U.S. starlet Christian Pulisic eager to prove himself at Borussia Dortmund
When it comes to succeeding at an overseas club, the assimilation game that U.S. prospects must play is an enigma, one that might very well have stumped famed cryptologist Alan Turing. Yet for U.S. under-17 international Christian Pulisic, it's a code that he's determined to crack.
It's a challenge that is complex and full of subtlety. There is an entire culture to adapt to, both in terms of playing and everyday life. The game becomes a job, and not just a passion. Individual clubs and coaches add layers of complexity. Language can be a major barrier as well. Then there is the pressure to perform.
Granted, it's a puzzle that other Americans -- Brad Friedel, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, among others -- have managed to solve. But the overseas challenge is unique to each player, a personalized maze to be navigated.
That is the journey that Pulisic has recently begun. After spending most of 2013-14 season at the U.S. U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla., the 16-year-old attacking midfielder has chosen to start his professional career with Borussia Dortmund, a relationship that will be formalized once he receives a Croatian passport courtesy of his father's ancestry.
In recent months, in between stints with the U.S. U-17s, Pulisic has been training with Dortmund's U-17 and U-19 teams. He's even been thrown into the linguistic deep end and attends a German school, though picking up the language has proven to be less difficult than he imagined.
"I was thinking that kids just wouldn't talk to me, because they'd be afraid to speak English to me like I would be afraid to speak German to them," he told ESPN FC via telephone. "Once you start picking it up, you can kind of put a mixture in there. They can speak to me in German and respond in German or English, whichever one works."
While any involvement with the U.S. senior team is at minimum a few years off, the start of Pulisic's pro career comes at an interesting time for the U.S. program. Longtime mainstays like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley have retired from the international game, and it remains to be seen how long players like Clint Dempsey will be able to contribute. There figures to be a creative void that will need to be filled. Pulisic is undaunted by the challenge of one day moving the U.S. program forward.
"Seeing these great players moving on, and hearing that we're the next generation, I don't feel like there's this huge pressure," he said. "I just feel excitement, knowing that we're seen as these kids that can model ourselves after these great players, move forward with our careers like that. I think it's exciting. I'm ready for it."
The U.S. national team has seen enough prospects flame out to be understandably gun-shy about hyping any of its youth internationals. This is especially true when it comes to the attacking side of the game. But there is a hint of excitement whenever Pulisic's name comes up. The U.S. has long struggled to produce creative midfielders, but the Hershey, Penn. product has shown impressive technical ability and instincts in the attacking third.
"Pulisic isn't scared, he's willing to take anybody on and he's super competitive," said U.S. U-17 manager Richie Williams. "When you're playing that No. 10 position in a 4-3-3, you have to get forward to finish plays and set up the other attacking players. Christian does that very, very well."
It wouldn't be overstating things to say soccer is fused into Pulisic's DNA. His parents, Mark and Kelley, both played collegiately at George Mason University, with Mark playing professionally indoors for nine seasons. They introduced the game to their son practically from the moment he could walk.
"I always had a soccer ball with me," said Christian. "I could never stop. As young as I can remember, my dad was always throwing a soccer ball at me."
The elder Pulisic then took it upon himself to coach Christian's club teams well into his son's teenage years, a dynamic fraught with potential conflict. How does one separate the parent from the coach and the child from the player? But Christian insists that the two were able to maintain a healthy balance with their respective roles.
"It was definitely tough being the coach's son," said Christian. "It's hard to always listen to your dad when you get older, you want to move on, but he has the knowledge. I think he did just the right amount of pushing me but also letting me do my thing, and just making sure that I always enjoyed the game, and I'm not feeling pressured. There were moments when we butted heads, but we worked things out always."
Mark added, "A big part of it is Christian is a good kid, very humble. He always understood the team comes first, and I'm the coach."
Along the way, Mark used the connections he gained through coaching to arrange training stints for his son with the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona, noting that Christian always held his own. But Mark credits a year the family spent in England, when his wife worked there as part of a teacher exchange program between 2005-06, as being crucial to his son's development. It wasn't so much any technical prowess that he gained, but it did deepen his son's love for the game.
"I really think Christian caught the bug for the game when we were in England," said Mark. "It's all they did, it's all he did. After school they would just play pickup every day. He just fell in love with the idea of having a ball and after school playing with his friends. He thought that was the neatest thing. That year was fantastic."
When the family returned, it was back to Pennsylvania and coaching his son's team again at the club PA Classics. Mark eventually found the right time to remove himself from his son's career. He first passed Christian onto to his good friend Steve Klein at PA Classics, and then to Williams with the U.S. U-17s.
"It was tough, I'm not going to lie," said Mark. "There's a lot of trust. When you have someone who's your son and you want the best for him, you've coached him so long but now you have to pass him on -- it was not an easy thing."
The club-like environment in Bradenton proved beneficial, from training every day to getting a feel for the sacrifices it would take to become a professional. Pulisic impressed both times he played in the Nike Friendlies, recording 17 goals and seven assists in 2014.
"I just learned when to play quickly, and when to do my own thing," he said. "And I learned how to implement that with the team and how I can find a mixture of when to dribble and when to pass."
Now the young playmaker is looking to sharpen those skills with Dortmund and decipher the code for success in Europe.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.