The Teenage Hero from Hershey – Christian Pulisic

in Features

As football fans, I’d imagine you will all be familiar with that feeling you get when you watch a young player for the first time who seems destined for great things – it’s a weird feeling of inarguable self-certainty. You just know. It’s not a feeling you get all that often, but after just 45 minutes of watching Christian Pulisic on Saturday, I just know.

The Revierderby (or Ruhr derby) between Schalke and Dortmund in Gelsenkirchen on Saturday had an extra edge to what is traditionally one of Germany’s most intense rivalries. BVB coach Thomas Tuchel chose to make eight changes from the team that drew with Liverpool just a couple of days earlier. That decision to shuffle his pack in such a major way was enough to ruffle a few feathers, but the 2-2 draw Dortmund earned can be considered a decent day’s work, especially if they can knock Liverpool out of Europe later this week with a little help from the restees.

Compelling as the entire match was as a spectacle, the performance of one player stood out in isolated excellence. I had read the name Christian Pulisic a couple of times before, mainly in transfer gossip columns, but this was the first time I had seen the player considered the biggest American talent in a generation in the flesh.

Starting from a position on the right wing, Pulisic danced past his opponents time and time again with a natural balance and surety of touch, but it was his intelligent use of space and choice of pass that really belied his 17 years. That’s right – seventeen. When I was 17, I was working in a local supermarket making piss all money and trying to cop off with checkout girls. I also wore shirts with dragons on them, which ironically weren’t very fly.

At 17 and playing in Dortmund’s first team, Pulisic must feel like his life is accelerating forward at triple speed. Just three years ago Pulisic was playing for his local side in the Michigan Rush juniors and in the US Soccer Development Academy, Pennsylvania Classics.

Pulisic grew up (which sounds absurdly biographical for someone who is still a child) in Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of the famous chocolatiers, and whose town motto is “The Sweetest Place on Earth”. Their unofficial motto is “Welcome to Diabetesville”….ok I made that one up, but the town of around 12,000 inhabitants suddenly has something to shout about other than their contribution to childhood obesity.

Christian’s father Mark Pulisic played professional indoor soccer for the Harrisburg Heat in the 1990s and if their surname sounds decidedly Balkan to you, it’s because Christian’s grandfather is Croatian. With a footballing father and a European heritage, Christian’s childhood environment was understandably football-centric.

Even though the youngster was slight of frame, he excelled at underage levels, earning him a call up to the US Under-14s national team.  Pulisic talent was so blindingly and immediately obvious that he soon had to juggle national team duty with time spent training in Europe following invites from Barcelona, Chelsea, PSV Eindhoven, Porto and Villarreal.

Pulisic went on to represent the United States at U-15 and U-17 levels, captaining the latter at the 2015 U17 World Cup in Chile, where he had a goal and an assist in three games, providing a bright spark in what was an underwhelming tournament for the US. During his two year stint with the U-17s, Pulisic scored an incredible 20 goals in 34 games.

On January 4, 2015, Dortmund won the battle to sign the prodigious 16 year old and although they initially assigned him to their U-17 squad, Pulisic was drafted into the senior ranks just a year later. On January 24, 2016, a day after making his debut on the first team bench, Thomas Tuchel played Pulisic for a full 90 minutes in a friendly against FC Union Berlin, where he scored one goal and made another.

His competitive Dortmund debut came in a 2–0 win against FC Ingolstadt on January 30, 2016, when he came on as a second-half substitute for Adrián Ramos. Pulisic made his first Bundesliga start on February 21, 2016 against Bayer Leverkusen before eventually being substituted for Marco Reus.

In total Pulisic has appeared 7 times from the bench since January, but his start in Saturday’s derby was just his second for Dortmund. His inclusion at the Veltins-Arna felt like a watershed moment for Pulisic. To be trusted with the responsibility of starting such an enormous game is huge in itself, but Pulisic produced a sensational performance to go with it.

Just a few weeks earlier Pulisic became the youngest American ever to appear in a World Cup qualifier when he came off the bench in the second half in the USA’s 4-0 over Guatemala. The hype building around him stateside is huge and now it looks set to follow him across the Atlantic to European shores.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Pulisic play yet and are looking for a player to compare him to, I think Christian said it best himself in an interview with USsoccer.com in March 2015:

 “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. I loved watching him when he was at Real Madrid. My dad, to this day, still calls me Figo.”

Rooney’s will to win and Figo’s exceptional technique combined eh? No pressure kid. It’s always dangerous to let hype around any young player build to unreasonable levels. It can destroy the confidence and even the careers of kids who often crumble under the pressure of unmeetable expectations.

Pulisic is at the perfect club to manage the kind of attention he is likely to attract, but inevitably transfer rumours have already started and Premier League vultures are already starting to circle. For Pulisic’s and football’s sake, I hope his head isn’t turned this summer. The Premiership is not the place to be for a lightweight 17 year old schemer.

Luckily, just like his selection of pass, Pulisic will make the right choice and develop into the phenomenal player that his potential promises. How can I be so certain? I just know.

by Simon Winter

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