For precocious Pulisic, a challenge in staying grounded

Photo: Steve Davis

The American wunderkind says he's unfazed by the attention, but pressure will only increase.

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HARRISON, N.J. – The latest covey of cameras and recording devices gathered around and pressed in close to Christian Pulisic, something occurring with an increasing frequency. The setting was a U.S. men’s national team practice at Red Bull Arena, one day before a World Cup qualifying match there against Costa Rica.

Among the questions for the young, fast-rising American attacker was whether he was comfortable with all the media attention. Or, perhaps, was he getting more comfortable with it?

His answer was …something perhaps less than 100 percent convincing. He says he’s OK with it, that he’s been doing this stuff for a couple of years now, here in the States and at Dortmund, his German Bundesliga club. Still, he speaks a little softly and keeps his answers short.

“So, yeah, I guess I’m comfortable with it,” Pulisic said, just before jogging off to join his teammates at warmups, where he does always look quite relaxed and in tune with all his older teammates.

If he’s not comfortable with the bigger picture, with the rising stardom, with the ever-increasing load of responsibilities being slowly applied, it certainly hasn’t shown. Everything he’s done to this point has come with a nonchalant shrug or with a mature response.

No social media hiccups. No off-the-record whispers of “big-timing” his teammates or support staff. And certainly no performance gaps. Even as major media properties begin to suggest the Christian Pulisic story isn’t being trumpeted loudly enough.

All that, coming from someone still almost a month from his 19th birthday.

Paths to success not always linear

We know that ascents to success aren’t necessarily linear, that along with the peaks must come the valleys.

That stuff may be out there for Pulisic in the future: an injury setback, a dustup with a teammate that goes public, an almost inevitable slump. But so far, it has been a squeaky clean, steady rise, and it’s been a joy to watch for most U.S. Soccer supporters. For his teams, too, where Pulisic just keeps taking on more and more – and keeps meeting expectations.

Just more than a year ago he became the youngest American to score in Bundesliga. Yes, that was just over a year ago, in April of 2016. About a month after that he became the youngest U.S. international goal-scorer of the modern era, still 17 years old.

In March, in a World Cup qualifier with precious little margin for error, at home against Honduras, U.S. manager Bruce Arena asked Pulisic to pull the offensive levers as a central playmaker, sitting just ahead of Michael Bradley in the U.S. midfield. The kid never missed a beat.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

All along, he kept the pace with Dortmund, too. This year, with the departure of Ousmane Dembele to Barcelona, it looks like Pulisic will be asked to shoulder even more, moving up to full-time starter status.

And it’s working splendidly; his early 2017-18 appearances have been outstanding.

Meanwhile, Pulisic will almost certainly be in the lineup Friday against the Ticos. Not just in the lineup, in fact, but featured as a starting point for building the attack. Where Arena sees his best tactical use – either out wide, where Dortmund generally uses him, or as a central attacking force – probably dictates some of the personnel and tactical choices around him.

Yes, it’s a lot for someone not yet 19 years old. So it seems fair to wonder if, at some point, it could become too much? Isn’t it wise to be vigilant on the watchtower, assessing whether the burden is getting a bit heavy – and that maybe everyone needs to back off a bit?

Still, nothing so far.

How the U.S. handles him

So, how is the U.S. contingent keeping his proverbial young feet on the ground? How are they guarding against squeezing too hard? Dembele's departure means he's already carrying more weight for his club. Are Arena and team leaders like Michael Bradley thinking about this? Or is the critical "here and now" of World Cup qualifying simply too important to worry about bringing someone along slowly?

In other words, are they looking out for him?

“He doesn’t need us to, trust me,” Dax McCarty told FourFourTwo on Thursday. “He’s incredibly mature and incredibly humble for a kid his age, for someone who has reached his stature. He’s got a lot on his plate right now, but it’s funny, he’s just a kid having fun. A kid doing what he loves. So he doesn’t need us older guys to babysit him, to bring him along. He’s got a really calm, mature head on his shoulders. And that’s why he’s playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world.”

Bradley said pretty much the same. It’s pointless, he suggested, comparing Pulisic to others who have merged into the U.S. program at a young age. Pulisic has been ahead of his time all along, performance-wise and maturity-wise.

“He’s a very good player,” Bradley said, “a player who at a young age has come in and found the right ways to make a difference on our team, both on and off the field and off the field. We’ll continue to try to help him and put him in a position to do that.”

Bradley says it so matter-of-factly, like he’s talking about making a sandwich for lunch. In other words, no big deal. The kid can handle it. Arena clearly shares that opinion.

“He handles everything in the right way,” Arena said Thursday. “He respects the senior players on his club, and also on the national team program. He just goes out and plays and enjoys himself and gets the job done. It’s pretty impressive for a guy his age.”

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