Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Why Hershey's Pulisic, 17, is U.S. soccer's rising star

Neighbors in Hershey still remember walking into the Pulisic house and seeing a 5-year-old boy engrossed in a soccer game on television. This was a regular thing. An hour later, they'd look over - still watching.

Christian Pulisic (left) with his family: mother Kelley, sister Devyn, father Mark, and brother Chase. At 17, Christian plays with one of Germany's top pro teams and on the U.S. national team.
Christian Pulisic (left) with his family: mother Kelley, sister Devyn, father Mark, and brother Chase. At 17, Christian plays with one of Germany's top pro teams and on the U.S. national team.Read moreCourtesy of Kelley Pulisic

Neighbors in Hershey still remember walking into the Pulisic house and seeing a 5-year-old boy engrossed in a soccer game on television. This was a regular thing. An hour later, they'd look over - still watching.

Even Christian Pulisic's parents knew this was unusual. "You don't see a kid watching a full soccer game," Kelley Pulisic said, remembering how her little guy, not yet on a team himself, would point out an offsides play, as if he'd been studying the game for decades.

It's almost as if Christian Pulisic was living a double life. Normal kid who had friends and played all the sports - and complete soccer junkie, one sport always on his mind. Early on, Pulisic decided he'd play all the others just for fun. Rec-league basketball, casual golf rounds, etc. He'd save his real competitive juices for soccer.

Maybe he imagined his own future - in the rotation at age 17 on the second-best team in Germany, Borussia Dortmund. Youngest player to score two goals in a Bundesliga season. (Not just the youngest American - no German ever did that so young.) Now, as a midfielder, the youngest player ever to score a goal for the U.S. national team (which he did Saturday night in a friendly vs. Bolivia)and on the squad for this summer's Copa America. The coach even said that if there were a World Cup this summer, this would be the squad.

Pulisic doesn't turn 18 until September, but the soccer world is watching, not just the 81,359 regularly squeezing into the largest stadium in Germany.

Everyone is trying to slow down the talk about this kid, as if the words could cause the whole thing to evaporate. But right now, it's hope, not hype, that surrounds Christian Pulisic. If you watched a U.S. friendly Wednesday night against Ecuador, you saw the speed and complete technical confidence, sort of a quiet moxie as Pulisic made moves in tight spaces. As soon as he stepped onto the field, the kid looked at home. You wouldn't have picked him out as the 17-year-old. The game got a little faster for everybody else over on his side of the field.

Looking for clues about how this teenager can seem calm in the midst of the highest level of competition? Go back to his house. Of course, soccer was on television. Mark Pulisic had played professional indoor soccer, including for the Harrisburg Heat, and went on to coach Lebanon Valley College, then ran a Major Indoor Soccer League team. He met Kelley when they were both soccer players at George Mason University.

"We almost pushed him in directions other than soccer," Mark Pulisic said. "He was not 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. We always made it fun."

They couldn't get the ball away from him.

"He would be out on the driveway, 5 years old, working on his juggling," his mother said. "He had to beat his juggling record. He couldn't come in until he beat his record. We'd say, 'OK, we'll do it tomorrow.' . . . 'No, I have to get the record.' He would do right foot only, then left foot only, then right-left, right-left."

As for soccer games from the rest of the world, "it was always on," Mark Pulisic said. "But the NBA was always on. Sunday football games were always on, playoff baseball games. It was all sports - he's a huge LeBron James fan. He loves watching hockey now, he loves watching the new guys coming on in golf, Jordan Spieth."

When Christian first started paying attention more than a decade back, Real Madrid had the Galacticos - Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo and Ronaldo and David Beckham. That was the group that had the little guy riveted. That was his father's team, too.

Kelley Pulisic remembers switching cable systems at Mark's insistence because a soccer package had switched from one Spanish language channel to another.

And now some of those same channels bring their son back into their home.

Pennsylvania did the trick

A Mennonite church stands next to a graveyard that includes birth dates on headstones dating back to 1728. Behind the brick chapel and the worn graves, a cornfield has been reconfigured into a soccer complex, a vast and modern one, 10 fields, the largest cased in artificial turf, with corner flags displaying Adidas logos.

This is where Christian Pulisic once did his thing, in Manheim, Lancaster County.

Pulisic could have honed his skills just as easily in Detroit or Long Island. It happened to be in the middle of Pennsylvania, since that's where soccer led his parents. It turns out Pennsylvania did the trick, too.

Pulisic may represent the start of a trend that could keep impacting American soccer. Yes, he's the son of a former pro indoor player, grandson of a Croatian immigrant who went to New York from a small island off the Croatian coast at age 25. Christian's father grew up on Long Island. That's not the new part of the story. It's more textbook, immigrants lending their love of soccer, the next generation taking it to the next level.

Pulisic's ancestry stands out because his mother came up in the sport, part of this country's youth soccer boom, in her case in northern Virginia. Kelley Pulisic was a college player of consequence. Scoring 13 goals in her George Mason career may not sound noteworthy until you realize she was a defender.

"He definitely has more of my wife's athletic ability," Mark Pulisic said, despite the fact that he was the one who was a pro. Mark was a forward, but he said he relied heavily on technical skills.

"Although I played at a high level, I was just a grinder. I had a pretty massive ACL injury right out of college and some other injuries, so was more of a target forward. I used my size and strength," Mark Pulisic said. "He got his body structure and his speed from my wife. From both of us, he definitely got a stubborn competitiveness, which has really driven him to where he is now. We all want to win, whatever it is. It's inside us not only to win in sports, but just to be right. But we all have a way of understanding each other and laughing it off as it gets to be a bit too much."

It wasn't some master plan, but when Kelley Pulisic, a school teacher, was offered a chance to teach in England for a year on a Fulbright grant, the whole family went along, to a little village near Oxford. For a soccer family, this was almost heaven. Christian was 7 years old. There was no problem finding soccer on television there.

"Every day after school they would play pickup, on a basketball court where they had soccer goals under the basket," Mark Pulisic said. "He would just play for hours and hours and hours. It wasn't structured, just pickup. He used to have a blast. That's all they played there. I think that was a big, big reason why he caught the bug as well."

Years later, after a three-year stop in Detroit - Mark was director of soccer operations for the Major Indoor Soccer League team there - and a return to Hershey, living right downtown, Christian was a regular on the Pennsylvania Classics, on those fields in Manheim.

"He was very technical with both feet - he'd go left or right," said Classics coach Steve Klein. "His touch with the ball was excellent. And his vision - he was a very good passer. He had good quickness. He hadn't really grown yet, either. That was always a question. You don't know what they're going to turn into."

Tab Ramos, a former World Cup mainstay himself, as technically skilled as any American in history, saw Pulisic in a youth tournament and recommended him to national team coaches. Christian ended up in residency in Florida, where all sorts of foreign scouts saw him, as he grew to 5-foot-7, plenty tall enough.

"Arsenal and Manchester City had interest in him, there were other clubs as well," Klein said. "I don't know for sure if contracts were offered."

Mark Pulisic is with Christian full-time in Germany. He answered the phone recently when he was in Berlin, with Dortmund preparing to play Bayern Munich the next day in the German Cup final. He helps out with their youth teams.

"It's a mixture of pride and nerves," Mark Pulisic said of his son's rise in the sport, which has pitfalls, "because he's young, and you want the best for your child. I call him a child because he's 17 in an environment right now that is an adult environment. Whenever that happens, you're going to be both cautious and supportive."

Christian Pulisic, who traveled from Berlin to Dallas after Saturday's game, was not available for comment. Dortmund had shut down interviews recently since there was an onslaught of worldwide requests, and Kelley Pulisic said U.S. Soccer also just requested a slowdown before the Copa America.

Pulisic's first Bundesliga goal would be a standout for a veteran at any level; his first touch in traffic gave him perfect space to find a shooting lane. A common refrain is that the Americans finally have their "next Landon Donovan." Even Donovan has tweeted his praise.

There clearly also is an effort not to go too far. On Wednesday's ESPN telecast, you heard about the "need to tone down the expectations," then just as quickly how this is a player "with a ton of upside." You heard about "a lovely touch with his chest," and how people should be ready to "see a lot of Christian Pulisic this summer."

"That's what I'm pushing for," Pulisic, asked about starting in the Copa America, told reporters after Wednesday's game, according to "We have 23 very strong players. Of course everyone wants to start. That's the goal, but I just want to be successful with the team. Whether that's start or that's coming off the bench, that's fine by me."

Local fans could get a look at Pulisic soon. The United States' second game in the Copa America is June 11 at Lincoln Financial Field.

The secret is out.

"We just played in Connecticut this weekend," Klein said the other day. "I could hear a kid telling his dad, 'Hey, that's the club that guy who plays for Dortmund plays for.' "

When Christian got in his first Bundesliga game, Kelley Pulisic got a congratulatory text from an old high school teammate.

That teammate, Mia Hamm, herself defined a generation of women's soccer in this country, culminating in the 1999 Women's World Cup title.

Now that this country is producing both male and female stars, it shouldn't be a surprise that the top American teenager, the Pennsylvania kid with all this hope surrounding him, has soccer in his blood from both sides. Put it down as a victory for Title IX, an unexpected one.