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Christian Pulisic’s mind is in a good place with the U.S. men’s soccer team, and so are his feet

For the first time in the Hershey native's professional career, Pulisic no longer has to worry about the psychological burdens he has carried for so long as American men’s soccer’s biggest star.

Christian Pulisic (center) enjoys a lighthearted moment with U.S. national team colleagues including Erik Palmer-Brown (to his left) and Cameron Carter-Vickers (to his right) during the team's practice on May 31.
Christian Pulisic (center) enjoys a lighthearted moment with U.S. national team colleagues including Erik Palmer-Brown (to his left) and Cameron Carter-Vickers (to his right) during the team's practice on May 31.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Right now is Christian Pulisic’s moment.

That is an odd thing to say, in a way. Hasn’t it been Christian Pulisic’s moment already many times now?

Even in just the last 12 months, wasn’t it his moment when he starred in the Concacaf Nations League final? And when he scored those big goals in World Cup qualifying?

That’s to say nothing of all those big-hype moments when he electrified the soccer stage as a teenager. It already has been more than six years since Pulisic became the youngest U.S. men’s player to play in a World Cup qualifier, and soon thereafter the youngest goal-scorer in the men’s team’s modern history.

But this moment is different.

For the first time in the 23-year-old’s professional career, Pulisic no longer has to worry about the psychological burdens he has carried for so long as American men’s soccer’s number one phenom.

No longer does he have to worry about being a trailblazer in Europe, launching an era of young Americans going abroad by leaving Hershey at age 16 to sign with German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund — he had help from his family’s Croatian roots, which gave him access to a European passport that prospects from other backgrounds couldn’t get.

By age 18, Pulisic already was a big name on two continents. And at 20, an even bigger team, England’s Chelsea, paid $73 million to sign him from Dortmund — smashing and still holding the transfer fee record for American players.

Now there are big-time young Americans all over Europe: Weston McKennie at Juventus, Tyler Adams at RB Leipzig, Medford’s Brenden Aaronson at Leeds United, Downingtown’s Zack Steffen at Manchester City, and many more.

» READ MORE: In soccer and in marketing, Christian Pulisic is scoring big as the face of American men's soccer

‘The person side’

But even they still look up to Pulisic at times, as Aaronson said a few days ago. Pulisic knows it.

“I was also inspired by people close in my age that made it right before me, a lot of the guys playing in Europe, a lot of the American national team guys at the time,” Pulisic said the day after Aaronson spoke. “Whether it was Clint [Dempsey] or Geoff Cameron, [Alejandro] Bedoya ... I wanted to do exactly that, and luckily I got the chance.”

In doing so, he helped build a lineage that stretches from Hershey to Chester to Medford. Soon, a new arc of history will stretch from Brazil, where Bedoya played in the 2014 men’s World Cup, to Qatar this fall.

“Hopefully, that will just continue to go on and on,” Pulisic said. “And now [Aaronson] is going to inspire the next kid.”

Just as important, Pulisic no longer has to worry about shouldering the biggest burden of returning the U.S. men to the World Cup. A lot of players have taken the field for the Americans since their last World Cup game eight years ago, but none has been laden with more expectations and pressure than Pulisic — especially since the failure to qualify for the 2018 tournament.

Pulisic has never liked talking about that. So when he has made statements, they’ve immediately drawn attention, such as when he spoke openly last July about seeing a therapist in an interview for Chelsea’s YouTube channel.

Or when he told American reporters in January that when people ask how he’s doing, he tries to separate the soccer side and “the person side” of himself.

“The person side is even more important for me, and I’m doing all right in that sense,” he said. But the soccer side, he added, had “definitely played a lot on me, and mentally it’s been difficult at times.”

» READ MORE: Alejandro Bedoya leads Union protest against gun violence: ‘This ain’t American exceptionalism’

The man in the mirror

Pulisic has made statements with his play on the field, too. When veteran Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said before last November’s U.S.-Mexico qualifying clash that El Tri “has been that mirror in which [the U.S.] want to see themselves,” Pulisic wore an undershirt with the message “MAN IN THE MIRROR.”

And when Pulisic scored on Ochoa right after entering as a substitute, he showed that shirt to the crowd and the world.

Four months later, Pulisic effectively clinched the U.S. team’s qualification for Qatar with a hat trick in the final home qualifier, a 5-1 rout of Panama. As each goal went in, you could almost see the pressure lift from his shoulders in real time.

Now, at last, he no longer has to worry about returning his country to the sport’s biggest stage. He can just play, joining some of his closest friends on the most talented U.S. men’s squad of all time.

“Mentally, I’m in a good place, to be honest,” Pulisic told the recent gathering. “My biggest dream was to play in a World Cup as a kid — watching [the] USA in the World Cup, some of my best memories [were] just watching them. And now, you know, hopefully getting the opportunity to go and play in some of the world’s biggest games, I mean, I couldn’t be more excited personally, and I know this team is.”

His teammates get it, too.

“How he handles everything in general is unbelievable, and I don’t think any of us can understand that burden — because the truth is, he is a star,” Adams said. “We support him through it all. My hope throughout this all, and to see the quality that we’re having in our group now, is that he doesn’t feel the sole responsibility to do everything on his own.”

» READ MORE: The dream has come true for Brenden Aaronson, with Leeds United and the U.S. men’s soccer team

Biggest stage beckons

This doesn’t mean the pressure and scrutiny will go away. Far from it, and it shouldn’t. Witness the tempest after Wednesday’s summer-opening win over Morocco, when following the game Pulisic told ESPN that he was “not super happy with the amount of Americans here” in the stands.

Pulisic surely meant the amount of his team’s fans on a night when Morocco had boisterous backing. But it was an unforced error to imply that the Atlas Lions’ supporters weren’t Americans, too. The slip blew up on social media, and for a moment it overshadowed Pulisic’s outstanding game on the field.

Fortunately for him and the team, the blowup has mostly blown over now. On Sunday, attention should shift back from Pulisic’s mouth to his feet when the U.S. hosts Uruguay in a great pre-World Cup test (5 p.m., Fox29, Univision 65 and TUDN).

La Celeste’s squad features Manchester United’s Edinson Cavani, Barcelona’s Ronald Araújo, and Champions League winner Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde.

But for Pulisic himself, what’s in his mind likely will continue to matter. It might not be easy for him to stay in a good mental place all year, with his club situation at Chelsea unsettled.

If he can get a good resolution to that in the coming weeks, it should help him stay in a good place mentally when the new season begins. If that happens, there could be some very big dividends come the fall.

One step at a time, though. And the fact that Pulisic said so himself is as good a sign as any.

“Just looking forward to this summer, getting some games in, getting some rest and needed time off,” he said. “And then starting the season strong, and everyone knows that World Cup is around the corner.”

» READ MORE: USMNT rising star Yunus Musah always brings a smile, and a lot of skill when he plays