Court of Arbitration for Sport last month. Fortunately for Pulisic, though, his grandfather Mate was born in Croatia, which joined the European Union in July 2013. Christian secured a Croatian passport in January 2015, allowing him to play for Dortmund 20 months sooner than he would have without it.
“That had probably the biggest impact,” says Mark. “Christian was very fortunate. He was able to start right away with the U-19s and be seen by the first-team coaches and be invited into the training sessions with the pros.”
Leaving aside the passport issue, Pulisic’s early breakthrough at Dortmund—and the relative lack of other U.S. teenage soccer prospects in Europe—make you wonder: Is Pulisic’s path repeatable by more Americans who develop in the U.S. grassroots system? Mark Pulisic has a youth coaching role at Dortmund, and he certainly has his own opinion.
“In the U.S. it’s very comfortable for players,” he says. “If you’re successful as a young player, you’re told that a lot. But are players being taken out of their comfort zone? That’s how you improve. When you come to Germany and you’re training every day in January in the wind-driven rain and freezing cold, you’re fighting through that. You’re becoming stronger and better as a player.”
For his part, Christian has continued to show his mettle this season. Dortmund signed four new attacking players over the summer, signaling that Pulisic might receive less playing time. (It also led to those summer transfer offers.) But instead the young American has convinced his manager, Tuchel, that he deserves to be on the field and has been a regular starter.
“There’s always competition in professional sports, and I knew that,” Pulisic says. “Everyone was asking me what are you going to do with all these new players? It was just keep training hard every day and earn your position and the respect of the team.”
That process continues every day. And while Pulisic’s maturity makes him sound sometimes like he’s 18 going on 35, there are still moments when he wants to be a teenager. In May, while Pulisic was with the U.S. team, coach Jurgen Klinsmann agreed to let him go to the high school prom in Pennsylvania the night before a friendly against Bolivia in Kansas City. Unable to find commercial flights to get him back in time, Pulisic hired a private jet to take him to the prom and return him to the Midwest for the game.
“It was one of the best nights of my life,” he says. “It was so much fun, and the next day I got to go out and play with my national team and scored my first goal.”
In the realm of baller moves, the private-jet-to-prom/first-U.S.-goal exacta is a solid one. These are the Wonder Years for Christian Pulisic, though it’s hard to tell who’s feeling them more: U.S. soccer fans or Pulisic himself.