COLUMBUS, Ohio — As hype trains go, the one attached to U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic has already gone through a few sets of brake pads.
Everyone from Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel to U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann to Pulisic’s U.S. teammates have tried to temper expectations. Just last weekend, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard attempted to lower the volume surrounding the 18-year-old.
“I think we have to as a whole — as a team, as U.S. Soccer — we need to protect [Pulisic],” he said. “He’s one of these prodigies that comes around every 10 years or so. It’s great. It’s great that he’s playing minutes, it’s great that he wants to shoulder that load, but we don’t need him to be the savior. We need him to play well for us and do good things, but we need to protect him.”
The step-by-step approach of Tuchel and Klinsmann over the past year has been utterly sensible. Pulisic has been given increasing doses of playing time and responsibility, but at this point, the plea for caution isn’t working, especially ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier against bitter rivals Mexico. In fact, it will be a massive shock if Pulisic doesn’t start the match in Columbus, Ohio, which would be his first against El Tri at any level.
Ask Pulisic if he needs to be protected, and one can sense inner conflict.
“The competitive side of me wants to just play whenever I get the chance,” he said Wednesday during a roundtable with reporters. “It’s not like I want to hold back, but I understand what people say. At a young age, it is a lot, and this past year has put a big mental strain on me.
“I can understand what they mean, just taking it slower, whether it’s not being in every game or every tough situation like that, just to ease me into it. But a part of me thinks that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard because I just want to go out and play. I can see both sides.”
At this stage, holding Pulisic back seems dumb indeed, as he has blasted through almost every obstacle in his path. There has been the occasional stumble, such as when he was subbed at halftime during a 2-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen back on Oct. 1. But for the most part, Pulisic’s progression has been shockingly steep and linear.
He’s starting matches in both the Bundesliga and the Champions League for a side stocked with high-profile players. He has broken several youngest-ever scoring records for both club and country. Pulisic has seemed to take it all in without showing a shred of self-doubt or anxiety about the expectations placed on him, which at a club such as Dortmund are considerable.
Still, Pulisic is like everyone else. He both feels and has wrestled with the pressure.
“After, say, I don’t play one game or I don’t have the best game or something like that, I panic. I’m like, ‘What am I doing here? I’m expected to be so much better this,'” he said. “I talk to [my parents], and they’re like, ‘Christian, you’re 18. You have so much to learn.’ It’s just simple stuff like that. Or even if it’s nothing to do with soccer. I’m just over there in Europe.
“My dad’s been there with me, but it could be I’m just alone one day and I’m just not feeling good. I’m going to training, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I want to be with my friends, home, going to school, having fun with them.’ Or something like that. It’s just talking to them and kind of understanding that it’s a process. There are definitely hard parts, but the good parts are just way too good.”
One man who knows a thing or two about the hype that can be foisted upon a teenager is former U.S. international and Borussia Dortmund forward Jovan Kirovski. In 1992, he signed with Manchester United’s youth team as a 16-year-old and was part of the academy group that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. He left only because he couldn’t acquire a work permit. He was then transferred to Borussia Dortmund in 1996, where he was part of the side that won the 1997 UEFA Champions League.
The expectations for Kirovski were that he would become a star for both club and country, but he never reached those heights. Yet Kirovski’s experience hasn’t curbed his excitement about Pulisic, and he’s among those who think that for the U.S., it’s time to ditch the caution and stop limiting his minutes.
“Pulisic is going to have to handle that kind of pressure anyway,” said Kirovski, who covers the Bundesliga for Fox Sports when he isn’t working as the LA Galaxy’s technical director. “Yeah, we can’t get carried away, we can’t be saying he’s the next Lionel Messi, but he’s already proving that he can make an impact. It doesn’t matter how young he is. He’s deserving of being out there on a top team in one of the biggest leagues in the world.
“The hype? Yeah, there’s always going to be hype, but if he continues to make an impact, it doesn’t really matter how old he is or how young he is. He’s playing in front of 80,000 people on a world-class team against Real Madrid. He’s handling it pretty well.”
Pulisic’s progression at both club and the international level is a welcome development for the U.S., who ever since the start of this World Cup cycle have been searching for the next wave of attacking players. Right now, with Landon Donovan retired from international soccer and Clint Dempsey sidelined by a heart ailment, there really isn’t anyone else in the U.S. pool with Pulisic’s combination of speed, creativity and aggression off the dribble.
“They talk about being brave in the tackle or wanting to head the ball, but Pulisic is brave in that he wants the ball in tight spaces. He wants to attack players,” Kirovski said. “He’s very confident. That’s the thing that impresses me most. He gets the ball, and he goes. In our country, we haven’t had that. We don’t have players that are direct and take players on and commit players the way he does.”
Pulisic’s ability to strike in transition could be vital against a Mexico team that is expected to have more of the ball, even if it is playing on the road. He’ll have plenty of help, of course. Howard is right: With players such as Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore both operating close to their peaks around him, Pulisic doesn’t need to be the savior. But Pulisic will take on that role if needed, especially given the stakes.
“The game doesn’t really get any bigger than this one: U.S. vs. Mexico, Columbus, World Cup qualifying,” he said. “I understand that when I’m here. I can feel the energy in the city just training here. You see banners everywhere and just so much excitement. I’m pumped for the game.”
If Pulisic is at his best, it will be Mexico that will need protecting.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.