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RISING: Christian Pulisic

The most recognized player in American soccer, he has established himself as a star of both the MNT and Borussia Dortmund and is now looking to become a leader on the U.S. MNT and example for American players aspiring for more.


Christian Pulisic lives ahead of the curve. His entire life serves as a model for pushing forward and reaping the benefits at the earliest possible moment.

It is how the United States midfielder functions at the highest levels of European soccer and it is why – even at the age of 19 – he is the beacon for an ascendant, dynamic group of young Americans poised to make their mark in the years ahead.

“I like to think of myself as a leader,” Pulisic told ussoccer.com during a recent interview in Germany about the next generation of players. “I mean, I was kind of the first one to be here and break through. It’s been cool having other guys (do it), and seeing other guys doing what I was doing. It’s really exciting for me. Of course, seeing other Americans succeed is everything that I want.”

Pulisic navigated toward this accelerated path from the beginning. His formative years in Hershey, Pa. and suburban Detroit nurtured him within a support system – caring parents with a competitive streak forged in their own soccer careers at George Mason, siblings there to prod and urge him forward – ideal for the challenges ahead.

“My first memory was very young, pretty much as soon as he could walk, he was kicking a ball around,” Kelley Pulisic said about her youngest son. “My daughter was playing. My husband always was playing. Soccer was always in our life. Christian really learned to walk with a soccer ball at his foot.”

In that sort of household, Pulisic always set his sights on the next step, the next way to make his mark. The lofty aspirations started at an early age and stuck with Pulisic through a spell in England and his time in Michigan as his father, a former indoor star with the Harrisburg Heat, served as head coach of the Detroit Ignition. Those objectives prompted him to set his sights high and track the achievements of the players he wanted to model.

“Landon Donovan would be the biggest one. I mean, watching him score the goal against Algeria and moving us on in the 2010 World Cup is something that I'll never forget,” Pulisic said. “So I always wanted to be able to do something like that.”

“There were a lot of players who were just a few years older than me that I was watching. At the Nike Friendlies, I remember (Orlando City midfielder) Cam Lindley was there. He was a younger guy as well and I remember looking up to him. He was a good player and I wanted to be able to do that and play in a tournament like that.”

Pulisic grasped his own chance to shine at the 2013 Nike International Friendlies and used the platform to eventually earn himself a move to Germany after impressing during a tournament in Turkey shortly thereafter. He left for Borussia Dortmund with his father, Mark, and went with a place in the first team in his mind. The presence of a familiar face aided his adjustment, while his natural ability and his persistence every day carved out his place in the Academy and signaled his potential well ahead of schedule.

“I think it was very good for his development because he played in a very good team,” Borussia Dortmund youth coordinator Lars Ricken said. “That team won the German championship four times in a row. Because of this, in each training session and in each match he could race on to the next level. He was getting better and better with each training.”

By accelerating his adjustment period and standing out with the Academy side, Pulisic forced his way into the first team picture. It did not take long for then-Borussia Dortmund head coach Jürgen Klopp to integrate Pulisic into his plan.

“We said to him, we have a really great player, you have to see him and to let him train with you,” Ricken said. “I think after the third training session he said, ‘OK, now he's a member of our first team.’ … I think he would have had his first performance with the first team when he was 16, but he wasn't eligible to play yet. We saw his first performance from when he was 17. I think our coach was so impressed by his technical skills. He was very focused, very disciplined. His speed of action was marvelous.”

All of those abilities appear week after week in the Bundesliga now. Pulisic isn’t a prodigy or a phenom anymore, even though he is the youngest foreign player to score a goal in the Bundesliga. He is a tried and tested performer at the highest levels, an admittedly young player with Champions League and World Cup Qualifying experience. One that helped Borussia Dortmund win the 2017 German Cup, of which he proudly has a replica on display in his apartment. 

He is a figure capable of changing a game – any game, not just the straightforward ones or the ones that might suit him best – and shouldering the increasing load heaped upon his shoulders.

“I think he's led the way,” Schalke U-19 midfielder Nick Taitague said. “I mean he's kind of paved the way in Europe for a lot of American players, but also we're trying to make a name for ourselves as well. I think he's shown that he could do that and he's inspired us all to go on our own journey and see what we can do.”

Part of the process now involves acting as a port of call for other American players working their way through the ranks. More and more outposts crop up with each passing day as clubs identify and land promising players from the States. Pulisic serves as a touchstone for those up and coming players, the ones who want to join him and Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie as frequent fixtures on Bundesliga team sheets.

“Yeah, I definitely have a good relationship with all the American players,” Pulisic said. “We’re pretty much talking every day. When we all have a free day or something, we all try to get together. I've had all the guys over here one time for a little party and you know, just to kind of get everyone together, talk about what's going on and have a good time.”

The process started with serving as a support system for former Youth National Team teammates Haji Wright and McKennie (pictured with Pulisic above) – who has since gone on to first-team football – when they arrived to Dortmund’s Ruhr Valley rival in 2016. The following year, another YNT alum, Taitague found his way to Veltins Arena, where midfielder Zyen Jones also joined the club’s development setup. The group’s support net has been cast wider to Belgium where Erik Palmer-Brown was on loan with Kortrijk and another YNT alum, Juan Pablo Torres, is earning his stripes with Lokeren about two hours away.

The close proximity allowed these Americans abroad to bond off the field and, in at least one case, soak up some of the guidance Pulisic provides through his experiences.

“There's a lot of things,” Taitague said. “I mean, his willingness to compete. He’s a competitor, whether it's on the field, whether he's playing, or whether he’s playing ping pong, he's not happy when he loses.”

What they see in Pulisic – and what the people around him notice more and more – is a person increasingly comfortable with his responsibilities and his surroundings. It is a function of his two-and-a-half years in the Dortmund first team and the experience of adjusting and thriving in a new country. 

“I think he's really growing up,” Kelley Pulisic said. “With him living in Dortmund now that my husband's not there, he's got to take care of himself and learn about a lot, not just the football. He's got to learn how to live and pay the bills and do the normal things that adults do. I think this last year, especially, he’s learned a lot and his growth has been important.”

Every step contributes to his loftier perch now. He is no longer steeped in expectation. He is here in every form, a critical component of the present for club and country. The future looms for a group already oriented toward a return to the FIFA World Cup in 2022, but Pulisic plans to grasp what is in front of him now with both hands.

“I definitely feel like I can be a big part of that, turning things around for the National Team,” Pulisic said. “I'm going to give everything I can to put the team in the best shape possible. I definitely feel responsibility for helping to get us back to the World Cup. You know, I feel that I let some people down. I guess I just kind of want to make up for that and I'm going to continue giving everything for that reason.”

It is a mantra cultivated from his earliest days, back when he first found a ball at his foot and started him along this accelerated path. And it is what serves him now as he plans to assert himself more and more with each passing day and steer the National Team into this new era.


US Soccer

Sigi Schmid: A Coach, A Teacher, A Gentleman, A Friend

Touching tributes poured in on social media from all corners of the soccer community as news spread that Hall of Fame coach Sigi Schmid had passed away on Christmas Day 2018. And amid the sadness shared by so many who knew him, the messages also provided the rest of us a glimpse into the kind of man that Sigi was, and reminded everyone of the influence Sigi had on the American soccer landscape.

For newer fans of the game, Sigi will be remembered as one of the greatest of MLS coaches, leading the Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy to multiple trophies each. Older fans may recall the soccer factory he created while coaching UCLA to numerous NCAA Championships in the 1980 and ‘90s, churning out future U.S. Soccer legends like Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri, Joe Max-Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis and Chris Henderson, among others.

Sigi Schmid

It’s also important to highlight the impact he had with two teams he coached for shorter time frames: the U.S. U-20 MNTs that participated in the 1999 and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championships, each time advancing to the knockout stage while facing the likes of Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Seven players from those U-20 teams would go on to represent the MNT at senior FIFA World Cups, while many others also had solid pro careers. And if not for Schmid, we may never have known some of those players. We caught up with a few from each team:

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1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup Championship:

While at UCLA, Sigi also assisted the MNT at 1994 FIFA World Cup and coached the following year’s Pan-American Games. In 1997, he was also coaching the U-18 MNT when he went to scout a player who had just played in the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship and was playing for his high school in Southern California. However, as Carlos Bocanegra tells it, there was a mistake on the published schedule and the team that Sigi went to see was not playing. Sigi stuck around anyway, and watched the promising football wide receiver, Bocanegra, play soccer for his Alta Loma High School.

“I think about that all the time,” the two-time World Cup veteran Bocanegra told ussoccer.com this week. “That was my break. That was my chance. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to take that opportunity. That’s how I was able to kick-start my soccer career – pure coincidence that he was watching my game that got mixed up and he saw me play.”

Schmid invited Bocanegra, a junior at the time, to a U-18 camp. The next year he continued his pursuit of the talented defender and recruited Bocanegra to join him at UCLA. Their bond strengthened when Schmid took over the U-20 MNT and made Bocanegra a key member of the USA’s 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship side in Nigeria.

That team also included fellow future senior World Cup players Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Nick Rimando and Chris Albright, as well as long-time pros Danny Califf, Nick Garcia, Cory Gibbs, John Thorrington and Taylor Twellman, who became one of the most prolific American goalscorers in the pro ranks.

“That World Cup, playing with Sigi, had a massive impact on me and ultimately convinced me that I needed to go pro,” said Twellman, who at the time was also contemplating if his future would be in baseball, where he also excelled.

At the tournament, the USA defeated an England side that featured Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch, fell to Shinji Ono’s Japan, and defeated Cameroon in group play before falling by a score of 3-2 in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Spain that included Iker Casillas and Xavi.

In the lead up to that tournament, Sigi broke from the past and brought the team overseas for training, including to Morocco for two games and on a two-week fitness camp in Germany, where the team stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.


Bocanegra in action vs. Argentina in 2003, a few short years after graduating from Schmid's tutelage. 

“He really tried to give us good experiences that he thought would help us later in our career,” said Bocanegra. “He always tried to set trips up around where we could watch games at a higher level and get experiences to challenge ourselves in different ways than was maybe common practice. He always wanted the best for the group and to give us the best experiences to try to better ourselves, not only on the field but in life and to become well-rounded in the game.”

As a reward for the hard work in Germany, Sigi brought the U20s to France to attend the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Germany.

“Sigi had such a feel for the game of soccer, domestically and globally,” said Chris Albright. “He always communicated that we were putting on our nations colors and flag, representing the country. He drilled that in us that this was not to take it for granted, that it was not to be taken lightly.”

Like Bocanegra, Sigi introduced Albright to the National Team scene. Later he helped pick him up when things were not going well at D.C., trading for him in LA. At the suggestion of then MNT coach Bruce Arena, Sigi helped convert Albright from a forward into a defender, a move that later landed Chris on the 2006 World Cup team.

“He had an excellent ability to teach multiple positions; he could make me a better forward, wide midfielder, defender,” Albright said. “He could teach principles of different positions to help each player grow, and that teaching element in developing us at that time was unique.”

Twellman scored four goals in the tournament, good for third overall, thus becoming the first American to capture a scoring award (Bronze Boot) in a FIFA World Youth Championship.


Twellman accepts the Bronze Boot alongside then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia.

“When people talk about Sigi, they talk about his love of the game,” Twellman said, who a few months later would leave Maryland to sign with 1860 Munich in Germany. “But he was also a gentleman and was kind off the field. Every single one of us on that team, if we saw Sigi 3-4-5-10 years down the road…he always watched our games, even when he was not our coach. He was always willing to talk to us, showed interested in us, asked us about our lives.”

Now the Technical Director of MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, Bocanegra draws from those early experiences under Schmid.

“Even though we were young, he really tried to instill the professionalism in us,” Bocanegra said. “The detail, structure, organization – challenging us. He always made time to make people feel important. He never stopped, through college, through pros, was always available. He was pretty special.”

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2005 Under-20 World Youth Championship

A week after that 1999 U-20 tournament came to an end for the USA, Sigi also began his pro career, taking the helm of his hometown LA Galaxy for the next five seasons.

He returned to coach the  U-20 MNT in October 2014, having only a couple months to scout and prep players for January’s U-20 Concacaf Championship.

Two years earlier, Schmid’s Galaxy had eliminated Kansas City and veteran National Team player Peter Vermes from the MLS Cup Playoffs. After the game, Vermes recalled this week, Schmid approached him and told him he’d like to have him on his staff one day.

Fast-forward to fall 2014, a since-retired Vermes called Sigi and reminded him of that conversation. Schmid held true and invited Vermes to a three-week U-20 camp. After a week of evaluating, Schmid told Vermes he had earned one of the assistant coach positions.

“It was a great opportunity for me just to be around somebody like him with as much knowledge and experience that he had,” Vermes said, who enters the 2019 season as the longest tenured MLS coach, having taken the reigns of Sporting KC in 2009. “I already knew I wanted to coach for a long time, but what those experiences give you is like anything – when you first want to do something, you’re excited, you’re ambitious, you’re motivated, you’re all those things. But sometimes you lack the confidence. For me, Sigi gave me a direction that I felt comfortable with because I had gotten a chance to see a lot of different things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get that chance to be with him and spend all that time, and the preparation, and everything. It was a great experience.”

Schmid’s first friendly was in November in Ft. Lauderdale. Due to College Cup, some would-be regulars were not available, so Schmid called in four new players, including UCLA speedster Marvell Wynne, who had never been called to any YNT camp before.

“I think I should have been more in the moment with everything that happened,” Wynne admits. “When I got called in I remember thinking ‘these guys are way better than me.’ But Sigi kept calling me back. When he said I made the team, I was definitely shocked.”

For a mid-December camp Schmid called in 30 players, including UCLA walk-on midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who also had never been on any Youth National Team. Like Wynne, Feilhaber also made a formidable impression.

Wynne and Feilhaber were instrumental in helping the USA qualify for the

2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship three weeks later.

Let’s back up for a second. Sigi’s sons also played college soccer in the LA area around that era. And, family man that he was, he would always attend their games, first Kurt’s at UCLA, and later Kyle’s at UC-Irvine.

“It’s what jump-started my entire career,” said newly retired 12-year pro Brad Evans. “The only reason I made that U-20 team is because Kyle Schmid transferred to UC Irvine. Without Kyle transferring there was absolutely no reason for Sigi to come watch UCI play.”

Schmid had spotted Evans that fall at UCI, but it wasn’t until after the U-20s had qualified for the World Cup that he called in the versatile player to his first National Team camp at any level.   

Vermes explained how Sigi gave the preliminary roster to rest of the coaching staff and told them that they could each make a case for one player to either be replaced or be added. 

“A lot of guys in that position would never consult the rest of staff,” Vermes said. “I thought that showed a lot of security and confidence on his part, to know what his decisions were but also want to know what his staff’s decisions were, and ultimately to make the best decision. There’s no doubt that that has helped me, and I would say that a lot of the players that were identified are players that are still playing or who had great careers because they were identified correctly.”

Wynne, Feilhaber and Evans were on the final 21-player roster, along with Jonathan Spector, Sacha Kljestan, Lee Nguyen, Freddy Adu, Chad Barret and Eddie Gaven, among others who also had solid pro careers.

The team shocked the world in the tournament opener, defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a Barrett goal assisted by Wynne. It would be the only loss and shutout suffered by the South Americans, who won their next six matches en route the lifting the championship trophy with future international stars Sergio Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi.

2005 U-20 MNT vs. Argentina
2005 U-20 MNT vs. Argentina
2005 U-20 MNT vs. Argentina
2005 U-20 MNT vs. Argentina
2005 U-20 MNT vs. Argentina
Chad Barrett, who would go on to play professionally under Schmid in MLS, scored the game-winner vs. Argentina at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.

The 20s then played Germany to a scoreless draw and defeated Egypt 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Italy in the Round of 16. The experience and exposure provided opportunities to a number of players.

Feilhaber would soon sign with Hamburg, and later would score one of the best goals of the USA’s rivalry against Mexico, helping the MNT win the 2007 Gold Cup. And despite interest from international clubs, Wynne and Evans returned to school. Wynne became the top pick in the next MLS SuperDraft and Evans was selected 15th overall the following year by Columbus’s new coach, Sigi Schmid.

“He means more than I can really describe,” Feilhaber said, who along with Spector also made the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster. “Getting that opportunity with the 20s led to everything else in my life. I have no idea if I would have become a pro. I know I would not have been as successful financially, [and] going to Europe that early helped me immensely as a player. I don’t know if I would have ever played on the National Team let alone in a World Cup. I’m really grateful for Sigi having that keen eye and for giving me that opportunity.”

Sigi not only gave Evans his international debut and professional debut but would also bring him to Seattle on their way to spending 10 pro seasons together.

“He was the pivot for me in my entire career,” Evans said. “You have youth coaches, parents, but if you want to talk about the person who I’m able to talk about 12 years later and say I played professionally because of them…yes, it comes from within, but you have to have someone who pushes you and really believed in you, and Sigi was the guy for me.”

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REFLECTIONS:

Sigi’s memorial took place on Friday, Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.

In March 2017, after more than 300 MLS games and having also represented the USA in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, Wynne’s career came to an end after undergoing a heart procedure.

When he came to from the operation, one of the first voicemails he listened to was from Sigi Schmid.

“Sigi was the reason I became a pro,” Wynne said. “He got me on to the scene, kept me there, had confidence in me and he kept me going. In terms of coaching, it was more, ‘get the basics right and perfect them.’ He was the first one to hammer that home, and if you ever saw my career, it was basic.”

A reflective Wynne made a special trip to an LA Galaxy game last year to meet up with his former coach.

“We talked about my heart situation, and caught up about everything,” Wynne said. “And I told him, ‘you’re the reason I went pro.’ I was able to tell him face to face, but I hoped he knew.”

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“Yea, the opportunity, experience and all those other things were great, but the best thing for me, to be honest, was that he and I became friends after that 2005 Youth Championship,” Vermes said. “We always, always talked and kept in touch and spent time with each other. We had a very good relationship.”

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“I sense that he knew what he meant to me,” Feilhaber said. “The way that we spoke was not in a way that most coaches to ex-players do. We were friends - he understood how much of an influence he had on me. We had respect for each other, and I’m going to miss him a lot, but it’s so important to have these memories about him.”

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“We talk about a coaching tree a lot, but Sigi’s got the player tree, the coaching tree, the soccer tree really,” Bocanegra said. “So many people spiraled off the opportunities he gave them. Through soccer he gave so many people their start. But the biggest part that everybody remembers is that he cared about each and every person. He wanted to get the best out of them, and did not give up. He would give second chances, third chances - if you were his guys, and you worked for him he was going to his damndest to get the best out of you and make you a better player or person in general.”

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“When I think back on it, especially the last couple of weeks, we always talked about getting the ‘Sigi shirt-tug,’” Evans reminisced. “Once he got a hold of your shirt and put his arm around you, there was no getting away from it. But I remember him being very honest with me in everything. He never blew smoke up my tail or thought that I was better or worse than I was. He always believed in me. We really trusted each other when it came to soccer and had an unspoken relationship that just worked. It’s something that I’ll cherish and remember forever.”

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