Christian Pulisic is keeping calm with U.S. hype growing around him
DENVER, Colo. -- Christian Pulisic sits calmly at the table, signing a few trading cards with his picture on it, the latest sign of his growing fame.
"It's really exciting, and pretty cool to see your own face on a playing card," he said in an interview with ESPN FC. "When I was a kid, I collected a lot of cards from all different sports. I still have a big book at home."
Pulisic is calm, of course. When isn't he calm? Even when he's hacked down by an opposition defender, his protests aren't enough to budge his demeanor from DEFCON 5.
But looked at another way, Pulisic isn't so much calm as he is grounded. The pressure of playing for Borussia Dortmund, one of the bigger clubs in the world, doesn't faze him. Neither does the responsibility of becoming the creative linchpin of the U.S. national team at just 18 years of age.
How is this possible?
The expectations that come with being the fourth-youngest goal scorer ever in the Bundesliga at age 17, or having the World Cup hopes of a nation rest on your shoulders, or even the stumbles would find most teenagers drowning in self-doubt. But Pulisic just seems to... know. Not everything, of course, but his awareness of everything that surrounds his chosen profession is acute. He knows that if he puts in the work in training, his talent will take care of the rest, getting him where he needs to go.
He knows he needs to unplug from the game every so often to clear his head. And he darn well knows to ignore the siren call of checking out what people are saying about him on social media. Simple wisdom perhaps, but it's knowledge that plenty of people -- nevermind players -- fail to heed.
"Obviously, making my debut at such a young age, people put a lot of pressure on you," he said at a promotional event for Panini America. "For me, it's just about blocking it out. I think I've just been able to stay balanced and my family has helped me through that. And with that, I just can continue to develop because I work hard every day.
"It all happened fast, and it's pretty amazing, but it shouldn't surprise me, because I feel that I've deserved it. I've worked hard for it.
"I don't read any of the outside noise or anything like that because for me I put the most pressure on myself. If I have that, then why should I look or listen to what other people are saying? For me, it just doesn't matter. As long as I'm happy with my own performances and I'm excited, then, yeah, everything is fine."
U.S. manager Bruce Arena sparked an Internet argument not too long ago by having the temerity to say that Dortmund "didn't invent" Pulisic. Some wanted to give Dortmund all the credit. Others were more content to spread the praise around. But considerable credit ought to go to Pulisic's parents, Mark and Kelley, both former players.
Mark Pulisic, who played indoors in the old National Professional Soccer League, has been at young Christian's side for many of his soccer exploits. It started out with Mark throwing mini soccer balls to Christian in the family basement. He coached Christian for a portion of his youth career and then followed him to Germany when the youngster first signed for Dortmund. After a tough day, Mark was always there.
"I still learn so much from him every day, stuff not even about soccer," said the younger Pulisic. "Just being a person, being my own man. Now we talk less and less about soccer. Of course he still gives me his feedback but nothing specific like before."
Mark has now returned stateside to take up an assistant coaching position with the USL's Rochester Rhinos, and Christian said that his cousin Will Pulisic has returned to the U.S. as well after a brief spell with Dortmund's U-19 team. So Christian finds himself on his own now.
"It will be tough having no family there anymore," he said. "But after three years, I'm really accustomed to the lifestyle. I'm used to it, so it's not going to be something I can't handle."
Of course, who and what he has become is a product of his own drive, performances and choices. While his father's presence helped him adapt in Dortmund, Pulisic did plenty to forge his own path.
"[I just had] the mindset of thinking about the bigger goal, and what you want in life," he said. "If you really think about that after a tough day, you think, 'Shortly down the road I'm going to make it to where I want to be because I'm going to make it through these tough moments.' It's all about thinking about that and just being strong."
Being strong is what the U.S. will need out of Pulisic in two upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday, and then in Mexico three days later. It seems mind-boggling that so much of the U.S. attack is now expected to run through an 18-year-old but there's no denying the fact that Pulisic is the most creative player in the U.S. pool, be it with a pass, off the dribble or in scoring. There has been some question as to whether Pulisic is better off playing more centrally, but it's one that doesn't trouble him.
"It's a different position, but the team has a different style as well," he said. "It's all about finding different spaces and just getting used to the team and the position you're in. In the end, it's not that much different. You're still playing the same game with the same objectives."
Yet as is his habit, he doesn't find the prospect of playing in one of the game's cathedrals, the Estadio Azteca, to be daunting -- though he lets slip that it won't be his first trip to the famed venue. He played there in the third-place game of a youth tournament he can't even recall the name of.
"There was maybe 2,000 people there instead of a full stadium," he said. "But I'm excited for it; I don't really know what to expect, but obviously the guys tell me about it. I'll be ready for it."
He'll do so with feet planted firmly on the ground.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.