He is, without question, on the cusp of the type of stardom that U.S. soccer has dreamed about for decades.
Given his place, though, it’s easy to forget how quickly he has risen and how young he is. Wednesday offered a reminder.
At the end of a U.S. workout, while teammates dipped into outdoor ice baths or trotted to the bus, Pulisic stepped aside and greeted his father. He is, after all, still a teenager who, had he not been so very good at this game, would’ve spent this day getting lost looking for a sophomore econ class.
“He’s my son, you know, and soccer is secondary,” said Mark Pulisic, a former George Mason University and pro indoor player. He’d driven more than four hours from his assistant coaching job in Rochester, N.Y., for a short visit ahead of the U.S. team’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on Friday at Red Bull Arena in nearby Harrison.
A few years ago, under the supervision of his dad, the younger Pulisic was developing skills at home in Hershey, Pa. (His mom also played at GMU.) Now, he’s starting for Borussia Dortmund and the national team.
“It’s all surreal,” Mark said. “I never planned to push him in any direction to be such accomplished at such a young age. It just happens.”
It’s happening quickly. In his second full season with Dortmund’s first team, he scored against Bayern Munich in the German Super Cup early this month and scored and assisted two week later in the league opener at Wolfsburg. This all has come on the heels of making history in spring 2016 as the youngest player to score twice in the fabled Bundesliga and a five-goal portfolio in all competitions last season.
For the national team, he has recorded four goals in his past five appearances and played a direct role through scoring or assisting in seven of the past 11 U.S. goals.
“Everything happened a little bit too fast,” said Pulisic, who will turn 19 on Sept. 18. “The past year has been a roller coaster. Being able to play at the club level at a high level and then getting called into the national team, it’s amazing. But I’m just trying to stay as well-grounded as I can, finding the balance.”
U.S. Coach Bruce Arena has also tried to strike a balance, careful not to rush Pulisic but also granting him the opportunity to flourish. Last winter, when he was hired, Arena spoke in cautionary tones about Pulisic’s place in the U.S. team.
After watching him soar with club and country, Arena has grown more comfortable with a young player carrying grown-up responsibilities.
“Good players are good players,” Arena said. “At this level, no one checks your birth certificate. They don’t care how old you are. If you’re a player, you’re a player, and he’s proving it every day.”
Arena appreciates Pulisic’s age: In the 1980s, at the University of Virginia, he coached against Mark Pulisic, then a mullet-haired sniper at GMU.
Arena has found the younger Pulisic to be “surprisingly mature for his age, surprisingly reserved yet confident.”
In recent months, that confidence has carried over into a second stage of his career. After deferring to older Dortmund and U.S. teammates, he is demonstrating greater assertiveness and, when appropriate, selfishness, a necessary quality for menacing attackers.
“My biggest quality is just going out there and being creative, being dangerous,” he said. “Just always keeping the defenders on their toes with that attacking style.”
Pulisic has been thrust into a larger role at Dortmund this season following the transfer of French winger Ousmane Dembele to Barcelona for at least $125 million. Dembele’s sale price has raised questions about Pulisic’s value. Dortmund, which has him under contract through the 2019-20 season, says he’s not on the market. Nonetheless, clubs have come knocking.
On Saturday, in the second match of the season, Pulisic didn’t score despite several opportunities. His body language, though, looked different from last season: He seemed more comfortable taking on defenders, worked combinations and displayed an insatiable appetite to score.
Last season, he started 15 of 34 league matches and entered as a sub in 14 others. This campaign, which will also include Champions League group-stage matches against Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, it’s his job to lose.
“The credit goes to him but also he’s been given a lot of good breaks and been lucky to have coaches both here and in Germany who believe in him and trust him.,” his father said. “You have to be given chances, but you have to take them.”
The next chances will come in a U.S. uniform, as the playmaker or right wing, against Costa Rica on Friday and at Honduras on Tuesday. Two victories, or a victory and draw, would leave the Americans in good standing ahead of the last two qualifiers in early October — and a step closer to a World Cup berth with a teenager in the global spotlight.
“From the first camp that he’s come in with our team, he has found a really good way to fit into the group,” captain Michael Bradley said. “You can see what a good kid he is. How much he loves to play. How much he enjoys the time with our group. We want to put him in the best possible condition so that he can play, enjoy himself and ultimately make the biggest difference for our team.”
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