SANTA MONICA, Calif. — It didn’t take long for Christian Pulisic to find his feet at both the club and international level. Finding his voice is proving more of a process.
There is no doubt that Pulisic is the face of the U.S. men’s national team. By the end of the World Cup qualifying cycle, he was the player around whom the nationsl team’s attack was based. In the nine international matches he played in 2017, Pulisic was either directly or indirectly involved in 13 of 17 goals scored.
If that sounds like an immense burden to put on a 19-year-old, well, it is.
“It’s a lot sometimes, they like to put this label on you,” Pulisic told ESPN FC on Monday. “I’m just trying to live in the moment and do the best I can for myself and for my teammates, and that’s all I can really focus on.”
Once Pulisic completes his club commitments with Borussia Dortmund following Tuesday’s friendly against LAFC, he’ll rejoin the U.S. for next Monday’s match against Bolivia. It will mark his first involvement with the U.S. since the World Cup qualifying debacle concluded last October, and it will be an opportunity for him to grow into more of a leadership role.
A big NBA fan, Pulisic said he looks to LeBron James for inspiration.
“[James] is just the best, the way he carries himself on and off the court,” Pulisic said during an earlier roundtable with reporters. “What he’s done for so many years, it’s just inspiring, so it’s pretty crazy how he keeps it up all this time.”
It’s a role that doesn’t come easily to Pulisic. By his own admission, he’s “not the most outgoing person in the world.” But leaders can emerge in a variety of ways. There are quiet ones as well as more boisterous, vocal types. It is the former category that Pulisic falls into, one who sets an example in training in terms of what needs to be done every day. But one gets the sense that on a U.S. team whose average age is 22, Pulisic is ready to impart some wisdom.
“I’m going to be there for all the younger players that are going through similar things as me,” he said during the roundtable. “Of course, I’m young, but I do have a lot of caps. I’m going to try to be there for all the guys and I’m ready to do whatever it takes to help. “Just informing them about how CONCACAF can be, about some of the games, about how it’s not just always about who plays the best football, it’s about who wants it the most and just how to fight and do whatever it takes. That’s definitely what I learned in qualifying.”
A depth of experience is a trait most leaders have, and Pulisic has already accumulated a few professional scars, as well as some notable successes. He became more of a regular presence in the Dortmund lineup this season, amassing more minutes and appearances than when compared to 2016-17. But it was a season with considerable ups and downs, as Dortmund suffered through an inconsistent campaign that saw manager Peter Bosz fired in midseason, though the club ultimately recovered to qualify for a spot in the Champions League. The failure of the U.S. team to reach the World Cup had its effect as well.
“Yeah, [Pulisic] was down, really down,” Dortmund teammate Nuri Sahin said regarding how World Cup qualifying impacted Pulisic. “He’s more hungry now and I’m sure he will lead the U.S. to many tournaments.”
Sahin added that he has been impressed by what he has seen from Pulisic, especially given that this was his first year with the club in which is father, Mark, wasn’t present.
“At such a young age to play around 100 games in professional football is not easy. I know this from my time,” Sahin told reporters following a training session at UCLA. “As a human being, it’s his first year in Europe far away from family, but he has adapted very well to the German lifestyle. He’s one of us. It’s good for his development. What I expect is he has a bright future and the U.S. men’s national team can be happy to have a player like that.”
Sahin can relate to what Pulisic is going through on other levels as well. The Turkey international came up through Dortmund’s youth system, and won a Bundesliga title under now-Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. That got the attention of Real Madrid and Sahin later moved there, though he never settled and had a loan spell with Liverpool before returning to Dortmund.
“Every football player has his dreams and one of my dreams was to play for Real Madrid because not many players in the world will wear the shirt,” he said.
Pulisic has been the subject of many a transfer rumour but is attempting to keep any speculation at bay.
“I’m still just finishing my season strong with Dortmund,” he said. “I’ve been happy here all season. I’m still enjoying the game, which is the most important. I’m just looking forward to having a good break this summer.”
Following Dortmund’s friendly against LAFC on Tuesday night, Pulisic will have one more obligation with the U.S. and then it will be time for a rest. But his motivation is constant and the Bolivia match, which takes place Chester, Penn. some 100 miles from his home town of Hershey, will mark a welcome start to a new cycle.
“It’s going to hurt for a long time until, pretty much, we qualify for the next World Cup is what I’m thinking. It was tough,” Pulisic said during the roundtable. “It was really tough for me going through that. But everything happens for a reason. I hope we can kind of now regroup and start over with some new guys and see what happens.”
Pulisic wants, in his own style, to lead the way.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.