The 2018 World Cup starts on June 14, and one of the greatest shames of the tournament is that Christian Pulisic will not be competing in Russia. Already the best American men’s player at the age of 19, Pulisic—an attacking midfielder for Germany’s Borussia Dortmund—was the lone bright spot of the U.S.’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign, which left the Americans out of the world’s most popular sporting event for the first time since 1986. Pulisic’s talent is incandescent. He can blow by world-class defenders on the dribble unlike any American before him. Had he competed in Russia this summer, Pulisic could have become a mainstream American sports superstar.
Yet the summer of 2018 could still be momentous for Pulisic. Multiple English Premier League teams—led by Liverpool, but also including Manchester United and Arsenal—have shown interest in buying the young American from Dortmund for a transfer fee that could be worth around $80 million to $100 million, shattering the previous record for an American player. Pulisic’s potential is limitless, not just on the field but also off it, where the top clubs in Europe would love to use the preeminent American player to build their brand in the expanding U.S. soccer market.
As SI’s Grant Wahl discovered writing his new book, Masters of Modern Soccer—an analysis of the craft of soccer, position by position, through seven accomplished and insightful figures from the European game—Pulisic is also wise beyond his years about how he views his role on the field. In this excerpt from the book, Pulisic explains in granular detail how he plays his position of attacking midfielder.
The following is excerpted from Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World’s Best Play the Twenty-First-Century Game. Copyright © 2018 by Grant Wahl. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
It’s an undeniable fact: The United States has never produced a global men’s soccer superstar. Have there been solid American players good enough to qualify for seven of the last eight World Cups? Sure. Mainstay goalkeepers who’ve enjoyed long careers in the English Premier League? No doubt. Even a rare top scorer for a midlevel European team? There’s always Clint Dempsey and his 22 goals for Fulham in 2011–12. But for all the growth of soccer in America over the last two decades—in the popularity of the men’s and women’s World Cups, in the rise of domestic leagues, in media coverage of the planet’s most popular sport—we have yet to find a U.S. men’s version of The Chosen One. Which is to say, a true superstar, the best player on one of the top 10 clubs in the UEFA Champions League.
The reasons for this failure are many, we’re told, and mostly related to culture. The majority of our best athletes go pro in other sports, from American football to basketball to baseball. Our most popular spectator sport, American football, is more about following orders than about the individual creativity we see in the best soccer players. Soccer is a pay-to-play, middle-to upper-middle-class pursuit in the United States, unlike in the rest of the world, where the working classes produce the best players with the drive to rise to the top of a Darwinian global pyramid. What’s more, when it comes to youth soccer development, most experts will tell you the U.S. doesn’t have nearly enough qualified coaches at the vital early ages—and that the coaches who are in place tend to value strength and athleticism over skills.
But there’s another factor, too. The U.S. has produced teenage soccer players with the potential to be world class, but the all too common result has been prospects who thought they had “made it” by simply signing a healthy contract or joining a European club. Coddled by youth coaches and handlers, pumped up by the leagues, and showered with premature accolades by media and sponsors searching for the elusive American Soccer Savior (always that word, savior), these putative Chosen Ones decided they had climbed Mount Everest when all they had done was reach base camp. No example of the phenomenon is more sobering than that of Freddy Adu, who joined D.C. United at age 14 as the highest-paid player in Major League Soccer in 2004 and headlined a national television advertising campaign that year with Pelé. Though Adu showed flashes of talent for U.S. youth national teams, he never earned the trust of a coach at club level, where he played for 14 teams in 15 years, and was last seen riding the bench in the U.S. second division, a cautionary tale of blinding promise unfulfilled.
All of which brings us to a low-slung, redbrick residential building in a quiet neighborhood on the east side of Dortmund, a former steel-and-coal city in western Germany’s Ruhr Valley. The two-story structure, fronted by evergreens and a small lawn, is the home of an American teenage soccer star, but it’s conspicuous not for what it is, but rather for what it isn’t. The place looks entirely ordinary from the outside. The windows—two rectangular slits on each floor—are usually covered by metal shades that give the building the appearance of a military bunker. The dead-end street is, well, pretty dead. There are industrial warehouses, a modest health club, the administrative office for a grocery store. All things considered, the tableau could just as well be a bland suburb of Pittsburgh.
And that’s the whole point if you’re Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old Hershey, Pennsylvania, native who has emerged as one of the world’s most promising attacking midfielders for Borussia Dortmund and the best prospect in the history of U.S. men’s soccer. When Pulisic signed a new four-year contract in early 2017 and his father, Mark, moved back to the United States after two years in Germany, Christian could have decided he had arrived and splurged on his first adult apartment in the gorgeous new glass-and-steel buildings on Dortmund’s Lake Phoenix, a bustling hub of bars, restaurants and nightlife. Instead, he chose a street with no bars and no restaurants—and, truth be told, barely any neighbors at all—that’s a five-minute drive from Dortmund’s training facility.
That’s not to say Pulisic’s apartment is shabby inside. In fact, it’s the dream dorm suite of any college freshman—which is exactly what Pulisic would be in the spring of 2018—if that freshman had ample amounts of discretionary income and a cleaning lady who came every week.
“There’s a lot of space, but nobody had lived in this building for three years,” says Pulisic, welcoming me inside and giving me the grand tour two days before a game against Bayern Munich. Pulisic is renting, not buying, but he got permission from the owner to spruce up an indoor swimming pool on the ground floor with colorful tile work on the wall and a poolside hangout area. Upstairs, the main living room has enough space to toss 20-yard passes with an American football and features a pool table, a folded-up ping-pong table, and a big-screen TV for watching soccer, NFL, and NBA games. The walls are filled mostly with blown-up photographs of Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park, Germany’s largest stadium, where more than 81,000 adoring fans cheer on their team in a roiling sea of black and yellow.
Once again: Think Pittsburgh. “You go out into the city and you just see black and yellow everywhere,” says Pulisic. “They’re wearing jerseys, jackets. I’ve never seen a town that’s so connected and so proud of their team and so passionate about the game. That’s what makes Dortmund stand out so much. The weather isn’t very good, but it’s just a great town to live in. It’s really known for the soccer.”
Pulisic has thick eyebrows, a ready smile, and, now that he has graduated from adolescence into adulthood, a chiseled chin and cheekbones; if there’s ever a movie made about his life, he might be played by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. In Germany, everyone pronounces Pulisic’s last name POOL-uh-sitch, the way it would be in Croatia, the birthplace of his grandfather Mate. That lineage allowed Christian to acquire a Croatian passport and start playing for Dortmund at age 16, earlier than he would have been able to with his U.S. citizenship alone. When he’s in the United States, Pulisic asks people to pronounce his name the Americanized way: puh-LISS-ick.
Pulisic realizes he hasn’t made it to the pinnacle yet just because he got to this point in his career. He has to do more. With the maturity of someone 10 years older, he’s studying the craft of an attacking midfielder. “Now that I’m at a higher level and playing in the Bundesliga, you think of it more as your job,” Pulisic says. “How can I become the best? How can I take a certain aspect of the game and improve that to make myself better overall? Of course, we play because we always love the game. But it’s about figuring out what you need to take that next step. That’s what I think about now.”
In a case of perfect symmetry, Pulisic’s bedrock philosophy—a relentless pursuit of progress—also applies to how he plays his position on the field. Whether he’s starting out wide (as he often does at Dortmund) or centrally (as he does more regularly for the United States), Pulisic has a visceral distaste for touches or passes that go sideways or backward. “My coaches taught me a lot is about taking the first touch positive, and I think that’s what I’ve tried to base my game off of,” he explains. “A big part of it is being aggressive. It’s not just about getting the ball and figuring out every time how you can keep possession, because there are plenty of players who can do that. That’s just not how I view my performances. It’s about: What can I do to change the game and the attacking aspect of the game? That’s how I look at it every time. Every single play is just doing what you can to keep your defender off balance so he has no idea what’s coming next. It’s being positive and going towards the goal because that’s my position. I’m an attacking midfielder.”
The last four years of Pulisic’s life are a study in constant transformation. He moved first from his home in Pennsylvania to the U.S. Under-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Florida; then to Dortmund to live with his father; and then into his own adult apartment. He graduated from Dortmund’s Under-17 team to its Under-19 team to its first team. He grew, physically and emotionally, from a child to a man. If you Google “2013 Nike Friendlies” and watch the highlights of Pulisic’s U.S. Under-17 team beating Brazil 4–1—the day he realized he could compete against anyone in the world—you’ll see a talented but still callow 15-year-old boy.
Of all the things that have changed for Pulisic, however, at least one surprising aspect has not. “The funny thing is I’ve worn the same cleat size for the last, like, four years,” he says. “I feel like my foot has definitely grown, but I haven’t done anything about it.” Pulisic wears size 8.5 soccer cleats—the Nike Mercurial Vapor, his standbys since 2011—that are a full size smaller than his running shoes (size 9.5). Yet his cleats aren’t painful to wear, he says. He wants them that way. “You just feel like your foot is closer to the ball, like you have more control over it,” Pulisic explains. “If you have a big gap between your toe and the edge of your shoe, I feel like it’s not nearly as comfortable when you’re touching the ball.”
The first touch is the foundation of an attacking midfielder’s relationship with the ball. You have to learn how to control the ball with your feet, as if they were hands, supple and cushioning, welcoming passes of varying weights without a second thought and setting up your next action. The task of a first touch becomes harder when you’re under the pressure of an advancing defender. One easy way to tell the difference in the levels of professional players—and teams and leagues, for that matter—is in the quality of their first touches. If the ball clangs off players’ feet and legs with any regularity, you’re probably not watching a Champions League knockout game.
The knock on American players is that their first touch isn’t, shall we say, cultured. During the 2016 Copa América Centenario, one snarky fan went so far as to post a YouTube compilation video—set to European trance music, like so many soccer highlight videos—of the U.S. forward Gyasi Zardes butchering first touches and losing possession of the ball. To his credit, Zardes has enough speed, determination, and finishing ability to at least partially make up for his control flaws, especially as an MLS player, but, at his age (26) as a professional, it’s impossible to perfect a first touch. Like so many other technical skills, it is best learned between the ages of 3 and 9, not 10 or 20 years later.
Pulisic, for his part, began working on his first touch at an early age with his father, Mark, who was a professional soccer player and is now a coach. It starts when I’m 5 years old,” Christian says, “and my dad’s punting the ball in the air and I’m just bringing it down and working on my first touch with both feet.” Mark emphasizes that he wanted sports—including sports other than soccer—to be fun for Christian at that age, but that didn’t prevent the youngster from learning the fundamentals.
First-touch work continues for Borussia Dortmund’s youth and senior teams in regular practice sessions and on the Footbonaut, a $3.5 million machine pioneered by the club that has its own building at the team’s training ground. (Mark Pulisic oversaw the Footbonaut during his two years as a Dortmund youth team coach.) The Footbonaut takes Teutonic efficiency to its fußball extremes. Built as an apartment-sized, cube-shaped cage, the machine fires balls from a range of 360 degrees at different speeds and trajectories toward the player, who then has to control the ball with his first touch, raise his head to spot the destination (an electronically lit-up square on the perimeter), and pass the ball into the target. Coaches dial up the speed and reps and keep score of the participants’ success rate. Sometimes they add a defender to mark the player in the center circle.
In a game situation, the first touch is never an end in itself. “As you get older, it’s about the movements,” Pulisic says. “It’s knowing which direction to take your first touch, and not just receiving it. A lot of times it’s not about stopping the ball under your foot and not having any options after that. It’s putting yourself in a good position for what you want to do with it.” Pulisic, in particular, has a talent for using his first touch as an attacking weapon to slice through defenses. As his teammate Nuri Sahin says, “He’s fearless. He has so much speed, but what I like the most is his first touch. When he gets the ball, his first touch opens him a huge space even if there is no space.”
So much of modern soccer is about utilizing space and pressure. Pulisic has learned that he can’t take an attacking first touch all the time. If he’s in a central position deeper on the field, he says, he’ll sometimes be more conservative and hold the ball, not least because losing it in your own end can quickly lead to a goal by the other team. But if he’s higher up the field, his attack-first mentality is fully engaged, whether Dortmund has advanced the ball from its own half or has won the ball in the opposing end using its notorious defensive pressure. Dortmund’s pressing requires every player, including forwards and attacking midfielders like Pulisic, to work together in unison. If one player slacks off, the pressure fizzles. The commitment is exhausting and requires peak fitness and concentration, but the rewards can be enormous.
In transitions, the team that has just lost the ball is often unbalanced and exposed. It’s up to Pulisic and his teammates to take advantage of the opening as soon as possible. “When my team wins the ball or when I win the ball, your first look always goes forward,” Pulisic says. “That’s something our coach here in Dortmund [Thomas Tuchel at the time] stresses a lot. You don’t know: Someone could be peeling off and making a run forward, and you can slip a ball in. Anytime you can get to the goal as quick as you can, it catches the other team off guard, especially when they’ve just lost the ball.” On the other hand, when Dortmund loses the ball, Pulisic has to make a decision in defensive transition. If he’s close to the ball, he says, he’ll put pressure on the ball carrier. If he’s farther away, he’ll retreat to defend a space. That’s modern soccer: Even as an attacking midfielder, Pulisic will always have defensive responsibilities. His attention to defense has helped earn him minutes on the field.
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If you listen to Pulisic describe what he’s thinking about during a game as he plays the position of attacking midfielder, the word he uses most often is next. When Pulisic wants to pass the ball to a teammate, he takes into account several factors, chief among them what the player will do upon receiving the ball. “A lot of things go into it,” Pulisic says. “It’s the weight of the pass. It’s which foot you’re passing it to and which side of his body so that he can take it into a positive area. So it’s a lot of thinking about what he has to do with the ball next. And then it’s all about the direction and speed of the pass. There are so many types of passes that are about weight, and that’s what some of the best No. 6s [deep-lying midfielders] in the world are great at: They can just ping [the ball] across the field and hit it on a dime on the guy’s left foot. That’s a skill I’m definitely trying to develop, but I’m not there yet.”
One aspect of Pulisic’s game in which he has nearly reached full maturity is beating defenders one-on-one with the ball. Witnessing him perform the soccer equivalent of “breaking ankles” on a basketball court and whoosh past seasoned European pros with a combination of speed, guile, and raw explosive power is a rush of pure adrenaline for anyone who’s watching in the stadium or on TV. You’re left with a slack-jawed sense of wonder: Did an American teenager just do that? In Pulisic’s confidence on the field and even in his appearance—maybe it’s that high-and-tight haircut—he’s a postmillennial version of Tom Cruise’s Maverick taking out the MiGs in Top Gun. You half-expect Pulisic to wear a bomber jacket, drive a motorcycle, and play beach volleyball bare-chested in jeans in his spare time.
When Pulisic has the ball and advances on a defender from a wide position, his head is up and he’s observing his foe, processing what he sees millisecond by millisecond. “A lot of times you see which way he’s forcing you and which way his body’s turned,” Pulisic says. “If you can get him to swivel his hips and wrong-foot him, that’s the first step in taking someone on. You want to move the ball side to side and see what he’s going to do with it. Once he starts moving and switching sides, that’s when you have him. Use your pace and change direction and go.” Should Pulisic stay out wide or cut inside? Sometimes he knows what he’ll do from the moment he receives the ball. On other occasions, his decision depends on the defender. “If he’s giving you enough space to the inside and he’s cutting off that endline because he doesn’t want you to play a ball in, then you take it inside and explode by him,” Pulisic explains. “When I’m playing, I’m not even really thinking about it. It kind of feels natural when you start going at him. It almost seems like he’s telling you to go one way.”
Yet Pulisic doesn’t want to be too predictable in one-on-one situations. Like a baseball pitcher, he’ll keep a defender guessing by mixing up his speeds. First, Pulisic might cut inside and turn on the jets. But when his opponent tries to catch up, Pulisic will stop in his tracks as his hapless foil overpursues and Pulisic moves in a different direction, the bamboozle complete. Unlike a baseball pitcher, Pulisic can also disguise his intent by being dangerous using both feet. He’s naturally right-footed, and he says he would shoot a free kick or a penalty with his right foot. If he has a lot of space and a simple shot that he needs to hit with power, he’ll probably go with his right peg. But he won’t change the direction of his movement to favor his right foot, he says. That’s why he has spent so much time improving his left foot since he started working on it with his father as a five-year-old. “Every day in training, even if it’s just a simple passing drill, I try to do as many with my left as I do with my right,” Pulisic says.
If you ask Pulisic which skills he had before he went to Dortmund at age 15 and which ones he has done more to acquire since joining the club, he pauses to flash back in time in his head for a moment. “I think I had a good dribbling ability always, starting even with youth national teams,” he says. “In tight spaces, I could kind of maneuver my way out of them and dribble, and I was always creative. A big part of my game this season has been trying to become more clinical—in front of goal, crossing, passing. I know I still have a lot of work to do, and that’s what people criticize the most. But one of the toughest parts of soccer is bringing a play to the end and finding the right pass, taking the right shot, or whatever it is.”
We hear the word clinical so often in soccer discussions that it has become something of a cliché. But for Pulisic the term comes down to efficiency in the most important part of the field, the opposing penalty box. The hardest thing to do in soccer is to score a goal, to have the judgment to know what to do in the box to produce results as consistently as possible. What’s the point of beating a defender one-on-one to burst into the box if you make the wrong decisions on passing or shooting once you get there?
Learning to be clinical, Pulisic says, “is so many different things. It just comes down to your focus in the end, and how perfect you want to make that pass or shot and just make it easier on your teammates and for yourself when you have to finish in the right times.” In his first full season in the Bundesliga, Pulisic studied the task of crossing the ball in the same way a high school senior (which is what he would have been in the United States at the time) might study calculus. Some of it was fairly basic: Once you beat a player, pull your head up to scan the landscape for crossing targets.
But there’s a more advanced level to crossing, too, he says. “Something I’m learning now,” Pulisic explains, “is when you look up and you don’t have a lot of options there. You can whip in a ball at the proper speed, whether it’s a chipped ball to the back post or it’s just a driven one across the goal, right in front of the goalkeeper. Those are just very tough to defend. You figure out whether you want it on the ground or if you want it a little higher. If it’s higher, like waist-height, it’s much harder to defend.”
To explain, Pulisic breaks down a play from a Champions League game against Legia Warsaw. Racing down the left side on a five-on-four break, Pulisic receives a pass in the box from Emre Mor. His head up, Pulisic knows he’s going to hit a first-time cross with his left foot—this is no occasion for futzing around with multiple touches and losing the advantage—but he doesn’t see an obvious target. Three Dortmund teammates are in the box. He could dink a short cut-back pass to Raphaël Guerreiro. Or he could send a cross into the prime space between the goalkeeper and Aubameyang (in the middle) or Gonzalo Castro (racing in from the right). Ultimately, Pulisic decides to aim for the space and not a particular player. His cross shadows the line of the six-yard box waist-high. Aubameyang is defended well and can’t reach the ball, but Castro beats his man to the cross for an easy finish. “This is all about just putting it in front of the goalie in a dangerous area,” Pulisic says. “I didn’t specifically see Castro on this play. But you know you’ve got runners in the box.”
When it comes to clinical shooting, Pulisic explains, one of the best tips he ever received is something simple: Put the ball on target. If your shot has no chance to go in the goal, you can’t score. That said, you also have to be precise in your accuracy as a shooter, in much the same way that a baseball pitcher has to paint the corners of home plate for most of his strikes. The size of the goal—eight feet high by eight yards wide—has been the same since it was codified by the English Football Association in 1882. How much taller are goalkeepers today than they were in the 19th century? Well, one recent study revealed the average height of male army conscripts in the Netherlands—the home of 6-foot-5 goalkeeping great Edwin van der Sar—had grown by 8.3 inches from 1858 to 1997. The height increase of human beings over the last century was what led Major League Soccer to have serious talks about making the goals larger before the league started in 1996.
In the end, MLS kept its goals the same size, due to entreaties from FIFA, but the fact remains that 21st-century goalkeepers make it extremely hard to find open space in the goal for shooters. “It’s just finding the corners and sides of the goal, taking what the goalie’s giving you,” says Pulisic, noting that placement is often more important than power on a shot. “Honestly, I don’t even remember a goal of mine yet in professional soccer where it’s just been a rip, a power shot, which is kind of interesting to think about. But you look at Messi’s two goals yesterday, and I don’t know how his little body gets so much power on his shots. It’s pretty incredible.”
On the previous day, Lionel Messi was at his imperious best in Barcelona’s 3–2 win at Real Madrid, dominating the world’s biggest rivalry game and scoring two goals, his second one coming as the match-winner in the 92nd minute to silence the Estadio Bernabéu. Pulisic watched every second. He has had a special connection to the city of Barcelona ever since his first trip there at age 7 with his family and three separate training stints at FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, starting at the age of 10. While watching El Clásico—or any other game, for that matter—Pulisic doesn’t digest the scene the same way most viewers might.
“You kind of put yourself in their shoes and you think, like, OK, if I’m in that situation, what could I do? You see what he does and then you’re thinking like, Was it a good play? What could I have done to really open that play up more or have done a little better? It’s just watching them and learning. Learning from some of the greats. Messi showed his magic yesterday, and he’s at another level than any player in the world. But I love watching a lot of the Barça players—actually that entire midfield, including Iniesta and Busquets—and what they do and how simple they play. And I love watching some of the other players around Europe, like [Paris Saint-Germain’s] Neymar and [Chelsea’s Eden] Hazard, because I do want to kind of model myself after their games.”
It’s all coming so fast these days. When a gifted teenager makes The Leap, rising from complementary player to star, improvement can happen in a matter of weeks and months, not years. When Christian Pulisic played in the Copa América Centenario in June 2016, he didn’t start any of the U.S.’s six games. By the time he joined the U.S. camp five months later in Columbus, he was the best player on the team. Getting better feeds on itself. If you realize hard work can take you to a new level, chances are you’ll keep the habit and not feel satisfied until you reach that level.
Pulisic’s production in the Bundesliga has already been remarkable. Yet if you ask Pulisic to be honest about the aspects of his game that need work, you had better be prepared to listen for a while.
“My crossing and finishing ability,” he says. “Being consistent and clinical in those situations, and specifically where to put the ball on passes and shots, and how hard to hit it, and the right direction. Growing as a player, becoming stronger, working on my dribbling and decision making in the right times. When to go by a player, or to make a simple pass, or to just pick your head up and find a ball in behind, like I did for Clint and I do for Aubameyang all the time.”
Pulisic has the chance to make it (eventually) because he knows he hasn’t made it yet.