How Christian Pulisic became American soccer’s reticent and resilient trailblazer


Incomprehensible words bombarded Christian Pulisic day after day of the most difficult year of his life. He sat in the classrooms of German public schools, surrounded by children he did not know, and taught mathematics in a language he did not understand. And at times, years away from fame and several thousand miles from home, he wondered: What am I doing here?

He was there in the German Ruhr to play football, to transform himself from a shy Pennsylvanian into a precocious professional. But for several months in the fall of 2014, he could not. While he was waiting for his passport, he could only train at Borussia Dortmund and try to learn math in a foreign language – or was it science? At first he wasn’t entirely sure.

He sat for hours at both subjects and others. He trained in 90-minute language lessons. He could fight some of the most talented football teenagers in Dortmund’s academy, but he hasn’t been able to fight yet due to playing time. And so, in the darkest days in the modest apartment he shared with his father, his 16-year-old brain asked itself: “Why am I doing this? Will it pay off? What if I don’t even make the first team?”

Over time, he made his way to the answers. He broke through in Dortmund. He made $73 million with a move to Chelsea. And paved the way. “He paved the way for all young American players,” says Joe Scully, one of the many American teenagers who followed in Pulisic’s footsteps. When Pulisic arrived in Germany in 2014/15, only 13 Americans were playing in the top five leagues in Europe; by 2021-2022, this number has doubled to 26, while the average age of these players fell to 21.2 years..

The best of them now form the backbone of the US men’s team, which will return to the World Cup next week. And some credit Pulisic for inspiring their growing careers. He is called a “pioneer” and a “living legend”. Pulisic notes that he was not the first Yankee to cross the pond; that Clint Dempsey and others were pioneers before him. But no American has ever made such a leap or accomplished so much at such a young age.

And there is a reason for that.

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

“It’s not for everyone,” his father Mark says of the adventures in Europe. “It’s not for everyone.”

(Graphics by Mo Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
(Graphics by Mo Haidar/Sportzshala Sports)

“The Great Day That Changed My Life”

Christian Pulisic is the son of football players and the product of an obsession with football. When he was 7 years old, he was asked in the school’s “All About Me” questionnaire what he wanted to be when he grew up; no wonder his answer was “professional footballer”.

And what did he like to do the most? “to play football,” he scrawled in classic third grade handwriting.

And what was “best” about it? “I love football.”

By the age of 8, he could juggle the ball hundreds of times in a row. At his childhood home in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he watched European stars on TV, and at halftime ran out into the grassy yard to mimic their moves. He started young with Luis Figo. He later moved on to Lionel Messi, imitating and perfecting feints and scoring a goal in the backyard. He played with his parents or alone. He played in a structured environment or in an unstructured one after the professional third level games that Mark coached.

His parents’ careers – Mark in football, mother Kelly in teaching – took the family to England and Michigan. The whole movement, in Christian’s words, “was tough.” Each time I had to learn a new environment and meet new peers. But every time there was also football. In Tackley, the neighboring village of Oxford where Kelly taught, Christian and his band of makeshift friends played for hours after school.

He returned to central Pennsylvania at the age of 10 and began his ascent in earnest. He traveled the country in youth national team camps and enrolled in the US Soccer under-17 residency program. Each significant step excited the nerves, but the talent invariably suppressed them. On December 13, 2013, he faced the mighty Brazil at the U17 tournament in Florida. For 90 minutes he slipped in and out of the yellow jerseys, and after scoring in 4-1 win.

“It was a match where I really felt that I could play at the highest level, that I could do it,” he said in his book. The date 12/13/2013 is now tattooed on his arm. According to him, it was “a huge day that changed my life.”

“Dark Days” after a fateful decision

Around the same time, the phones started ringing and options popped up, and suddenly a gigantic solution loomed. On the one hand, Dortmund desired Christian; and on the other hand, for half the world and 15 years.

He hung out with his parents. He listened to his agent. Six months before the decision is made, Mark says, “He wasn’t ready.” The weight of the choice fell on his thin shoulders. Perhaps the lack of precedent also affected. There were no American flag bearers to consult, and Landon Donovan, who followed the same path, returned home without playing a single Bundesliga game.

But one day in 2014, Christian looked Mark and Kelly in the eyes and said: “I’m ready“.

He flew with Mark to Germany before his 16th birthday, leaving behind other family and many friends. He spent the first few days at the hotel, choosing an apartment. He entered a standard German high school. He felt welcome at his new club and energized by the opportunities – and perhaps everything would have been fine if not for the belated paperwork.

Pulisic moved to Germany on the basis that, through his grandfather Mate, he was eligible for a Croatian passport. It would be, by FIFA rulesallow him to enter a European academy at the age of 16 instead of 18. The problem for months, up until early 2015, was that his passport hadn’t arrived yet – and the only thing that has always smoothed transitions in his life, football, has been hampered.

Day after day he fought in Dortmund for respect, trust and progress. “I went through everything – both school and German lessons,” he noted in his book. “And then I almost felt like it didn’t make any sense because I couldn’t even play on the weekends.” So doubts boiled over. “There were dark days,” Mark admits.

But there was never a request to return home or surrender. Winter came, four months after his 16th birthday, the passport freed him and football freed him and “things just got a little easier”. Happiness has returned. And Pulisic’s rise resumed.

DORTMUND, GERMANY - JUN 03: Christian Pulisic of Dortmund celebrates scoring the second goal during the B-Juniors Bundesliga semi-final match between Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig at the Fussballpark Hohenbuschei on June 3, 2015 in Dortmund, Germany.  (Photo by Juergen Schwartz/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Christian Pulisic, 16, celebrates after scoring a goal on June 3, 2015 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by Juergen Schwartz/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Pulisic-inspired pipeline from US to Germany begins to flow

Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, and countless other peers watched the ascent live on Fox Sports networks and on television across America. Adams and Weston McKenney played with Pulisic on youth teams. Weston was a prankster who splashed empty water bottles into Pulisic’s ear. Now he and Tyler were climbing the ranks of youth football at breakneck speed…and Pulisic was playing and scoring in the Bundesliga.

Less than a year after he broke into the Dortmund under-17s while sitting in class, he received a message from the youth coach: The first team wanted him in training that evening. A few months later, he dropped out of school and set all sorts of “youngest” records – and allowed other U.S. teens to expand their dreams.

‘We all look up to him and say, ‘It’s possible,’ 18-year-old McKenny. told ESPN spring 2017. “We see him do it and we say, ‘Why can’t we do it too?’

By that time, McKenny and several American children had joined Pulisic in Germany. Their success encouraged players like Josh Sargent to join their group. “It helps you understand,” Sargent told Sportzshala Sports in 2018, “that maybe I can do it too.”

A support system has also been set up. Pulisic and McKenny, separated by a short trip to Dortmund and Schalke, saw each other weekly, including once on Thanksgiving. Pulisic also hosted Sargent, Hadji Wright, Eric Palmer-Brown and several others for the All-American meeting.

And since Adams made his own decision to go to Germany, to RB Leipzig, in 2019, he spoke to Pulisic and McKenny about their experience.

A few months later, Reina joined Dortmund’s academy and the lineup went live. The next wave of youth, like Scully, didn’t know Pulisic personally; but Scully knew Reyna, who knew Pulisic and began to accumulate his own experience. Scully talked to Rayna, his teenage friend from the New York City Football Club. He moved to Borussia Mönchengladbach at the age of 18 in 2021 and has been playing almost all the time since then.

“After seeing [that] Gio did it, Weston did it, all these guys played when they were younger,” says Scully, “I knew they would give me a chance.”

Meanwhile, Pulisic scored at Dortmund in 2017 and 2018. a child who is given a lift by his father at training to border star. And so, just as Reyna arrived to be the next Big Thing, Pulisic opened another door — and faced a whole new set of challenges.

Trauma, depression take their toll

Moving to London was kind of easyyer than in Dortmund, but definitely not easy. Months before, according to Mark, Christian spent a day at Chelsea and met with then-manager Maurizio Sarri. However, shortly before he officially joined Chelsea for an American record fee while starring in USMNT in the US, Sarri and the club broke up.

And so began a protracted struggle that exhausted the young man, who in a sense is still a child who wants to play.

Pulisic, from the day he entered preseason at 20 with a hefty price tag, has been pushing and pushing to prove himself to the managers who inherited him. And in the first few months he failed. His playing time…