America at Large: Christian Pulisic the new great hope
Borussia Dortmund’s 18-year-old prodigy living with a nation’s high level of expectation
Christian Pulisic (right) is the youngest player to score for the USA in a World Cup qualifying match. Photograph: Getty.
There are already videos on social media documenting every time Christian Pulisic touched the ball during the USA’s 6-0 victory over Honduras in a World Cup qualifier last Friday night.
Aside from a goal and two assists, there’s an eye-catching panoply of clever prompting, visionary passing, penetrative runs and smart distribution. An impressive package, it makes a persuasive case that the 18-year-old is the brightest prospect America has ever had. Yet, the very existence of these highlight reels also indicates the quality of hype likely to attend his every move from this point on.
It’s tempting to dismiss his dominance against Honduras because of the calibre of the opposition. To do that is to ignore a couple of salient points about the teenage starlet from Hershey, Pennsylvania.
This was a genuinely must-win game for an American team in serious danger of not qualifying and Pulisic was the most influential player on the field, winning his 12th cap.
At 18. In terms of sophistication and smarts, he looked like an attacking midfielder with a Champions’ League pedigree dropping down a couple of divisions to show everybody the gulf in class. And, in many ways, that’s exactly what he was doing.
Last September, Pulisic came off the bench for Borussia Dortmund against Real Madrid, and, with three minutes to go and his team trailing 2-1, he cut inside down the right before crossing for Andrea Schurle to equalize.
By the time the two teams met again in December, his manager Thomas Tuchel reckoned he was mature enough to start at the Bernabéu. If that selection was a ringing endorsement of his progress, his display in the 4-0 victory over Benfica in the Champions’ League round of 16 earlier this month, a goal, an assist and myriad cameos of brilliance, demonstrated why Liverpool reportedly offered €23 million for him last summer.
“I really love that player,” said former German international Mehmet Scholl on television the other week. “I could imagine that Bayern might approach him because he has that special quality. He can create situations that should never exist.”
Dortmund spotted him by accident. Their scout turned up at a tournament in Turkey to watch the promising American under-17 international Haji Wright and had his head turned by the 15-year-old Pulisic.
The Germans were on his trail then but, soon, so were a lot of others. He and his father subsequently visited Chelsea, Porto, PSV Eindhoven, and Villarreal before deciding Dortmund’s track record for hot-housing young talent and, most crucially, offering them a real chance of first-team football represented the best opportunity.
This was never a family likely to be seduced by fast-talking or empty promises. His parents, Mark and Kelley, met as college soccer standouts at George Mason University, and his father played professionally and managed on America’s hardscrabble indoor circuit.
From a young age, his son was hanging around team training sessions, kicking about with adults, and eventually, even taking part in scrimmages. Formative experiences that stood to a kid who some that saw him with the Pennsylvania Classics regarded as talented but too slight to make it at the highest level.
So much about his upbringing appears to have been tailored towards giving him an holistic footballing education. When Kelley won a Fulbright scholarship to Oxford the family decamped to the tiny village of Tackley and father and son used the year in England to watch matches all over the country.
At 10, his dad called in favours and wangled the child he nicknamed “Figo” a week’s training at La Masia in Barcelona. Within a few years, Croatia came calling, wanting to cap a boy whose grandfather had emigrated from one of its islands in the Adriatic.
The European ancestry conveniently sped up the work clearance once he got to Germany but his premature ascension to the first team brought certain difficulties.
Until he turned 18, his father, who moved to Dortmund with him, was his chauffeur to training each day. And last summer, in arguably the most outlandish extravagance of his fledgling career, he chartered a private jet so he could attend his high school prom and be back for training with the American squad next morning.
The youngest foreigner to score in the Bundesliga. The youngest American to score in a World Cup qualifier. The youngest American to score in the knock-out phase of the Champions’ League. Each week seems to yield a new entry on his resume but he also happens to be the youngest American to be billed the next big thing since the unfortunate Freddy Adu, the name that hangs like a spectre over this feel-good story.
Around about the time Pulisic was torching Benfica, Adu came to the end of a two-week trial with the Portland Timbers without being offered a contract.
Then came word he was on the move to Europe, to Sandecja Nowy Sacz in the Polish second division.
That remote outpost would be the 14th club of a peripatetic career that began amid way too much hoopla with a debut for DC United and a Sprite commercial with Pele at just 14.
“My advice for Christian is that he should read as little as possible, and maybe switch off the ‘Google Alerts’ for his name,” said Tuchel recently. “But I would also advise him to do so if things were not running that well.”