Pulisic struggles in Champions League, and pressure is only going to mount
LONDON -- Twice in the span of six minutes, Christian Pulisic threw his hands to his head rather than in the air. Twice in six minutes, he was left grimacing in disbelief rather than screaming with joy.
These are extraordinarily early days for the 18-year-old American in just the second full season of his promising career. But if there is anything to divine from his so-far difficult September, including Borussia Dortmund's 3-1 Champions League loss to Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday night, it's that everybody should try to expect a little less from Pulisic, including Pulisic himself.
"I felt good, but I still need to do more," he said after. "I need to create goals and score goals, and I couldn't do that today."
He didn't play badly under the bright lights of Wembley. He started as an attacking left winger, exhibiting the pace and control that make him such a low, cutting threat. There were moments when he seemed close to making something happen, driving from the sideline toward the middle of the pitch with the ball tucked safely between his feet.
Unfortunately, he was a few degrees off all night, like a picture that's not quite level. In the 30th minute, already trailing 2-1, he worked his way into the box and, when he should have shot, tried to slip the ball across to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. A sliding Jan Vertonghen parried the chance away, and Pulisic dropped to his knees with his hands on his head for the first time.
Six minutes later, Pulisic was sprinting down the spine of the pitch, and Aubameyang attempted to return the earlier favor with a pass to the middle. It was just out of reach for Pulisic, who managed only to stab at the ball with the bottom of his boot, bouncing it wide. This time he ended up flat on his back, but his hands found his head yet again.
"Things obviously didn't go our way, and that's how the sport is sometimes," he said.
This campaign started so well for him. He scored 22 minutes into the Bundesliga season and added a beautiful assist in Dortmund's victorious opener against Wolfsburg. He didn't find the net in their second match, another win over Hertha Berlin, but he looked sharp and dangerous throughout.
Then came this month's brutal international break. It might, in retrospect, prove to be a bump in the road. It might also be the beginning of a speed wobble that ends in a confidence-sapping spill. He was roughed up in a humiliating home loss for the Americans against Costa Rica, and he didn't fare much better in the semi-disaster away to Honduras.
His return to Germany saw one of his least consequential club performances -- perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not. Dortmund dropped crucial points in a nil-nil draw to mediocre, 10-man Freiburg, failing to win against them for the first time in 13 matches.
And now the loss to Spurs.
Pulisic was asked after whether the weight is beginning to tell. "This is how professional soccer is now," he said. "Of course, it's a lot. ... I'm just trying to find the balance."
Last season for Dortmund, Pulisic started only 15 matches in the Bundesliga and six in the Champions League, averaging about 52 minutes per game in regular play and 60 against Europe's best. He was more than a part-time player, but the crush of expectation wasn't entirely on his shoulders.
His country has asked far more of him, and for the most part, he has obliged, scoring seven times in 18 national appearances. "I'm going to do everything I can to help us qualify," he said. But he can't continue to carry the U.S. on his own. (Asked about Alexi Lalas's recent "Wonderboy" barb, Pulisic shook his head. "I'm not going to lose sleep over what Alexi Lalas has to say about us. He can say what he wants.")
More worrying, Peter Bosz, Dortmund's new manager, appears as intent on leaning on him as Bruce Arena. The departure of Ousmane Dembele and a rash of injuries have seen Pulisic play nearly every minute of Dortmund's young season, including the full match at Wembley.
"I have to prepare myself to be ready for every game," he said. "It's going to be tough to play every single game, but I'm going to keep doing my best."
Late in Wednesday's contest, he sprinted deep into Spurs territory, looking lethal again, before he attempted a looping cross. It missed everybody and everything. This time, Pulisic punched the turf in frustration before he grabbed his head one more time, staring in anguish at the clear London sky. He can sometimes seem a man, but in that moment he looked far younger.
He looked about 18 years old.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.