How did Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic make it into the European big leagues?
It's been a curious journey from Hershey, Pennsylvania via a sleepy town near Oxford to the seething cauldron that is the Signal Iduna Park: bundesliga.com takes a closer look at how Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic made it into the European big leagues.
Unsurprisingly, the story begins with Christian's parents Mark and Kelley, who met while playing football at George Mason University in the 1980s. Mark later became a professional indoor soccer player, spending his eight-year career with the Harrisburg Heat before moving into coaching. He insists that he and Kelley never put pressure on Christian – who was born in September 1998 – to follow in their footballing footsteps.
"We almost pushed him in directions other than soccer,” Mark told philly.com. "He wasn't forced in any manner. I wanted to make sure he was making the decision. Things don't work if you're forcing training on kids."
As it turned out, though, Christian was only too happy to embrace the family tradition – especially after a year-long stint in England as a child, which transformed his curiosity about soccer into a genuine passion.
In 2005, Kelley received a Fulbright scholarship to work on a teaching exchange in Tackley, a small village around eight miles north of Oxford, while Mark made the most of being in the UK to study for his UEFA 'A' coaching badge. As for seven-year-old Christian, he joined local club Brackley Town, and spent an unforgettable year soaking up England's football-mad culture.
"A lot of people don't realise but it really brought on my passion for the game," Pulisic told The Daily Mail. "I just started to love it so much and I said: 'Wow. I'm pretty good! I think I can do something with this game.'"
"We were football crazy," Mark admitted to Sky Sports. "We travelled all over and took in all the nuances of what English football is: the craziness outside the stadiums, the chanting inside and signing the songs. Christian remembers it to this day. For sure it had an impact in the short time we were there."
Following a year in which he visited English football cathedrals Anfield, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, Pulisic returned to the United States with stars in his eyes. In a piece for The Players' Tribune in November 2017, he touched on the differences between soccer culture in America – where other sports hog the limelight – and places where it has been dominant for generations.
Watch: The Top 10 American goals in the Bundesliga!
"Soccer, it's just this way of life in other countries," he wrote. "It's part of the fabric of who they are, and of what they do. There's this sense of identity that I think is baked into global soccer – that touches everyone, and connects everyone together. If your city's club team is having success, or if your national team is having success, there's just this amazing sense of personal pride that comes with it. And it's hard to put into words how powerful that is."
Fuelled by his newfound passion for soccer, Pulisic set about developing his natural talent and honing a keen sense of competitive spirit. After a spell with Michigan Rush – while his father was coaching the Detroit Ignition – he joined PA Classics, where he would spend almost seven years maturing into the player that Dortmund were so keen to sign in 2015.
Pulisic's time with the Classics – a U.S. Soccer Development Academy side – also put him on the national team's radar. He began playing for the U15s in 2012, at just 13, and went on to score 21 goals in 28 international appearances over the next two years. Tab Ramos, U.S. Soccer's youth technical director and U20s coach, recalls the first time he saw the Hershey native in action.
"He looked like someone's little brother that just jumped on the field, and I was waiting for someone to get him out," Ramos told Sports Illustrated. "Then I realised, 'Wow, not only does he look like he doesn't belong physically, but he's running the show. You watched the game for about five minutes and you realised that everybody was playing through him. And the pace of the game was completely run by him."
At 14, Pulisic's talent was there for all to see, but he was still a rough diamond in need of polishing. His parents decided that the best way for him to develop was to engineer a move to a club in Europe, and so Mark got in touch with London-based football consultant Rob Moore.
The South African advised against going to Barcelona – despite Pulisic being invited for a trial at their famed La Masia academy – and instead recommended Germany, with its strong emphasis on youth development. Dortmund were delighted at the prospect of bringing Pulisic on board, and sweetened the deal with an offer to help him secure an EU passport through his grandfather Mate, who was born in Croatia. It would turn out to be an absolute game-changer.
"As a result of my dual citizenship, I've been able to play in Europe, training at the Dortmund academy, since I was 16," Pulisic explained. "Without it, I would have had to wait until I was 18. And for a soccer player, those years are everything. From a developmental perspective, it's almost like this sweet spot, where a player's growth and skill sort of intersect, in just the right way – where a player can make their biggest leap in development by far."
Most fairy tale stories in football involve a certain amount of good fortune, and for Pulisic it was that link to Croatia. It brought him to Dortmund earlier than he might have hoped, in February 2015, and acted as a catalyst for his astounding progress over the following year.
After 12 months of being put through his paces at BVB's highly rated Hohenbuschei academy, the talented young American was ready to step things up in 2016, which would eventually become a sort of Year of the Pulisic. It began on 30 January, as he replaced Adrian Ramos in a 2-0 win over Ingolstadt to make his Bundesliga debut, aged just 17 years and 133 days.
The following month, he became the youngest American to play in UEFA competition – as a late substitute in a Europa League victory over Porto – but he really began to make headlines in April, after scoring in successive 3-0 league wins over Hamburg and VfB Stuttgart. Almost completely unknown three months earlier, he had suddenly become the fourth-youngest goalscorer in Bundesliga history, and the youngest ever with two goals to his name.
"For Christian it's a very, very important goal," then Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel told bundesliga.com after Pulisic inspired BVB to victory over Hamburg at the Signal Iduna Park. "We see his techniques and his ability to adapt to this level every day in training, and that's why we trust him. We're very happy that he can show it in our stadium."
The records continued to tumble as the months passed, with Pulisic breaking new ground for both club and country. In May he became the USA's youngest ever goalscorer by finding the net in a 4-0 romp against Bolivia. In September, four days before his 18th birthday, he starred in a 6-0 thrashing of Legia Warsaw, becoming Dortmund's youngest UEFA Champions League player and the youngest American to feature in the competition.
In 2016/17, he became the youngest American to win a major European trophy, as Dortmund beat Eintracht Frankfurt to lift the DFB Cup. He was also named the USMNT's Player of the Year in 2017, although despite his best efforts he was unable to haul the USA to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Nevertheless, in a little over two years, BVB's hot young prospect had transformed into a bona fide star – and all before the age of 20.
"I would never have expected what he's done and accomplished so far," Mark admitted. "To be quite honest, as a parent I wish it hasn't gone as fast, because we worry about him missing a lot of his teenage childhood, but I can't have a say in that now. We're just trying to guide him and help him deal with all that's happening."
There are no doubt still many chapters to be written in the story of Christian Mate Pulisic – and it is fitting that he carries his grandfather's name, along with the Croatian heritage that has been so integral to his remarkable rise. But from Brackley Town to the Bundesliga, it has already been quite the adventure.
Click here for more Borussia Dortmund news, views and features!