U.S. prospect Christian Pulisic is making progress at Borussia Dortmund
The history of U.S. soccer is littered with prospects who were hyped beyond reason and fell short of reaching those inflated expectations. Freddy Adu's early promise was followed by a meandering career that now has him playing in the NASL. And while Julian Green's story is yet to be fully told, his career has certainly gotten sidetracked after scoring for the U.S. at the most recent World Cup.
Which is why when it comes to Christian Pulisic, there is a tendency to squeeze the handbrake on the hype train with a white-knuckle intensity. Pulisic is just 17 years old and it was only in the last year that he officially joined Bundesliga powerhouse Borussia Dortmund. But in a country that struggles mightily to produce attacking talents, Pulisic's attacking attributes are impressive and he has already begun to break through at the club level.
On Jan. 30, he became the eighth-youngest player in Bundesliga history to make his debut, playing the last 22 minutes of Dortmund's 2-0 win over Ingolstadt. He has since made four more appearances, playing primarily on the left side of midfield, including a start on Feb. 21 against Bayer Leverkusen. The good news is that Pulisic's temperament is such that he's not about to let any early success get to his head.
"I think anyone that asks me about Christian, the first thing I tell them is his mentality and his overall character is very strong. He's a very humble kid," said Steve Klein, who coached Pulisic when he was a youth player with Lancaster, Pennsylvania club, PA Classics.
"I think when things are going very well for him, he doesn't get a big ego. When things weren't going well for him, if he's had a few bad games, he doesn't get too low either. He's always pretty steady and has his goal in sight. That quality has really helped him out."
Not that humility should be confused with weakness.
"Pulisic is competitive in a way where he really wants to get better; he wants to do well every time he gets on the field," said former U.S. U-17 manager Richie Williams, who took Pulisic to the U-17 World Cup last year. "The other part is he listens. He's easy to coach and I think he's got a great attitude."
Those traits, as well as the fact that Pulisic already speaks fluent German, will come in handy. Pulisic was pulled at half-time of that aforementioned start vs. Ingolstadt, replaced by Marco Reus, and didn't feature in the game day lineup in Dortmund's past two competitive matches. Not that this is any reason for concern. It's certainly no disgrace for such a scenario to come to pass in a team boasting the likes of internationals Reus, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Shinji Kagawa.
"If you are proving a point at the age of  in such a big environment there, it shows that you have courage, you have confidence," said U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, back in January camp. "If you don't have that confidence, you don't survive in training."
Breaking through at a place like Dortmund also requires grading out at a high level in a wide assortment of areas. Pulisic is adept with both feet and his quickness and mobility allow him to evade opponents.
"For me, Pulisic has got a very quick first touch with the ball, he's able to get the ball past the first player quickly," said Williams. "I remember Tab Ramos having that sort of thing where he'd approach the player and he'd immediately be able to have that first touch by you and he was super quick. Christian, for me, is able to do that, but he'll go at you, take players on, be confident.
"He has that quickness and ability to run at you, get by you, and get the goal either for himself or distribute to his teammates."
End product has been another area where Pulisic has excelled. He scored 20 goals in 34 matches for the U.S. U-17s and added another four for Dortmund's U-19 team during the first half of this season. He grabbed his share of assists as well, including 13 during his time with the U.S. U-17s.
"I just think his vision is excellent," said Kline. "That was always his top quality on the field for us at the younger ages, just his vision of playing passes, seeing the runs to make, just his understanding and his instincts for the game, and then his vision of where to play the ball. Those are always very high quality."
One area of concern is Pulisic's slight, 5-foot-8 frame, and whether he'll be durable enough to withstand the wear and tear of training and games. But Pulisic figures to gain more strength as he matures, and the early impressions are that Pulisic's speed of foot and thought is such that he should be able to avoid heavy challenges. Having a slight frame certainly hasn't hampered the likes of Reus and Kagawa.
"Pulisic is very agile, also," said Williams. "He has a good understanding of the game, knowing when to be physical but also knowing when to get away from the physicality in a smart way so you're not getting beat up."
Williams recalled that he went to go visit Pulisic at Dortmund last April and then-manager Jurgen Klopp was effusive in his praise for the young midfielder, mentioning how comfortable and mature Pulisic looked in training. When Klopp left and was replaced by Thomas Tuchel, it could have resulted in Pulisic dropping down the depth chart, but that clearly hasn't happened. Pulisic has now impressed two of the game's top managers and has progressed to the point where he's seeing the field.
"In some ways you are surprised because there's not a ton of Americans who have done what Christian has done," said Williams. "But again, I see how highly they regard him at Dortmund, so in that way I'm not surprised because I know they were very happy with him in all the youth teams. He was scoring goals, he was playing all the time. Then you have the first team manager speaking very, very highly of him, then you're saying to yourself, 'He's definitely going to get opportunities,' which he has."
Perhaps it's time to ease off on the handbrake just a bit.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.