CHRISTIAN PULISIC IS NO SAVIOR. (IF HE WERE, THE U.S. WOULD BE RUSSIA-BOUND IN JUNE.) BUT HIS TECHNICAL MASTERY OF THE MIDFIELD AT THE RIPE AGE OF 19 SHOULD HAVE AMERICAN SOCCER FANS SALIVATING OVER THE NEXT WORLD CUP
THE WORLD CUP kicks off on June 14, and one of the greatest shames of the 2018 tournament is that Christian Pulisic will not be competing. Already the U.S.'s best player at the age of 19, Pulisic—an attacking midfielder for Germany's Borussia Dortmund—was the lone bright spot of the Americans' failed Cup-qualifying campaign, which left them out of the event for the first time since 1986. Pulisic's talent is incandescent. He can blow by world-class defenders on the dribble unlike any U.S. player ever. Had he been able to show his skill in Russia, there's no doubt: He would have become a mainstream American superstar.
Yet this summer could still be momentous for Pulisic. Multiple Premier League teams—led by Liverpool, but including Manchester United and Arsenal—have shown interest in buying him from Dortmund for a transfer fee that could reach $100 million, shattering the record for an American. In addition to taking advantage of Pulisic's talent on the field, the top European clubs view him as a way to build their brands in the expanding U.S. soccer market.
As SI's Grant Wahl discovered in 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. In this excerpt Wahl explains in granular detail how Pulisic plays his position.
CUT TO a low-slung, redbrick apartment 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, rather for what it isn't. 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, a native of Hershey, Pa. When Pulisic signed a four-year contract with Dortmund in early 2017 and his father, Mark, moved back to the U.S. after two years in Germany, Christian could have splurged on his first adult apartment in the gorgeous new glass-and-steel buildings on Dortmund's Lake Phoenix, a hub of nightlife. Instead, he chose a street with no bars and no restaurants, five minutes from his team's training facility.
That's not to say Pulisic's apartment is shabby. In fact, it's the dream dorm suite of any college freshman—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. He is renting, not buying, but he got permission from the owner to augment an indoor pool on the ground floor with colorful wall tile and a hangout area. Upstairs, the 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 see black and yellow everywhere," says Pulisic. "I've never seen a town that's so connected and so proud of their team and so passionate about the game."
Pulisic has thick eyebrows, a ready smile and a chiseled chin and cheekbones. In Germany, everyone pronounces his 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 16, earlier than he would have been able to with his U.S. citizenship alone. When he's in the States, though, Pulisic asks people to pronounce his name the Americanized way: puh-LISS-ick.
He 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. "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? That's what I think about now."
Pulisic's relentless pursuit of progress also applies to his positional play. Whether he's starting out wide (as he often does at Dortmund) or centrally (as he does more regularly for the U.S.), he has a visceral distaste for touches or passes that go sideways or backward. "My coaches taught me about taking the first touch positive, and that's what I've tried to base my game off of," he explains. "It's not just about figuring out how you can keep possession—there are plenty of players who can do that. It's about: What can I do to change the attacking aspect of the game? Every single play is about doing what you can to keep your defender off balance, so he has no idea what's coming next. It's about going toward the goal."
The last four years of Pulisic's life are a study in transformation. He moved first from his home in Pennsylvania to the Under-17 national team residency program in Bradenton, Fla.; then to Dortmund to live with his father; and then into his own adult apartment. He graduated from Dortmund's U-17 team to its U-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-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.
Of all the things that have changed for Pulisic, however, at least one aspect has not. "I've worn the same cleat size for the last four years," he says. "My foot has grown, but I haven't done anything about it." Pulisic wears size 8½ cleats—the Nike Mercurial Vapor, his standbys since 2011—that are a full size smaller than his running shoes (size 9½). "You feel like your foot is closer to the ball, like you have more control," Pulisic explains. "If you have a big gap between your toe and the edge of your shoe, 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. That task of the first touch becomes harder when you're under pressure from an advancing defender. One easy way to tell the difference in the levels of professional players—and of pro teams and leagues, for that matter—is in the quality of their first touches. If the ball clangs off 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 fan went so far as to post a YouTube compilation, set to European trance music, of U.S. forward Gyasi Zardes butchering first touches and losing possession. Zardes has enough speed, determination and finishing ability to partially make up for his control flaws, especially as an MLS player, but at his age (26) it's impossible to perfect a first touch. Like so many other technical skills, it is best learned between the ages of three and nine, not 20 years later.
Pulisic, for his part, began working on his first touch early with Mark, a former professional soccer player and now a coach in the United Soccer League. "It starts when I'm five," Christian says, "and my dad's punting the ball in the air and I'm bringing it down, working on my first touch with both feet."
First-touch work continues for Borussia Dortmund's youth and senior teams in practice sessions and on the Footbonaut, a $3.5 million machine pioneered by the club, which has its own building at the team's training ground. 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 a player, who then has to control them with his first touch, raise his head to spot the destination (an electronically lit-up square on the perimeter) and pass the ball into a target. Coaches dial up the speed and reps and track the participants' success rate. Sometimes they add a defender to mark the player in the center circle.
In a game, 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. As his Dortmund teammate Nuri Sahin says, "He's fearless. 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 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'll sometimes be more conservative and hold the ball, not least because losing it in his 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.
In transitions, an opponent 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, your first look always goes forward," Pulisic says. "You don't know: Someone could be peeling off and making a run forward, and you can slip a ball in." 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 ballcarrier. 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. And that attention to defense has helped earn him minutes on the field.
IF YOU LISTEN to Pulisic describe what he's thinking about during a game, the word he uses most often is next. When Pulisic wants to pass 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 which foot you're passing it to and which side of his body, so that he can take it into a positive area. 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 number 6s [deep-lying midfielders] are great at: They can 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 in beating defenders one-on-one. Witnessing him perform the soccer equivalent of "breaking ankles" on a basketball court—whooshing past seasoned pros with speed, guile and raw explosive power—creates a rush of pure adrenaline. You're left with a slack-jawed sense of wonder: Did an American teenager just do that? In Pulisic's confidence 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 MiGs in Top Gun.
When Pulisic has the ball and advances on a defender from a wide position, his head is up and he's observing his foe. "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 that. 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. "I'm not even really thinking about it. It 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. Like a baseball pitcher, he'll keep a defender guessing by mixing up his speeds. First, he 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. Unlike a pitcher, Pulisic can also disguise his intent by being dangerous using both feet. He's naturally right-footed—he would shoot a free kick or a penalty with his right. 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 as well. But he won't change the direction of his movement to favor that foot, he says. He's been improving his left foot since he was five. "Every day in training, I try to do as many [drills] with my left as I do with my right," Pulisic says.
Asked which skills he had before he went to Dortmund, when he was 15, and which ones he's done more to sharpen since joining the club, Pulisic pauses. "I always had a good dribbling ability," he says. "In tight spaces, I could maneuver my way out, 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."
We hear that word clinical so often in soccer discussions that it has become something of a cliché. 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 know what to do in the box to produce results consistently. What's the point of beating a defender one-on-one, bursting into the box, then making the wrong decisions once you get there?
Learning to be clinical, Pulisic says, "is so many different things. It comes down to your focus, and how perfect you want to make that pass or shot." In 2016--17, Pulisic's first full season in the Bundesliga, he studied the task of crossing the ball in the same way that a high school senior 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. "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 a driven one across the goal, right in front of the goalkeeper. You figure out whether you want it on the ground or if you want it a little higher. If it's higher—like waist-high—it's much harder to defend."
To demonstrate, Pulisic pulls up a clip on a laptop and breaks down a play from a Champions League game against Legia Warsaw in September 2016. Racing down the left side on a five-on-four break, Pulisic receives a pass in the box from then teammate Emre Mor. 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 cutback pass to Raphaël Guerreiro. Or he could send a cross into the prime space between the goalkeeper and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (in the middle) or Gonzalo Castro (racing in from the right). Ultimately, Pulisic aims for the space and not a 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 putting it in front of the goalie in a dangerous area," Pulisic says. "I didn't specifically see Castro. 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 was rather 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 much the same way that a pitcher has to paint the corners of home plate for most of his strikes. "It's 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 given shot. "Honestly, I don't even remember a goal of mine in professional soccer where it was just a rip, a power shot."
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 Pulisic played in that Copa América Centenario two summers ago, he didn't start any of the U.S.'s six games. By the time he joined the national team'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 higher level, chances are you'll keep the habit and not feel satisfied until you reach it.
Pulisic's production in the Bundesliga has already been remarkable. Yet if you ask him 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—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."
Pulisic has the chance to make it—eventually—because he knows he hasn't made it yet.
WITNESSING PULISIC PERFORM THE SOCCER EQUIVALENT OF "BREAKING ANKLES" ON A BASKETBALL COURT CREATES A RUSH OF PURE ADRENALINE. DID AN AMERICAN TEENAGER JUST DO THAT?
"IT FEELS NATURAL WHEN YOU START GOING AT AN OPPONENT," SAYS PULISIC. "IT ALMOST SEEMS LIKE HE'S TELLING YOU TO GO ONE WAY."
Masters of Modern Soccer: How the World's Best Play the Twenty-first Century Game.