At first glance U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team midfielder Christian Pulisic is your average 16 year-old American.
He’s 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, likes videos games and movies, and is going through the challenges of high school.
But, there are few other kids his age who have trained with youth programs at such world-renowned clubs as Barcelona, Chelsea, Porto, Villareal, or PSV Eindhoven. Or who have trained with Germany stars Mats Hummels and Marco Reus at Borussia Dortmund. Or who have had a six-second highlight clip of an elastic nutmeg reach nearly a half million views.
“I’m no different than any other average kid,” Pulisic said sheepishly. “I’m often just laying on my bed watching Netflix. I love hanging out with my friends, but I also like being alone. I’m a family guy. I’ll do anything to spend time with my family. I love playing FIFA, of course. And I love playing NHL right now.”
But on the field, Pulisic is anything but average.
With a father who played professional indoor soccer in the United States, Christian developed a love for soccer at an early age. And through his dad’s connections, Christian was exposed to soccer in other countries starting in third grade – setting the table for where he is now.
As a youngster playing soccer for Michigan Rush and then at U.S. Soccer Development Academy side PA Classics near his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania, Christian would often go on week-long training stints with the youth programs of well known teams across Europe.
“I just loved the game so much and my dad would tell me about these opportunities, and I wanted to take everything that I could,” he remembers. “I was really young at the time. It was just to get that great experience, so I’d go in and train with youth teams all over the world and see how they do it.”
While he watched soccer on TV, he didn’t play the sport thinking of a becoming a professional. For him, it was just for fun.
“I just loved to play,” he said with a shrug. “I loved to travel and experience new things around the world. I knew about the big clubs that I was going to, but I didn’t really think of it and I was so young I knew I’d have plenty of time.”
But that next phase of his soccer career began to take shape when National Team scouts saw him playing for PA Classics U-16. He was invited to an 80-person U.S. Under-14 camp.
Christian Pulisic celebrates scoring against England at the 2014 Nike International Friendlies tournament in Lakewood Ranch, Fla.
“From my first National Team cycle, they’ve started me at the ten spot,” he said. “Obviously we had bigger, faster wingers than me, so I think that’s were I kind of converted. They saw that I was a technical player and what I could do in the middle. Ever since then I’ve just loved it and continued to play there.”
Now a little older, and with his country’s crest on his shirt, Christian also began thinking of what else could be achieved.
“I had always loved watching the National Team. I remember watching World Cups and cheering for them, because it was my country,” said Pulisic, who looked up to Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, like so many youth soccer players in the USA. “And when I first realized there was an under-14 program for the National Team, I thought how amazing it would be to be there and represent my country and do what I loved to do.”
He’s never lost the eye for the international game that his dad helped develop in him from a young age. “Wayne Rooney has always been one of my favorite players - I just think his competitiveness really shows when he plays. And, I know that it’s kind of random, but Luis Figo was one of my favorite players when I was younger,” he said of the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year from Portugal. “I loved watching him when he was at Real Madrid. My dad, to this day, still calls me Figo.”
In 2013, Christian joined the U.S. U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida. His aim was to be part of the team that would try to qualify for the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup. But along the way, his path took a slight turn.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, scouts from German Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund had watched the U.S. defeat Brazil, 4-1, in the final of the 2013 Nike Friendlies, where Christian took home the Most Valuable Player honors.
The next month, in January 2014, Dortmund sent scouts to the Aegean Cup tournament in Turkey. The U.S. U-17s defeated France and Norway and drew with Scotland before defeating the host nation to claim the championship.
“It seems they really liked me there, and that’s where it started getting real big,” he said of Dortmund’s interest. “They wanted to get me in for a trial.”
It didn’t take long from there.
“After the first year of residency ended, I went to Germany to see what it was like, and that’s when I pretty much knew that was what I wanted,” he said. “It was just too good of an opportunity.”
Christian and his father moved to Germany in July 2014. While he awaited his Croatian citizenship documents, facilitated through his Croatian grandfather, to make him eligible to play Bundesliga youth matches, Christian trained with Dortmund’s U-17 and U-19 teams and played in whatever friendlies he was able to.
And three weeks after he arrived, Christian began school in Germany.
“When I first went over there my dad talked to me about starting a Rosetta Stone to try to learn the language a bit,” he said. “But I said, ‘if I’m doing this, I’m jumping right in.’
“When I showed up to the school, the other kids on my team had to tell the teachers, ‘He doesn’t speak German’,” Christian said, laughing. “It was really tough at first, but after time you pick it up and it gets easier.”
In the meantime, he also stayed closely connected to the U.S. U-17s, joining the team for tournaments in Mexico, Panama and Chile, as well as the annual Nike Friendlies in December in Florida. In all he appeared in 27 international matches and scored 18 goals in 2014.
Christian Pulisic at the 2014 Nike International Friendlies.
Now eligible to play Bundesliga youth matches with Dortmund’s U-17 team, Christian was invited to train with the professional side in February.
“All the coaches at Dortmund communicate to each other,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible how the first team coach and staff know about all the youth players. The coaches recommend players when another coach has a need for that day. It was my turn to go.”
Dortmund’s U-17 team normally has Tuesdays off. And on this particular day, it just happened that the first team was training, needing a player in order to be able to train 11v11.
“My coach Hannes Wolf called me and said, ‘Tuesday you have a great opportunity,’ and that it was up to me,” Christian said of how he found out. “I said, of course, I would love to do that. I met him there and he took me over to the first team’s fields.”
For the previous few months, Christian and his teammates would watch the senior team practice over the small fence that separate the U-17s fields from the field used by the professional side. Now he was on the other side of that fence.
“My coach told me before, ‘You can’t be going in there like a fan. You have to go in there and look at these guys and act like you’re one of them’,” Pulisic said. “That’s what I tried to do. Obviously in my head, I was like ‘Wow, that’s Marco Reus.’ But, you just have to do your own thing and that’s how they’ll respect you.”
The day began with a routine warm-up passing drill, and then 11v11 from one 18 to the other. Christian was asked to play in the midfield on the second team, often encountering starting midfielder Nuri Şahin or newcomer Kevin Kampl.
“When I first got called in I was thinking, ‘These guys are pros, am I good enough to play with them?’” When you go there, obviously you can see how good and how talented they all are. Then you realize, ‘Ok, I’ve really worked at this. I can hang with these guys.’”
“Obviously, physically I’m behind – I have to get there. But, you can see that they’re really talented soccer players that I was able to play with them.”
While he fit in and received positive reviews from manager Jurgen Klopp, he recalls one particular play above all others.
“I remember when (Mats) Hummels was kind of dribbling out of the back,” Christian said, with a quiet laugh. “He kind of took a touch by me and I tried to put my shoulder in there, but I was lightly pushed aside – I didn’t really affect his run much.”
By the end of the day, Christian was still himself. Having enjoyed the opportunity, but grounded and comfortable knowing that he was on the right path.
“With one training you can’t look at it like you’re that close to going to the first team again,” he said. “It’s not even close – I have to earn so much more. It was cool to get that experience, but I’m just going to keep moving forward with my team. I just want to try to earn a starting spot every week by earning it in training.”
Still only 16 years old, he now does have dreams he hopes to accomplish as a soccer player.
“Obviously my goal – I want to play on the senior National Team,” he said. “I think every kid would. But, I’m just doing my best for this (U-17 MNT) team now.
“It would be really cool to qualify for the World Cup. That’s what we’ve aimed for and everyone has made sacrifices. We want to continue the U.S. success and we look at this as our team. We want to do the best we can.”