MARBELLA, Spain — As he breaks away from a gaggle of Borussia Dortmund players flooding out of a post-dinner team meeting, Christian Pulisic looks almost a little embarrassed by the prospect of being put under the spotlight. Listening to the the 19-year-old contrast the incredible amount of attention and hope heaped upon him in the States with being “just a good team player, a piece of the puzzle” in one of the Bundesliga’s leading clubs, it’s clear where his preference lies.
“I’ve come into a bigger role with the national team, but the environment here [with Dortmund] definitely helps,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure it all out.”
In northwest Germany, Pulisic is still just a kid, a foreign teenage recruit with a slightly exotic background working hard on turning regular game time — he’s played 16 out of 17 league games and started four of out of six Champions League matches — into consistent end product in the shape of goals and assists.
Away from the hype that rages back home, he can concentrate on growing, safe in the knowledge that coach Peter Stoger and the club will evaluate his progress on its own terms. There’s no team to be carried all by himself, no hero status to live up to, no premature comparisons with the game’s superstars to be met. As a relatively small name, he’s still allowed to worry about the small things at Signal Iduna Park. Wisely, that’s exactly what he does.
“I set [myself] the huge goal of being a professional soccer player,” he says. “Now that I’ve kind of got there, I try to set smaller, short-term goals for myself. I look at certain things within in the game, certain points where could have I done better. I try to work on them throughout the week. I think about them, and I think what I want to do, how I can play my best game.”
Pulisic adds that he always watches game footage of himself to learn from his mistakes, and after some gentle prodding, he also reveals that he’s benefitted from watching how teammate Marco Reus makes his runs beyond the defence.
“I was running but I didn’t get the timing right. So I looked at players, looked at Marco, at how he would time his runs. I showed it in the last game [before the winter break] against Hoffenheim with a perfectly timed run and Shinji [Kagawa] played the ball through perfectly.” Pulisic scored his third goal of the season to complete the move and secure Dortmund’s second consecutive win under new coach Stoger, who was brought in to relieve Peter Bosz.
Pulisic jokes that Stoger’s Austrian dialect is hard to understand — “I have to concentrate really hard” — but there’s little doubt that the 51-year-old’s more pragmatic defensive setup has yielded some instant stability. Third-place Dortmund start the second half of the Bundesliga campaign at home to Wolfsburg on Sunday, confident that they will make the Champions League again next season and provide a serious challenge in the Europa League.
“It’s early, obviously,” Pulisic says. “We just got a new coach. But [the winter break] has given us good time in the training camp to learn some things and see how we want to play and figure things out. I think the start’s been good, and we want to continue to learn his style. I think the team is going to be ready however we want to play.”
Despite BVB’s failure to qualify for the knockout stages of this year’s Champions League and their disappointing run of results domestically, Pulisic’s form hasn’t really suffered. Gradually, his decision-making process is improving as maturity refines his youthful fearlessness. “Routine, experience: it all comes with the territory once you get older,” he says.
No wonder those close to him believe Dortmund, a medium-sized city with fanatical but also forgiving and realistic supporters, provides the ideal place to further his career. Pulisic himself seems too level-headed to eye up a move to bigger, more pressurised clubs before he’s fully formed as one of those rare attacking midfielders who can make the difference every single time they touch the ball.
“Of course I always dream big, but I don’t put a plan out for myself,” he says, deflecting talk of a move. “I try to focus on the next week and the next game every time, focus on what I’m doing right now and just to continue to improve every single day. If I do that, I should have a good future.”
Time is on Pulisic’s side. Reading between the lines of his thoughts on the U.S. national team after its World Cup failure, he seems to believe that “a new kind of player,” perhaps on a similar level to his own, for the game make a giant leap forward in his native land. Even if that were to happen, however, Pulisic will still be burdened by being the outstanding talent of his generation, the man destined to smash through U.S. soccer’s glass ceiling.
His unique combination of skill and marketability in the world’s biggest economy have established him as a key strategic talent for the biggest clubs. Liverpool, who already tried in in vain to sign him in 2016, and Manchester United are particularly keen to acquire his services in light of their American owners. Dortmund are certainly braced for more forceful attempts to lure Pulisic to the Premier League next summer.
His emergence as arguably the best-ever U.S. player will see him outgrow the confines in northwest Germany some time in his early 20s, at the latest. Right now, however, the time seems not yet ripe to trade in the comparative anonymity of being a bright puzzle piece with the Black and Yellow for the big-money, big-expectations frenzy of wearing a red shirt in the northwest of England.
When you’re 19 years old, you want the world at your feet, not its weight on your shoulders.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert. Follow: @honigstein