They knew Christian Pulisic’s story before it even began

PORTO, PORTUGAL - MAY 29: Christian Pulisic of Chelsea celebrates with his dad Mark Pulisic, his mum Kelley Pulisic and the UEFA Champions League Trophy after the UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester City and Chelsea FC at Estadio do Dragao on May 29, 2021 in Porto, Portugal. (Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
9 min

Of all the eyeballs fixing to fixate on Christian Pulisic in his first World Cup as “Captain America,” one small group might luxuriate the most. It’s the group with the untold privilege of the long story arc. It includes the people who happened to intersect with Pulisic’s story before it began.

They’re the women’s and men’s soccer players of George Mason University from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and they romped the Fairfax County pitches in Northern Virginia around the time of a George Mason heyday. Yet by nowadays they might marvel at more than the you’re-kidding-me national title the women’s team won in its fourth year of existence or the way the men frequented NCAA tournaments and wrecked those of others. No, they have a multigenerational doozy to consider.

One of their female defenders, Kelley Harlow, wound up marrying one of their male forwards, Mark Pulisic, and the two had a son, Christian.

So yeah, they have ­observations, even beyond their volunteered raves for the unobtrusive turns of parenting that holler from the Pulisic bio on a planet rife with crummy sports parenting.

“Just some of his mannerisms,” Debbie Fine (George Mason 1986-89) said, can transport her to “when Kelley would attack out of the back” because of “just the way he moves, his stride.”

They have the chops to know the absurd rarity of what happened with a George Mason offspring lodged at a gigantic Chelsea. “It’s amazing particularly when you understand that to reach the success he’s reaching, it’s not ‘difficult,’ ” Martin Dunphy (George Mason 1986-89) said. “It’s just almost impossibly difficult.”

They have a hunch that old George Mason had a good root in the most coveted American player to date even if he didn’t bother being born until 1998. “They had Gordon Bradley, from the U.K.; he was the men’s soccer coach,” Stephanie Hylan Recupero (George Mason 1987-90) said. “He was from Europe. He had coached Pelé. Think about what he brought to George Mason University. Coming from Europe. Having coached at a high level and some of the best players in the world. Think about how high he set the bar. So that’s what Mark Pulisic was exposed to.” And coach Hank Leung’s smashing women’s program, “that’s what I stepped into. I stepped into a culture of winners, right? And when I say I did, Kelley did, too.”

That’s Kelley Harlow (1989-92), later known as Pulisic, later known as Mom.

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They have a long raft of memories — of Pulisic in the backyard kicking, in the driveway shooting, at the golf course chipping, being the tiniest sprite on the team yet charging, being in the unforgiving academy of Dortmund in Germany as a teen, overcoming. That’s how it goes with a groomsman from the Pulisic wedding, Bob Lilley (George Mason 1984-87), who also happens to have played and coached with Mark Pulisic (1986-89).

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As he noticed along the way, “A lot of players went over to Italy or Portugal or one of these countries, and I saw a lot of kids that were in their national team’s setup go over and chase the dream in Europe. And come back having failed. You know what I’m saying? And in some cases those players are never the same. And I think that’s happened to a lot of players: They go over there, and they’re not really ready for it.”

That’s the normal story, right?

“Absolutely. And it’s a very high percentage.”

Now they have a 24-year-old Pulisic coming up on their TVs from Qatar, four years after the American non-qualification Hylan calls “heartbreaking” and Lilley calls “devastating.” They have that coming even as they have their memories of when playing soccer was sort of an eccentric pursuit in the American construct, of when Lilley and Mark Pulisic shared a house with some other players, of when Fine, well: “For four years, it was blood, sweat and tears with his mom,” she said, speaking from the Dallas-Fort Worth entanglement where she helms a school special-education program. “For four years, she was the anchor of our team.”

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So the kind of demanding and stalwart defender every team needs to avoid misery (Kelley), still fifth in consecutive George Mason games started (72), wound up marrying a forward who arrived as a “journeyman” (Dunphy’s word) and toiled his way to sixth all-time in George Mason goals (35), especially with “garbage goals” (as Lilley calls them). “I would drive up to George Mason on weekends in the summer,” Hylan said, speaking from near Boston where she’s a vice president of recruiting for a law firm. “I would train with the guys. And Mark was always there because he was committed to the game.”

Once wedded, they proceeded to raise something else.

“My father arranged for them to go to the local under-10s” in Waterford, Ireland, on a Pulisic family visit with the lad still 7 or 8, Dunphy said as an Irishman in London, where he founded an investment company. “It was obviously something that really resonated with him,” the way the kid had “the close control, a comfortableness on the ball. My father had played football all his life.”

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“He’s at Dortmund with other German national team players,” Lilley said, having visited when Christian was 16. The sacrifice included Mark shepherding Christian to Europe while Kelley stayed back teaching school. “Those guys are talking to each other, they all speak the same language, and you’ve never been in that environment before.” They’re probably talking about you, and they might say, “ ‘Why is this American kid playing?’ ” as Lilley surmised, while saying, “You’re not going to play ahead of a kid that’s German if you’re for Dortmund unless you’re clearly better than him.”

The U.S. Men’s World Cup squad will face off against Wales, Iran, and group favorite England in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

“When I went over there to visit the first year, Christian would be out the door early, going over to school,” Lilley said from Pittsburgh, where he manages the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the American second tier. “Mark’s going to get him from school, over to the training center. He’s doing homework. Then he’s meeting with the adviser. Then he’s training. Then it’s like 7 at night, 7:30 at night. ‘Want to get something to eat?’ This kid’s been going since 7:30, 8 in the morning, and you’re doing that every day, you’d better have soccer in your blood. You’re either going to hit the mark or a big club like Dortmund’s going to move on.”

Meanwhile, in came players from Asia, Africa, all over footballing creation …

“Thirty kids maybe brought in, and maybe only two end up playing with Dortmund’s first team. Some end up playing for Stuttgart or Schalke. It’s hard to make it through the academy system all the way to the top of the academy system when you’re with a big club. He never gets to transfer to Chelsea if he’s not showing that he can impact one of the teams.”

And now …

“And now you’re at Chelsea.”

And now you’re really captain, America.

View it this way, as does Dunphy: The Ireland under-15 squad for which Dunphy played backup goalkeeper won in Europe in 1982, a great-big hell of a breakthrough. “And what happened?” Dunphy said. “Not one of the guys made it. All of those players, which were fantastic, not one guy made it. There’s so many factors that can affect it.” Here’s one: “Football, also, there’s so many people playing it.”

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So it’s no wonder they feel a sort of a wow even if the whole thing does make sense, which Hylan believes it does given the parents, and even if there can be that occasional disconnect of, Really? It’s no wonder that after a 17-year-old Pulisic left Fine a ticket to a United States vs. Ecuador friendly in Frisco near Dallas, Fine kept the envelope with the words, “ ‘Left by Christian Pulisic,’ with his handwriting on it.” It’s no wonder that with Hylan and her three accomplished teenage players, the first already booked to play at Duke, “We talk about him in our household from a learning standpoint.”

In a house that boasts its various Pulisic jerseys, in an era when kids can get up on Saturdays and watch Europe, in an era when her 12-year-old son can rev up the iPad and watch videos of matches and techniques that preceded his birth, they observe how Pulisic “keeps overcoming odds, which I love, and I actually talk about that often with my own children.” It becomes a moment in their house across the Atlantic when he enters matches as a backup and she tells them: “ ‘Watch, he’ll have five minutes to produce, and he will. He’ll make the most out of the minutes he gets, which I find very impressive.’ ”

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“If he hits a roadblock,” Lilley said, “he keeps working, keeps his head down, and that very much reminds me of Mark and Kelley where they have that work ethic.” So here come the parenting reviews. Lilley: “They would always say, ‘You know, we’re not going to push this on him.’ ” Fine: “It’s not like they forced him to go outside and kick a soccer ball 195 times.” Lilley: “They didn’t have him just playing. He was training and they were measuring — rather than having him get over his head. It was always about, ‘Is he able to express himself,’ rather than throwing him in the deep end. They were always patient.”

But then, Dunphy: “He plays nothing like his father did. The father was just built like a brick s---house. Gigantic legs and thighs, not particularly fast but just barreling.”

The son, though: “Just so dangerous.”

Three different humans forged this arc.

“What I love about him the most,” Hylan said, “is he’s very explosive. And his ability to attack opportunities and take people one-on-one is a game changer. He makes things happen out of nothing, actually.”

And so: “I hold my breath.”

A lot of that might go around shortly.