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Pulisic is U.S. soccer’s reticent trailblazer

Christian Pulisic has been soccer-obsessed since childhood. He left loved ones to play overseas at 15. Was it worth it? This World Cup may provide the answer.

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Incomprehensible words bombarded Christian Pulisic day after day of the toughest year of his life. He’d sit in German public school classrooms surrounded by kids he didn’t know, learning math in a language he couldn’t understand. And at times, a few years removed from stardom, and a few thousand miles from home, he would wonder: What am I doing here?

He was there, in Germany’s Ruhr, to play soccer, to transform from a shy Pennsylvanian into a precocious pro. But for months in the fall of 2014, he couldn’t. As he waited on a passport, he could only train at Borussia Dortmund, and try to learn math in a foreign tongue — or was it science? At first, he wasn’t quite sure.

He would sit through hours of both subjects and others. He’d grind through 90-minute language lessons. He’d scrap with some of soccer’s most talented teens at Dortmund’s academy, but he couldn’t yet scrap for playing time. And so, on the darkest days, at a modest apartment he shared with his father, his 16-year-old brain would ask itself: “Why am I doing this? Is this going to pay off? What if I don’t even make the first team?”

In time, he clawed his way to answers. He broke through at Dortmund. He earned a $73 million transfer to Chelsea. And he blazed a trail. “He set the pathway for all young American players,” says Joe Scally, one of many U.S. teens who’ve followed in Pulisic’s footsteps. When Pulisic arrived in Germany, in 2014-15, just 13 Americans played in Europe’s top five leagues; by 2021-22, that number had doubled to 26, while the average age of those players had plummeted to 21.2.

The best of them now comprise the core of the U.S. men’s national team that will return to the World Cup next week. And several credit Pulisic with inspiring and enabling their burgeoning careers. They call him a “trailblazer” and a “living legend.” Pulisic points out that he was not the first Yank to trek across the pond; that Clint Dempsey and others were pioneers before he was. But no American had ever made the leap, and achieved so much, at such a young age.

And there’s a reason for that.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Pulisic said in a recent book on his journey.

“It’s not for everyone,” his dad, Mark, says of the European adventure. “It’s not for everyone.”

(Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

(Graphic by Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

‘A massive day that changed my life’

Christian Pulisic is the son of soccer players and the product of soccer obsession. When he was 7, an “All About Me” questionnaire at school asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up; unsurprisingly, his answer was “a pro soccer player.”

And what did he like to do most? “play Soccer,” he scrawled in classic third-grade script.

And what was the “best thing about” him? “I loVe Soccer.”

By age 8, he could juggle a ball hundreds of times consecutively. At his childhood home in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he’d watch European stars on TV, then escape to a grassy side yard at halftime to replicate their moves. He started young with Luis Figo. He later moved on to Lionel Messi, mimicking and perfecting feints, and finishing into a backyard goal. He’d play with parents, or alone. He’d play in structured environments, or unstructured ones after the third-tier pro games that Mark coached.

His parents’ careers — Mark in soccer, mother Kelley in teaching — took the family to England and Michigan. All the movement, Christian has said, “was tough.” Each time, there were new surroundings to grasp and new peers to meet. But each time, there was also soccer. In Tackley, the Oxford-adjacent village where Kelley was teaching, Christian and his crew of temporary friends would play after school for hours on end.

He returned to central Pennsylvania at age 10 and began his ascent in earnest. He traveled the country to youth national team camps, and enrolled in U.S. Soccer’s Under-17 residency program. Every sizable step stimulated nerves, but talent invariably quelled them. On Dec. 13, 2013, he lined up opposite mighty Brazil at a U17 tournament in Florida. Over 90 minutes, he slithered in and out of yellow shirts, and hit LeBron’s “Silencer” celebration after scoring in a 4-1 win.

“That was the match when I really felt like I could play at the highest level, that I could do this,” he said in his book. The date, 12/13/2013, is now tattooed on his arm. It was, he said, “a massive day that changed my life.”

‘Dark days’ after a life-altering decision

It was around that time that phones began ringing and options began arising, and suddenly, a mammoth decision loomed. Christian was, on one hand, coveted by Dortmund; and on the other, half a world away and 15 years old.

He huddled with parents. He heard out his agent. Six months before making the decision, Mark says, “he wasn’t ready.” The gravity of the choice weighed on his slender shoulders. Perhaps the lack of precedent did too. There were no American standard-bearers to consult — and one who’d tried a similar path, Landon Donovan, had come home before he’d played a single Bundesliga game.

But then, one day in 2014, Christian looked Mark and Kelley in the eye and said: “I’m ready.”

He flew with Mark to Germany before his 16th birthday, leaving other family and many friends behind. He spent his first few days in a hotel while apartment shopping. He enrolled at a standard German high school. He felt welcome at his new club, and energized by opportunity — and perhaps all would have been well if not for tardy paperwork.

Pulisic had moved to Germany on the premise that, via his grandfather, Mate, he was eligible for a Croatian passport. It would, by FIFA rule, allow him to join a European academy at age 16 rather than 18. The problem, for months, until early 2015, was that his passport hadn’t yet arrived — and the one thing that had always smoothed his life’s transitions, soccer, was hindered.

He battled, day after day at Dortmund, for respect, trust and improvement. “I was going through everything — school, German lessons” too, he noted in his book. “And then I almost felt like there was no point to it all because I couldn’t even play on the weekends.” So doubts simmered. “There were dark days,” Mark admits.

But there was never a request to go home or give in. Come winter, four months after his 16th birthday, a passport cleared him, and soccer freed him, and “things became a bit easier.” Happiness returned. And Pulisic’s ascent resumed.

DORTMUND, GERMANY - JUNE 03: Christian Pulisic of Dortmund celebrates after scoring the second goal during the B-Juniors Bundesliga Semi Final match between Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig at Fussballpark Hohenbuschei on June 3, 2015 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by Juergen Schwarz/Bongarts/Getty Images)

A 16-year-old Christian Pulisic celebrates a goal on June 3, 2015 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by Juergen Schwarz/Bongarts/Getty Images)

A Pulisic-inspired U.S. to Germany pipeline begins to flow

Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna and countless other peers watched the ascent unfold in realtime, on Fox Sports networks, on TVs across America. Adams and Weston McKennie had played with Pulisic on youth national teams. Weston was the jokester who’d squirt empty water bottles in Pulisic’s ear. Now he and Tyler were rising through soccer’s youth ranks at what seemed like breakneck pace themselves … and Pulisic was playing, and scoring, in the Bundesliga.

Less than a year after breaking in with Dortmund’s U17s, while sitting in class, he received a text from his youth coach: The first team wanted him at training that evening. Within a few months, he was out of school and setting all sorts of “youngest-to” records — and allowing fellow U.S. teens to expand their dreams.

“We all look up to him and say, ‘It’s possible,'” an 18-year-old McKennie told ESPN in the spring of 2017. “We see him do it and say, ‘Why can’t we do it either?'”

McKennie and a handful of American kids had joined Pulisic in Germany by then. Their success encouraged players like Josh Sargent to join their cohort. “It kinda helps you realize,” Sargent told Yahoo Sports in 2018, “that maybe I can do that too.”

It also created a support system. Pulisic and McKennie, separated by a short drive at Dortmund and Schalke, would see each other weekly, including once for Thanksgiving. Pulisic also hosted Sargent, Haji Wright, Erik Palmer-Brown and a few others for an all-American get-together.

And as Adams made his own decision to head to Germany, to RB Leipzig, in 2019, he spoke with Pulisic and McKennie about their experiences.

A few months later, Reyna joined Dortmund’s academy, and a pipeline began to flow. The next wave of youngsters, like Scally, didn’t know Pulisic personally; but Scally knew Reyna, who knew Pulisic and who’d begun to accumulate experience of his own. Scally talked to Reyna, his teenage bud from New York City FC. He moved to Borussia Mönchengladbach as an 18-year-old in 2021, and has been starting almost ever since.

“After seeing [that] Gio’s done it, Weston’s done it, all of these guys have played when they were younger,” Scally says, “I knew they were gonna give me a chance.”

Pulisic, meanwhile, had made his mark at Dortmund in 2017 and 2018. He’d graduated from kid whose dad drops him off at training to borderline star. And so, just as Reyna was arriving to become the next Next Big Thing, Pulisic blasted open another door — and encountered a whole new set of challenges.

Injuries, depression take their toll

The transition to London was, in a way, easier than the one to Dortmund, but definitely not easy. Months before it, Mark says, Christian spent a day at Chelsea and met with then-manager Maurizio Sarri. Shortly before he officially joined Chelsea for an American-record-smashing fee, however, while he was starring for the USMNT stateside, Sarri and the club parted ways.

And thus began a prolonged fight that has worn on a young adult who, in some sense, is still just a kid who wants to play.

Pulisic, from the day he arrived at preseason as a 20-year-old with a hefty price tag, has pushed and pushed to prove himself to managers who inherited him. And in the early months, he failed. His playing time fluctuated, or sometimes altogether disappeared. Injuries impeded progress, and sometimes dragged him back to ground zero.

And frustration mounted. “Christian’s difficulty is his competitiveness, his drive,” Mark says. “And if things aren’t going well with his career on the field, he really tends to bring it home with him.”

The injuries, which dogged him throughout his first year-plus at Chelsea, were particularly demoralizing. “Although you’re there at the club,” Pulisic said of his time sidelined, “you are not actually there. It’s that feeling that you are in the training ground but you are not really a part of the group.”

In between them, his quality surfaced in fits and starts, and his confidence fell and rose. He turned his very first Premier League goal into a hat trick, then an abbreviated goalscoring spurt. He surged again during “Project Restart.” By late 2020, he felt he’d “finally convinced” manager Frank Lampard of his “value to the team.”

Then Lampard got sacked, and the fight began anew.

It was also around this time, Pulisic has said, that he was suffering from depression. He “hit rock bottom” in February, and sought out professional help. He was, of course, aware of the stigma around therapy. He was also aware that an average person might gaze up at a privileged soccer player’s life and think, “What does he have to be depressed about?”

“I found out the hard way that it’s really not as simple as that,” Pulisic wrote in an email to Yahoo Sports. “Your body and mind are ‘machines’ that every day you learn more about.”

“Just being honest to yourself that you need help is a step that took me more courage than I ever imagined,” he wrote. Mustering that courage, in a way, has been the highlight of his career.

“Just coming through that particular chapter in my life — during a lockdown and coping with a change of coach and playing for a huge club in a huge city where success is absolutely expected — made me very proud.”

PORTO, PORTUGAL - MAY 29: Christian Pulisic of Chelsea lifts the UEFA Champions League Trophy during the UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester City and Chelsea FC at Estadio do Dragao on May 29, 2021 in Porto, Portugal. (Photo by Chris Lee - Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Christian Pulisic of Chelsea lifts the UEFA Champions League Trophy during the UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester City and Chelsea FC at Estadio do Dragao on May 29, 2021 in Porto, Portugal. (Photo by Chris Lee/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

A World Cup dream nears

When Pulisic embarked on this journey eight-plus years ago, he knew that unforeseen obstacles would emerge. He knew there’d be unprecedented challenges. He knew it was “a risk.” What he couldn’t have possibly prepared for, though, was the size and searing heat of the spotlight.

Pulisic, he and people around him say, is an innately private person. When asked to describe his “happy place” or “ideal day,” his mind flashes not to a sold-out stadium or a Champions League final but to a house on the water in Jupiter, Florida. He envisions a morning coffee and some online chess, then some guitar-playing. He adores his family, but keeps his circle of friends relatively tight.

He describes himself as a “homebody,” as introverted and quiet — and all of that, of course, clashes with his chosen profession, soccer player.

He loves the fans who packed Dortmund’s Yellow Wall, and the ones who’ve sung his name at Chelsea. He relishes the chance to represent and sometimes captain his country. But all the attention, the expectations, the scrutiny, can be a bit much. Whispers and not-so-subtle stares trail him to restaurants. Selfie requests are no longer startling. “It’s mind-blowing at times to see the effect he has on people,” Mark says.

To escape the spotlight and incessant pressure, and clear his head, he’ll occasionally go for a leisurely run or walk through Wimbledon Common, a park close to his insulated southwest London home. He plays video games, and reads Harry Potter, and occasionally immerses himself in chess. To wind down, he’ll strum away at his Gibson Les Paul Studio electric guitar.

But as he does, the interview requests still pile up, and the headlines still accumulate.

“I don’t think it’ll ever be completely normal,” he said of the societal expectation that he, and all athletes, should be vocal and public about their personal lives.

“Oh,” Mark says, “he struggles with it all the time.”

But he increasingly understands that it comes with the territory. And this territory, after all, is where he always wanted to be. He beamed with pride when he won the 2021 Champions League with Chelsea. He cried in despair on Oct. 10, 2017 in Couva, Trinidad. Five years later, his face is the centerpiece of countless promotional campaigns, which perhaps might provoke discomfort within him — but all that really matters is the tournament those campaigns are selling.

The World Cup is near.

And Pulisic, at the end of storm after storm, will be there.

The constant Chelsea struggle has not relented. Playing time continues to be scarce. But Pulisic, as he said in May, is “in a good place.” He has weathered the storms and arrived at the pinnacle. On the field, he looks sharp and sprightly. Off it, “it’s really the best headspace he’s been in in a long time,” Mark says.

“I mean, my biggest dream was to play in a World Cup,” Christian said. “As a kid … some of my best memories [are] just watching them. And now, hopefully, getting the opportunity to go and play in some of the world’s biggest games — I mean, I couldn’t be more excited.”

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