Christian Pulisic (right) was like a sponge when he watched soccer while growing up in Hershey, Pa. and England. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
Years ago, a Hershey, Pa. youth soccer coach unwittingly devised a way to deny Christian Pulisic from having an attacking influence on the game.
He played the youngster on defense, sweeper, specifically.
It worked, not necessarily to the delight of Mark Pulisic at the time, although Christian’s father today likes to call it “a funny story.”
Christian was playing five-a-side soccer in a recreational league when he was five- or six-years-old, Mark recently remembered.
“Even at five or six, Christian always wanted to get the ball and just run with it,” he said. “Just dribble. He had such good speed. He would be so dynamic going forward. I went to one of his games once. The coach put Christian as like a sweeper way back. And the coaches’ rule was — not the league’s rule — his sweeper, the last defender, wasn’t allowed to leave the 18-yard-box.”
Then Mark chuckled.
“So here are all these other four kids, because it was 5 v 5 were running around and enjoying and poor Christian is standing in the box, waiting for the ball to come near him,” he continued. “So to make a long story short, that was probably the last game he played for that team because I was sitting on the sideline like, ‘On my God, this crazy. What is this guy doing with my son?’ ”
Mark chuckled again.
“Ever since then, you look back on stories like that all the time,” he said. “He was always an attacking-type player. Even from a young age, we knew of his abilities.”
That coach’s name will go unmentioned to protect the guilty.
And not many, if any, coaches made that mistake again.
While his parents, Kelley and Mark, loved soccer and played the sport at George Mason University, they made sure Christian — he was born in Hershey, Pa. on Sept. 18, 1998 — was introduced to several sports, including baseball, golf, tennis and of course, the beautiful game.
“He knew that I was a professional. He knew our passion — my wife’s and my passion for the game,” Mark said. “God bless, the kid, he’s such a good athlete. He could pick up a baseball, a golf club, anything, basketball. He loves to play. But he was an athletic kid. So when he got a soccer ball at his feet, we never knew what he would be destined for, obviously. We just enjoyed the ride and enjoyed watching him love to play soccer. But we loved watching him play other sports, too.”
However, it took a while before the Pulisics realized Christian was a cut above and then some of his peers.
“It wasn’t really until we would get people or my close friends who were ex-professional players who would say, ‘Your kid is something special. He’s got something different.’ That we decided to really take notice. But we really never made a big deal about it because we were always very realistic as parents. We were always around other parents who thought their kids were great. We didn’t want to think our kid was great. We just wanted to see him enjoy growing in the sport and loving to play. It was a healthy outlet. It gets him out of the house and on a team and the importance of a team environment.”
Slowly, but surely, the Pulisics began to realize that Christian had abilities far greater than other young American soccer players as he continued to play his favorite sport, indoors and out.
It was more than talent. There was a passion to the way Christian approached the game.
“As parents we thought or felt there was something different with him,” Mark said. “Just seeing his passion, his competitiveness, the drive to always wanting to be the best, even as a young player, was what set him apart. There were very good talented players around as young kids. You see them all athletic running around. To want to be so good, to be so competitive and have such a drive at such a young age was different than other kids.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Christian’s parents were above-average soccer players in college and that might have been in their son’s DNA for a perfect storm for a soccer player.
Mark, a native of Centereach, Long Island, did not buy that entirely.
“It’s hard to use the world perfect storm because there are plenty of professional players out there, the greatest players in the world that both played, that didn’t have any parents that played,” he said. “So, I think yeah, you have to have some genetics.
“My wife and I always laugh and about what he has of ours. He has my wife’s speed and my mindset, my attitude. I think a lot of it has to do with his environment. There’s his environment, there’s his parents. Christian had to do a hell of a lot on his own and want to be motivated himself. I give him a lot of credit because he just has never had the normalcy of a kid growing up. There have always people asking more of him.”
When Kelley, a teacher, taught in England on Fulbright Scholarship, the family went over. Christian played for a youth team in Brackley Town, just outside of Oxford, as a seven-year-old and watched English Premier League games along with his father.
Christian was like a sponge, being in a soccer wonderland for a young American soccer fanatic.
“Mark took him to a lot of games, Tottenham, Arsenal, Man United,” said Rochester Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley, who has worked with Mark for years. Mark is his assistant on the United Soccer League team. “To put Christian in that environment — I already think he was super-talented — but now he was at that age when he starting to read things. He’s in a soccer culture. He was seeing games in big arenas and stadiums.”
When he returned to the states, Christian wound up playing for the PA Classics from 2008-15.
When Mark was coach and director of soccer operations of the Detroit Ignition (Major Indoor Soccer League) for two years, Lilley, who also coached that team, saw the flashes of brilliance.
“He knew where to move,” he said. “If you put the ball on his foot even though he was 9-, 10-years-old, he’d find the right pass. Obviously at that age, he doesn’t have the size and strength but he was quite capable of thinking the game at a much high level.
“He was at another level when he got back from England. When Christian was 8-, 9-, 10- years-old, I used to tell mark that there’s things that when I go watch him play, his sees through balls. He’ll slip passes, he’ll shape a ball. I’m coaching a pro team. At that time I had been with Hershey, I had been with Montreal, Vancouver. I’m dealing with the professional level. It’s not the highest level professionally, but I’m trying to coach them on how to make a late run into the box or how to start to start your run in one direction and pull off the back shoulder. He’s doing things instinctively, at 8-, 9- 10-years-old that I’m struggling to get [players to do]. Sometimes you’ve got good athletes at our level but they don’t tactically see the game, they don’t feel the game. They weren’t watching soccer at four, five, six, seven. they weren’t absorbed in the game the way Christian was at those ages. Mark always shared that with him.”
“I remember watching the  Euros. I think he was six at the time. There was an offside and he knew the offside rule at that age. There’s not many six-year-olds that understand offsides and the complexities of the offsides rule.”
So, it should not be surprising that Christian Pulisic could understand a few other things as well. He was a straight A student in school, “very smart,” Mark said.
“School came easy to him,” he added. “He really didn’t enjoy school. He enjoyed recess. But he’s a normal little athletic kid. He wanted to be out playing sports, but he took school seriously and that was part of his competitiveness. He would want to get a paper back, even his spelling, in elementary school, and wanted to be 100. He didn’t want it to be a 98. We saw that even in his school work, the drive and importance.”
Christian didn’t have a favorite subject.
“He didn’t mind school. He understood he had to do it,” Mark said. “He made friends. Typical student growing up. He wanted to get his work done and then want to be outside and play.”
That would be soccer of course, although there came a time to hone those skills and talent. Germany was beckoning.
Next: Father and son in Germany