Led by Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid defeated Juventus to become the first team to win consecutive UEFA Champions League titles.
DENVER – When you’ve been chatting with Christian Pulisic for a little while his shyness drops, he warms up and is good company, and amid the laughs and good humor and anecdotes it is easy to forget just how young he is.
He’s 18, this 5-8 speedster from Hershey, Pa., who has fit seamlessly into the top level of European soccer with German giant Borussia Dortmund. He’s two decades younger than United States goalkeeper Tim Howard and young enough to be head coach Bruce Arena’s grandson.
Yet with the next World Cup 53 weeks away the national team finds itself with the delightful reality that its brightest prospect might already be its best player, unfazed by the opportunities and possibilities that lay in wait for him.
“The biggest thing my dad taught me was to play without fear,” Pulisic says of his father, Mark, a former professional indoor soccer player. “I have done that my whole career and if I continue to do that then he just tells me the sky is the limit. Only I can control how good I can be, he tells me that all the time.”
Exciting as Pulisic’s upside is for the ever-increasing troop that follows the game in this country, it is not something the player himself says he thinks much about. For him soccer is a lot more fun to play than to talk about, and in a quiet room in downtown Denver on Monday the conversation flows easiest when it doesn’t solely revolve around the beautiful game.
Pulisic has more on his mind just now than World Cup qualifiers on Thursday against Trinidad and Tobago here and Sunday amid the boisterous and sweltering confines of Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium.
Such as tacos, which are tough to find in Germany. And Netflix, where he might get through an entire season of Prison Break in a week or two.
“I am going to go hang out with my friends and do what any kid does,” Pulisic says, looking ahead to next week, when 10 months of toil for Dortmund and the U.S. comes to an end. “I am going to go home and sit in my room and my living room and relax with my family. Eat some good food. Enjoy myself.”
Filled with ‘True love’
Yet don’t think for a moment that there will be anything less than the teenager’s typical full throttle approach as Arena’s Americans enter a critical phase of World Cup qualification. After four of 10 final round games the U.S. is in fourth spot in the CONCACAF region, which will send three teams to Russia next summer and a fourth into a playoff.
The U.S.’ 2014 World Cup campaign does not seem long ago, but as Clint Dempsey scored in under a minute and John Brooks headed the winner to give the Americans a winning start to that tournament against Ghana, Pulisic was just a 15-year-old with big dreams.
“I was in my cousin’s basement with the whole family,” he remembers. “We were decked out in U.S. gear and I was just so excited to watch and I was going crazy. I remember how much it meant to me, being an American. Watching that, I obviously had (ambitions) to play for the national team. And now I am here it still feels amazing.”
Indeed, whether parked on a couch or trying to unlock opposing defenses, Pulisic’s most impassioned moments seem to come in that period between The Star-Spangled Banner’s opening bars and the shrill of the final whistle. Against Honduras in San Jose this year, he produced a spectacular performance in a 6-0 victory, while not hesitating to loudly berate the officials for a pair of poor missed calls.
Away from the field he is neither noisy nor demonstrative, and teammates such as Geoff Cameron — who loves to torment Pulisic with practical jokes but has become a close friend — say that the youngster’s laid-back personality has helped him assimilate.
However, it is not hard to read Pulisic’s emotions and while he has a touch of teenage reserve, you can tell a lot about what matters to him by reading the look on his face.
He’d much rather discuss the magic of Dortmund as a city and a club than its tactical formula and lights up when describing the feeling of being surrounded by the most colorful and perhaps most passionate fans in Europe.
“You have to go,” he tells friends back in Hershey, 3,895 miles away from Dortmund. “Even if it is just once in your life.”
When asked about an April 11 bomb attack on the Dortmund team bus he reflects maturely about the city, whose mantra of “Echte liebe” – True love – has become a personal catchphrase.
“It just has to do with the whole city and how passionate our fans are,” he says. “True love, it just really shows everything about the club and how much football means to them, and how much they mean to us.”
Many youngsters in soccer leave their hometown and their homeland in search of a soccer dream and scarcely look back, becoming a product of their new surroundings. Pulisic does speak fluent German, with a Dortmund regional accent, but remains a proud Pennsylvanian and has taken steps to remain part of the social fabric back home.
“Obviously it is difficult with the life I have to live and where I am at,” he says. “It makes things tough but I stay in touch with all my friends from home and I just like to feel like a normal kid and talk to them like anyone else would. Hershey is very special to me, obviously being the sweetest place on earth, the chocolate factory and everything. It is a pretty small town and you basically know everyone that’s from there.”
It is the place he went back to for prom in 2016, an event that he looked set to miss when it conflicted with a U.S. call-up. Instead, it turned into perhaps the granddaddy of all prom experiences, a 36-hour whirlwind that went like this: national team training, car to airfield, private jet, race to home, put on tux, turn up fashionably but not obnoxiously late, have one heck of a good time with old buddies, stay the night, fly back to Kansas City, score first international goal in a 4-0 victory over Bolivia.
In the year since he has had other dates, with Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in the Champions League, Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the Copa America semifinal.
Like he always hoped for.
“Obviously you don’t know it is going to happen,” Pulisic says, pausing to sign a stack of trading cards for Panini, a collectibles company with whom he has an exclusive autograph and memorabilia deal. “But I always had this confidence inside me that told me I could do it because I know how hard I work. If you put in the work for it you can really accomplish anything. That is always how I have looked at it.”
Playing with no fear
From the outside it is easy to wonder how Pulisic makes sense of it all, how he comes to terms with all the paradoxes that have surrounded him.
The Dortmund resident and German speaker who remains as American as they come. The small and slight attacker who throws himself around fearlessly like a heavyweight.
The kid who collected trading cards and now has his face plastered on thousands of them, including a limited edition one that recently sold for $3,500, more than the worth of all the baseball cards he still has stashed in Hershey.
“I have been collecting cards of my favorite athletes for years,” he says. “To see my own face on a card is pretty crazy.”
Yet it doesn’t take long with Pulisic to see that his extraordinary young life is only unusual when it comes to soccer, and that the normal parts mean perhaps even more to him than whatever accolades he finds on the field.
When soccer is gone one day the affection for home and friends and simple pleasures will remain, which is probably why there is no fear of the unknown.
“Being without fear means going out, whoever you are playing against, and trying to make an impact on the game and changing the game,” he says. “Having fun with it and not being afraid, not of any player or any team.”
Or of any situation, however quickly it comes upon him.