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Christian Pulisic: The making of Borussia Dortmund’s 19-year-old midfielder who is turning heads across Europe

2:35 pm, 25th July 2018

Jurgen Klopp hardly needed a reminder of Pulisic’s talent. After all, he was in charge of Borussia Dortmund when the teenager joined the German giants three years ago. But he got one nonetheless on Sunday night.

The Liverpool boss could only watch on as Pulisic came off the bench to score twice and secure a 3-1 friendly win for Dortmund at the Bank on America Stadium in Charlotte.

In turning the game on its head, Pulisic once more turned heads. Klopp himself admitted he’s a fan, while Real Madrid have become the latest club reportedly interested in signing the 19-year-old, with a figure of £60m accompanying the rumours.

Another club, another week, or so Pulisic’s father would tell you, having readily dismissed rumours of a move to the Premier League when talking to Sky Sports. Mark described links with Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United as “hogwash”, a nugget of a line within many when discussing his son’s development.

But what preceded talk of Christian’s future was discussions about his upbringing, of parenting a burgeoning talent, of knowing when he was ready to fly the nest. Somewhat poetically, this coming-of-age story begins in a little town outside Oxford…

One year in England

Against the advice of teachers and professors, Wikipedia was a first port of call when researching Pulisic’s background. ‘Considered by many to be the top American soccer prospect‘, reads one line for Christian Mate Pulisic’s entry, but it’s below his picture on the right-hand side where two years and words stand out more than most – 2005-2006 Brackley Town.

This stay in Brackley – 22 miles from Oxford, though actually in Northamptonshire – allowed his father Mark to attain part of his UEFA A coaching licence at Lilleshall while wife Kelley was on a teaching exchange. It was a year which also ignited seven-year-old Christian’s love for football, in which he played for Brackley Town, currently in the sixth-tier of English football, and visited a whole host of stadiums.

“Of course we were football crazy,” Mark told 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. He really got a feel for what passion the Premier League and English people have. He remembers it to this day. For sure it had an impact in the short time we were there.”

There were visits to Anfield, where mark recalls a 1-0 win for Liverpool against Arsenal, a trip to Old Trafford for Manchester United against Spurs, and then games at White Hart Lane and Craven Cottage too. “It was a good time, good to look back on,” Mark added.

Back in the USA

The Pulisics returned Stateside, and after a brief spell in Michigan, Christian spent the majority of his youth career at PA Classics in Pennsylvania. The club’s director of coaching, Steve Klein, told Bleacher Report last year when it comes to football parents, you have those who are overly critical, and those who take their kid for ice cream after the game. “Mark and Kelley are ice cream parents,” he said.

That certainly rings true during conversation with Mark: “I never put any type of pressure on him at all, to perform at a certain standard or to have to be the best – that was within him.

“I just made sure he wasn’t over-analysing things too much, because he had a drive and a passion that he was born with, so I just made sure he had fun. I didn’t talk so much about the game to him, I made sure he had other avenues, to enjoy life and other sports, and to just love the game.”

So why Dortmund?

To aid Christian’s development, Mark would take him back across the pond to train with European clubs – including at Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy – to help him acclimatise to what was soon to become the inevitable.

Christian was destined for a future in Europe, but where exactly remained up for debate. At least until Dortmund came calling.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Mark said. “He wasn’t ready to go anywhere, there were a lot of clubs I don’t even remember when he was 13, 14, but he wasn’t ready.

“At 15 we had a good talk, he was doing really well with the youth national teams and then Dortmund came offering. It was kind of a perfect timing of when he was ready to go over, and understanding the sacrifices he had to make, and then Dortmund being the one that were extremely interested in his talents.

“Going there with him for a week, visiting the sporting director, the youth coaches, we met Jurgen Klopp at the time too. Christian felt comfortable and they helped ease his anxiety a bit. We went back home, and he said if I’m going to take this leap then I think Dortmund is the place.”

Bundesliga breakthrough

Mark accompanied Christian in Dortmund for two years, taking up a coaching role within the club’s academy.

After joining as a 16-year-old in February 2015, Christian found himself training with the first team come winter, having impressed in the youth league when scoring six goals and assisting a further six in just 12 games that half-season. A decent return for an attacking midfielder.

His senior debut came on January 30 the following year, where he was brought on for the final 22 minutes against Ingolstadt at the Westfalenstadion. It was a 2-0 win for Dortmund, and Christian – who came on at left wing – went on to make eight further Bundesliga appearances, scoring twice, as well as three showings in the Europa League against Potro, Tottenham and Liverpool.

2016 truly was the breakthrough year for Christian, for he also made his senior international debut in March against Guatemala aged 17 – making him the fifth-youngest American to represent his country – and going on to score against Bolivia in May, becoming the youngest scorer in modern US national team history in the process.

A star was born, and with Christian flourishing in the Dortmund first team as he turned 18, Mark made the difficult decision to return to the USA last year.

“It was hard on two fronts,” Mark said. “He was still 18 years old, a young kid, and I had to be sure he was ready to have those lonely days and nights, and make that next step in his maturation process of handling things on his own.

“I felt at the time he was ready but as a parent you’re always concerned whether it was the necessary time to leave him there alone.

“On the other front, just the excitement of me being there and being able to watch him play at Signal Iduna Park every weekend, and having that enjoyment. It was difficult to leave, but I had to put my selfishness aside and accept he has to make the next step without his parents. So I left, and said this is going to be another step.”

The going gets tough

Mark returned to the US and took up an assistant role at Rochester Rhinos before joining Pittsburgh Riverhounds earlier this year – a United Soccer League club with ambitions of one day becoming an MLS franchise, though that remains some way off.

Meanwhile, Christian went on to become a first-team regular at Dortmund, and most recently started 27 of 34 Bundesliga games in the 2017/18 campaign, scoring four goals and assisting six as the club finished fourth – a whole 29 points behind champions Bayern Munich, but just enough to seal a Champions League spot on goal difference at Bayer Leverkusen’s expense.

It has been a tumultuous period for Dortmund, with the club struggling in Bayern’s shadow after romping to a second-straight title just six years ago, while coaches Thomas Tuchel, Peter Bosz and Peter Stoger have come and gone since Klopp departed in 2015.

Christian himself has suffered dips in form, while he has also had to overcome the disappointment surrounding USA’s failure to reach the World Cup. Their absence was labelled a “humiliation” by the American press.

“Let’s be realistic, he’s had some bumps these past six months,” Mark said. “He had a good spell with the national team, but after missing out on the World Cup he had to recover from that. He’s an emotional kid, it hurt him.

“At Dortmund he had a few different coaches, and a few dips in form. That had nothing to do with anything other than his dipping in form – there were no excuses.

“This is all part of it though. He’s learning how to deal with all these things, that’s part of development – when things don’t go right, how do you handle it? How are you getting up for the next game or training session?

“The next stage of his development and wherever he goes is going to be how he overcomes this past season, the ups and downs that he’s had. Just to put your head down and get back to work is what I’ve always instilled in him, and I think he will. He’ll find success if it’s in his heart and what he wants.”

The next step?

Christian only turns 20 in September, but already there is a long list of suitors supposedly looking to coax him out of Dortmund’s clutches. Lucien Favre is the new man at the helm there, and one of his first tasks could well be to convince the midfielder to stay.

Be it this summer or next, or perhaps a few summers down the line, a move appears likely, but for now, Mark insists it’s all about going with the flow.

“There’s always change. You can think one thing, then you do it, and at the end of the day it wasn’t the right thing.

“Football is crazy. You have to go with the flow and make sure the player feels comfortable, whatever the decision is. There’s no magic formula. Is it right to stay at Dortmund? Who knows. Is it right to move to another club? He might think it is, or someone else might think it is, but it might not be in the player’s mind.

“The only thing we can do is continue to talk with him and make sure he’s always in the loop of what’s going on, present all the facts and the content of what can happen, or will happen. It’s up to the player to make that final call.”

So having visited White Hart Lane, Anfield and Old Trafford as a seven-year-old, could Christian come full circle and grace the Premier League as a player?

“Yeah, of course,” Mark added. “The Premier League is a league where he’s always aspired to be in and play in. As a player nowadays, there are so few players staying at one club throughout a career, the chances of him moving to different clubs and leagues is a high probability.”

But just don’t read too much into the rumours. “He was linked to Tottenham. Last week it was Liverpool. The week before Man United. The week before this… it’s hogwash. He’s linked with a different club every week. Right now, Christian plays for Dortmund and that’s where he is planning on playing again next year.”

Distractions and decisions

“He says it doesn’t affect him,” Mark continues, “but it’s a different world now with kids and social media and everything, so you’re going to be reading things all the time. How does it not affect you? Of course you’re going to think about it.

“Let’s be honest, if I was being linked with coaching other clubs, and it’s on social media I’m going to look at it and think about it. It’s part of life now. He has to learn how to move forward, and always keep in mind what his main focus is.”

Regardless of whether Christian is at, or approaching, a crossroads in his career, he has a strong family support system behind him as he considers his options. It was the case when he was coming through the ranks, and remains so while his name is banded round next to the number £60m.

“As he was never forced to play the game at a young age, he will never be forced to go somewhere he doesn’t want to go,” Mark said.

“Wherever he ends up over the next part of his career, it will be his final decision, unless you’re trying to turn someone into a money-making machine. But that’s not what we are, that’s not what Christian is.

“He knows he needs to get better, and he has not even come close to what his potential is. I truly believe that, and he believes that too. The next decisions have to be very calculated, and very smart.”

The family values are there, the desire to improve is evident, and at 19, Christian has a whole career ahead of him. “We’ve just enjoyed the ride,” Mark said. That ride has only just begun.

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