Christian Pulisic Blueprint
Date Posted: 6/20/2017
Christian Pulisic's origin story has many potential starting points, stretching from bucolic Pennsylvania Dutch Country to a hard court in England to Barcelona's famed La Masia youth soccer academy. Bradenton, Florida, wouldn't be a poor opener, nor would Dortmund, Germany.
But let's start in Detroit, where Pulisic moved when he was eight years old so that his father, Mark, could coach the Detroit Ignition of the Major Indoor Soccer League. Hanging out with his father's players, many of them Brazilian, young Christian was shown moves and tricks, like a creative way to lift the ball when starting to juggle. He would then escape to the grassy backyard at the family's home and repeat the move until he had it mastered.
That grassy backyard is an idyllic American proving ground, like a hoop for a basketball player on an Indiana farm or a frozen pond for a hockey player in Minnesota. Which makes it all the more perfect what Pulisic's emergence has meant to soccer fans in the United States.
After decades of thirsting for a player who could be considered truly world class, after so many teases (Clint Mathis, John O'Brien, Freddy Adu) and so many good players who fell short of great, Americans now finally—finally!—have a player capable of making an indelible mark on the world's game.
Christian Pulisic is one of football's breakout stars as a key attacker for Borussia Dortmund.(Getty Images)
Pulisic, 18, is one of the best young players in the world, a key attacker for Borussia Dortmund and the most essential player for the United States men's national team heading into World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico on Thursday and Sunday. He is also the rare U.S. player whom countries that prefer their own kind of football would covet. Hewerton Moreira, one of Pulisic's early Brazilian tutors, believes that if Pulisic were Brazilian, he could make that country's 2018 World Cup team.
But he is, of course, more than all of that. He is a breakthrough, an exemplar, hope that America has turned a corner.
Sure, it is possible that Pulisic is an outlier, a one-off prodigious talent. But what if he isn't? What if Mark and his wife, Kelley, both former players at George Mason, have instead created a model for others, what could be called The Pulisic Blueprint? What if it could be applied to young talents across the nation, creating a spring from which flowed better American players?
To understand Christian's rise as a player, it is worth ruminating on a different anecdote from Detroit.
Mark Pulisic knew that many of the world's most creative players didn't grow up competing in soccer as we know it in the United States. South Americans spend their early years playing futsal, a version of the game (typically five-versus-five) played on a hard court with smaller goals and a ball with less bounce. Futsal players get more touches on the ball and must be quicker and more imaginative with it. For Christian to become an elite technical player, just learning tricks from the Brazilians wouldn't do. He needed to replicate their experience in full.
But there was a problem: Detroit didn't have futsal leagues.
Christian's father, Mark Pulisic, was instrumental in his son's interest and development as a soccer player. He is currently a coach in New York with the Rochester Rhinos.(Emily Byrne/Rochester Rhinos)
Given no other option, Mark founded the first futsal league in the Detroit area, running it on three basketball courts at the indoor facility where the Ignition trained. It was an audacious move, the creation of an entire league just to nurture Christian's abilities. "[Futsal] really improved my technical ability and my ability to work in tight spaces," Christian told B/R Mag in an email from Germany.
Then consider this: Within six years, around the time Christian made his first appearance with a youth national team, the U.S. Soccer Federation would make futsal mandatory in the Development Academy, its league of top youth clubs.
Mark had put his son ahead of the curve, and it wouldn't be the last time.
So what is The Pulisic Blueprint?
Sitting at a conference table in the offices of the Rochester Rhinos of the United Soccer League, Mark Pulisic rubs his face and sighs at the thought of describing all that he, Kelley and others did to get Christian where he is. He is also tired, having recently relocated to New York from Germany to join the Rhinos coaching staff. Mark and Kelley are also transitioning into a new permanent home in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and, well, moving is never fun.
As he talks, Mark's phone pings repeatedly. He hasn't removed himself from a group chat for the team of under-11 players he coached at Borussia Dortmund, and "these kids text all the time."
Mark's work in Germany also included monitoring Christian's progress, which by all accounts has been extraordinary. Last year he became the youngest non-German to score in the Bundesliga, and this past season he scored in a Champions League match against Portugal's Benfica (and added an assist), helping Dortmund reach the quarterfinals of that competition.
Later, he drew the foul that led to the decisive penalty kick as Dortmund claimed the German Cup. In all, he appeared in 29 games for one of the most successful teams in Europe, leading to rumors that Liverpool or another rich club would pony up £30 million to acquire him.
"I spent two-and-a-half years in Germany, and that was the right thing for Christian," Mark says. "But now, it is time for the next step in his development, not only as a player but also a young adult. That means learning to fail and make mistakes without Dad around."
Christian is still young enough that Mark clearly recalls the first step in his son's development, when four-year-old Christian joined a league run by Gunners FC, a club near Hershey. The games were three-versus-three with little goals, and Mark and Kelley coached Christian's team and the team of his sister, Dee Dee, who is 17 months older. No one would have tabbed Christian as a soccer prodigy back then. If anything, Dee Dee was the prospect. She'd get the ball and just go, so focused.
"He would look at people on the sidelines and wave at them as the game went on around him," Mark says.
Rather than urge him to pay attention, Mark and Kelley merely cheered Christian on, told him to go "have fun out there." Even practices were kept light.
"You'd schedule them for an hour, but they'd maybe last 30 minutes because the kids just couldn't pay attention that long," Mark says. "And that was fine. All we cared about was that the kids were outside enjoying the game."
By the time Christian was six, still playing in small-field games in a Gunners FC league, he had found his focus. He was the kid who ran down every ball, up and down the field, who blew by others with his quickness and duped them with his footwork, who scored goal after goal. His change in demeanor was not the byproduct of anything his parents did, however.
Christian told B/R Mag that he always felt like his parents "supported him just the right amount" and that they prioritized "making sure I always enjoyed the game." In that pressure-free environment, his talent bloomed.
Steve Klein, director of coaching for the PA Classics, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy club that Christian played with from age 11 until he left for Borussia Dortmund at 16, believes there are two kinds of soccer parents: those who tell a player what he did wrong after a game and those who just take the kid to get ice cream. "Mark and Kelley are ice cream parents," he says.
Steve Klein, director of coaching for the PA Classics, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy club that Christian played with from age 11 until he left for Borussia Dortmund at 16, tells B/R Mag his parents were "ice cream" parents.(George Dohrmann for B/R Mag)
There is a presumption that Mark, who played several seasons of professional indoor soccer with the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Heat before transitioning into coaching, was, in essence, Christian's in-house trainer, drilling him daily. One story has him constantly tossing the ball to young Christian's left foot so he would become a two-footed player, an act with Marinovich-ian undertones. But there is some nuance missing in that tale.
"I never once scheduled a training session with Christian, told him it was time to work on this or that," Mark says. "He would come to me or my wife and say, 'Wanna play with me?' and one of us would end up in the backyard, standing in front of this little goal we had, and he would shoot at us. I might say, 'Now try this one with your left foot,' but that was it. And I didn't have to do more because Christian was so driven that he'd get mad that his left foot was weaker and go off and work on it on his own."
When Christian was seven and entering second grade, the family moved to England so Kelley could work abroad on a teaching exchange. That was a pivotal year in Christian's development. He experienced the grip soccer has on that country, and it validated his own interest. He played in the youth ranks for Brackley Town, a semi-professional team currently in the fifth tier of English soccer. Most impactful was the time after school when Christian would escape to a field or hard court and play pickup soccer with local children.
“He would come to me or my wife and say, ‘Wanna play with me?’ and one of us would end up in the backyard, standing in front of this little goal we had, and he would shoot at us," Mark Pulisic tells B/R Mag. "I might say, ‘Now try this one with your left foot,’ but that was it."(Getty Images)
"Go have a kickaround. ... Big kids, little kids ... There was no coaching involved," Kelley said in an interview with SoccerParenting.com. "That was play, not soccer training. But he got a lot out of it."
As did his parents. It cemented their belief that unstructured play should be prioritized. In Michigan, where they moved after England, and later when Christian was 11 and the Pulisics returned to Hershey, he typically participated in no more than four to five hours of structured soccer (including games) a week. He also took three weeks off from organized soccer in the summer and again in the winter, leaving ample time to work on his game at home.
Even as Christian neared 12 and was dominating games despite playing two age groups up and drawing the attention of national team coaches, he was encouraged to experiment in other sports. "He loved basketball and still does, and it never crossed our minds to make him specialize in soccer," Mark says. "I remember Kelley and I walked with him as he played in a golf tournament around that time. We thought that was the coolest thing ever."
Still, there are some hard truths about Christian Pulisic that cannot be glossed over. The first is that he is an exceptional athlete, and that is surely because both his parents were exceptional athletes. "The genetics have to be there," says Dr. Amy M. Knab, associate professor of exercise and sport science at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina.
The "natural drive" that Mark and others assign to Christian is not incorporeal, Knab says. Christian likely possesses a genetic predisposition to physical activity. "On rainy days, when he couldn't play outside, he'd want you to throw the football to him over and over while he made diving catches on the couch," says Bob Lilley, a veteran USL coach and Pulisic family friend. "If he had 10 minutes waiting at the bus stop or wherever, he'd be juggling a ball or something. That's just how he is."
Adds Lilley: "If a player isn't a special athlete and doesn't show that drive early on, they are not going to be an elite player. It's that simple."
The good news is that Mark believes there are many kids with Christian's athleticism who might also have the drive. A lack of talent or motivation is not the issue, he believes. "I have always looked at it like we didn't so much develop Christian as we just didn't ruin him," Mark says. "Too many talented players get ruined."
How did that not happen to Christian?
At the PA Classics, Christian was told to "go out there and express yourself." It meant he could take players on one-on-one or one-on-two again and again, and no one would yell at him to pass. Klein and the other PA Classics coaches allow their youngest kids to play all over the field, letting them find their best position intuitively. "You watch our games, and no one is constantly yelling instructions, no one is joysticking kids around the field or the other behavior you see from some coaches," Klein says.
Christian also had no specialized training prior to joining U.S. Soccer's under-17 residency program as a 14-year-old. Before moving to Germany, his weight training consisted primarily of body-weight exercises like pushups and pullups.
"I saw parents who after the games would allow their kids only fruit chips and water," Mark says. "I am all for teaching kids good nutrition, but if after a game Christian got handed a bag of Doritos, I wasn't the parent who ran over and said, 'Don't eat that.'" The lesson: Removing any semblance of freedom or joy from a kid's life leads to burnout more often than stardom.
Christian spurned the academy team of the Philadelphia Union, a unit consistently more talent-laden and successful than the PA Classics.
"When you are the best player on your team but your team is not as good, it means you handle the ball more, you have to do more to carry your team and in the process, you are developing your game," says Richie Williams, an assistant coach with the U.S. men's national team who coached Christian, then 15, at the U17 residency program in Bradenton and in the 2015 U17 World Cup. "If it is a loaded team, that same player might be identified as a role player and never develop those skills."
Christian called the PA Classics "a good platform to excel," in part because he wasn't treated as more special than other kids. "It allowed me to develop as a normal player," he wrote.
Pulisic's ability and development as a player may lead European teams to more aggressively pursue U.S. soccer players.(Getty Images)
Today's young players also are aided by an environmental advantage unavailable to their predecessors. Christian was among the first wave of American kids able to regularly watch the highest levels of world soccer on television.
Goal TV, with its broadcasts of Spanish league games, emerged in the U.S. when Christian was young. He loved Real Madrid—Figo was his favorite player—and many of the moves he practiced in the backyard were cribbed from Real Madrid's Galacticos.
Lilley was in Hershey during the 2004 European Championship. While Mark worked at Lebanon Valley College and Kelley tended to Dee Dee, Lilley watched the games with Christian. At halftime of most matches, Christian would cajole Lilley to go outside and stand in goal while Christian took shots and mimicked the players he'd just seen play. Then, he'd race back inside so as to not miss a moment of the second half. Mark would record the games and watch them in the evening, and Christian would often re-watch the matches with his father.
Having Christian consume so much soccer was an unintentional addition to the blueprint. Mark and Kelley watched a lot of games, and so Christian did as well. But the benefit was immense. "Even at six he could watch a play and immediately say what was or wasn't a dive," Lilley says. "His awareness of the game was amazing."
There were things Mark and Kelley did to foster Christian's abilities that are difficult to replicate. Between 10 and 14, Mark took Christian to train with European clubs for brief periods, including three times at Barcelona's La Masia, where Lionel Messi and others developed as young players. Mark had contacts at the clubs, or friends who did, enabling him to organize what the family called soccer "vacations" so as to lessen the pressure on Christian.
The goal of those trips wasn't merely to showcase Christian's talent. "We wanted him to get used to being put in a new, uncomfortable situation and having to adapt, and to go places where he wasn't the best kid in his group," Mark says. That is what he would face later when introduced into the U.S. U15 boys national team, the U17 residency program and further down the line at Dortmund.
How does someone without Mark's connections replicate training trips to Barcelona and elsewhere?
In the future, they might not need those connections. If Christian continues to develop along his current trajectory, it will, in theory, lead European teams to scout the United States more aggressively, offering more trials and short training stints to young players. It would be similar to the way NBA teams shifted their thinking on European players after Dirk Nowitzki. Once it is proved that a star can come from new lands, the rush to find another is on.
"Over the last five years, more young players are going over to Europe," says Williams, an assistant coach with the U.S. men's national team. "This is a big country, and we are going to continue to draw athletes who might have played a different sport. … In the years ahead, I think it's possible we will not only develop some players as good as Christian but maybe some who are even better."
“I spent two-and-a-half years in Germany, and that was the right thing for Christian,” Mark Pulisic tells B/R Mag. “But now, it is time for the next step in his development, not only as a player but also a young adult. That means learning to fail and make mistakes without Dad around.”(Getty Images)
Fittingly, U.S. Soccer has its own Pulisic blueprint to follow toward that goal. Video clips of Christian at various ages are shown to U.S. Soccer's nine full-time technical advisors and some of its 150 part-time scouts. They are used to help scouts spot "the key predictors of future success," says Tony Lepore, a longtime U.S. Soccer employee who in March took on the title of director of talent identification. "There is optimal technique and initiative, and an ability to analyze in a split second, make a decision and then execute." Scouts also show clips of Christian at 14, when a growth spurt threw off his timing, a point in his development "when we needed to show a lot of patience with Christian," Lepore says.
On a recent weekend, the federation had 90 scouts watching players ages 12 to 19 at tournaments, training centers and development academy games, creating "over 4,000 scouting moments," Lepore says. That sounds impressive, but the quality of the people doing the scouting matters as much or more than the volume, which is why U.S. Soccer plans to institute a scouting licensing program next year.
Finding enough quality coaches to mentor the next wave of elite players remains a concern. "Improving our coaches is the single most important target we have," Lepore says.
But it is best, for now, not to focus on the work that remains. Better to revel in the fact that the United States has, in Christian Pulisic, a player who might finally erase the notion that American soccer is inferior. Rejoice that he cut a path and that his parents devised a plan others can follow.
And embrace the whispering belief that he is just the first, the prototype, and that American soccer is about to be transformed by what is coming next.
George Dohrmann is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He was on staff at Sports Illustrated for 14 years, and previously worked at the Los Angeles Times and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He has written extensively about MLS and the U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams.