MARBELLA, Spain — Christian Pulisic has told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview at Borussia Dortmund’s winter training camp in Marbella that the “devastating” pain of missing out on the World Cup with the United States will be with him forever.
“It’ll never really go away,” he said. “I don’t think [the hurt] is ever going to completely go away until I’m in a World Cup.”
Pulisic has, however, tried to overcome the crushing disappointment of failure to qualify for Russia 2018 by concentrating on his club performances with Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund.
“It took me some time, but I moved on, of course, and I think that’s really important,” he added. “If anything, it’s given me a bigger platform to just focus on at club level and do what I can here, without that in my brain.”
The most gifted U.S. player of his generation admitted he is still coming to terms with the burden of being considered the national team’s talisman and most important figure.
“I would say that the expectations some Americans put on me is too much,” he said. “But I don’t take it that way. I know no one means harm to me or wants to put too much pressure on me. It’s kind of what they’ve done or do in the past. A lot of countries do.”
Playing for Dortmund, by contrast, has afforded him a welcome degree of normalcy, he revealed: “I’ve come into a bigger role with the national team in the U.S., but I think the environment I’m in here definitely helps. Just being a good team player with this team, just being a piece of a puzzle is really important for me. I think that has allowed me to have some success with the national team individually. But yeah: I’m still trying to figure it all out.”
Upon his return from the disastrous 2-1 qualifying defeat in Trinidad and Tobago in October last year — a result that saw Panama and Honduras pass the Americans in the CONCACAF standings to reach the finals — Pulisic says he had to endure some light schadenfreude in the Dortmund dressing room.
“You know there’s always players who make jokes, of course,” he smiled. “Luckily, I wasn’t the only player from a team not to qualify. Well, not luckily, but you know what I mean. … I know that they have my best interests at heart. They are not being mean or anything. It’s normal.”
Pulisic insists that American soccer is not in need of a radical overhaul, despite its recent nadir. In fact, he’s generally optimistic about the national team’s prospects and the level of new players coming through as well.
“It’s not about completely restarting. It’s not like we have everything wrong or we panic,” he said. “It’s about developing what we already have into even better. I think if we continue to do that then of course players will come up and there will be new talents. I think if we do that and build on what we already have, we can really create something.”
But having moved to Dortmund aged 16 from his native Pennsylvania, the attacking midfielder also stressed that U.S. should learn from Germany’s systematic development of young players.
“I would say the youth systems in Germany have impressed me the most and how they grow their youth players into full professionals,” he said, adding that the U.S. “pay for play” system that relies on considerable financial contributions from parents “could be one of our problems” that stop the country from reaching its potential.
“I’ve been right there, I see it every day; I literally went through the [German] system. I think what I learned and how I learned from going through when you’re 17 until you’re 19 and fighting everyday with other players — you’re fighting for a pro contract, really — is something we definitely can learn from. It’s a system that I’d never really experienced in the U.S. I would have never got something like this, and I think this is the biggest reason why I’ve grown so much as a player.”
A further challenge the U.S. needs to overcome in its efforts to catch up with the main football nations is the predominance of other sports, with the NFL, NBA, MLB and college sport still leading the way.
“We have a long way to go,” he said. “I think what we really want to do is to create a real soccer nation. We want to have kids really wanting to play the sport. That’s something we’re obviously behind in, [in comparison with] a lot of other countries, because of the other sports that are going on. Once we develop new kind of players into a solid national team that the country will really get behind, soccer will continue to grow.”
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert. Follow: @honigstein