Mark Pulisic (right) on his sojourn to Yugoslavia: “It was the most unforgettable experience I ever had.” (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
(This story was published in November 1992 in Soccer Week. It is used with permission)
Second of four parts
By Michael Lewis
Harrisburg Heat forward Mark Pulisic is no innocent. when he left the U.S. to play and train with a First Division club in Croatia in 1991, he realized Yugoslavia was in the midst of a political upheaval.
He just did not plan for the world to begin falling apart around him in his relatives’ homeland. The Centereach, N.Y. native stayed five weeks — “which was enough,” he said.
While he did not witness any of the shootings, atrocities or acts of war that have been reported since, Pulisic discovered the atmosphere there was not conducive for playing soccer, let alone living a normal life.
“It was the most unforgettable experience I ever had,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. It will be with me everywhere. When nothing is going right, I’ll remember what was happening over there and tell myself, ‘Look what I have.’ ”
It affected him so much that he cannot read about or watch the atrocities on television. “Do you want to know the honest truth?” he asked. “I don’t watch. It’s very depressing to me. I don’t want to know more. It’s terrible. I don’t want to understand that it can’t stop.”
It was all planned out very well. Pulisic was going to stay at a relative’s apartment in the city of Zagreb and train and play with NK Zagreb, which then had been promoted to the Yugoslavian First Division. Virtually every day two months prior to his trip, Pulisic checked out news reports on the precarious Balkan situation.
“The only thing that was going to keep me home was if no planes were flying in there,” he said. “I was excited. I was very excited, but I was scared. You can be both.”
The playing was easy. Pulisic, recovering from a career-threatening knee injury, wanted to prove he could still play the game.
“The level of play there was beyond belief,” he said. “It was very good. As time went on, it got easy.”
But life didn’t, and certain messages were sent and received early.
Pulisic’s teammates could not believe he came from the U.S. to play in Croatia.
“They thought I was crazy being there,” he said. ” ‘Why are you here?’ They would ask. ‘Go home. There is nothing here. You have everything in America.’ ”
Everything, perhaps, but a decent outdoor professional soccer league.
“It definitely hit me about how much we have here, what’s open to you and what freedom you have in America,” Pulisic said. “You go on a plane and eight hours later, it’s a new world.”
Slowly, but surely the message was hammered home.
During a training session in July, the team ran for cover while planes flew over the stadium.
“We didn’t know if they were Croatian planes or ones that were going to attack,” Pulisic said. “In the United States, you don’t run for cover when you see an airplane.”
Because of the tension and the onset of war, Pulisic never had an opportunity to visit his aunt, uncle and cousins who lived on the outskirts of Zagreb. He was looking forward to meeting his 16-year-old cousin, a girl named Durdica. “It got so that she asked my mother if she could come to America,” he said. “My mother started crying.”
Durdica eventually emigrated to the U.S., leaving her mother and father behind, and now lives with her aunt and uncle in Centereach, and attends high school.
As for Pulisic, the last straw came in August.
Before a game one afternoon, Pulisic remembered the coach coaching into the locker room with tears in his eyes. The coach announced that children were tortured and killed by the Serbians only 15 miles from the stadium.
“No way we can play the game,” the coach said.
“Some of the players were crying hysterically,” Pulisic said. “I was upset, but I didn’t feel that way. I was concerned about my soccer over there. In my stupidity, I asked a teammate if we were going to train. ‘Train?’ he said in broken England. ‘We are at war.’
“I didn’t feel I belonged there anymore. I didn’t feel the pain those people felt and I didn’t like that. I always could go back to America.”
Which he did.
When Pulisic awoke the next morning, he sensed an ominous feeling while looking at the sky. “It was so gray,” he said. “It felt like there was going to be an attack any moment.”
He called up Swiss Air and made arrangements to leave. Three hours later, he was out of the country.
Pulisic did not waste time latching onto a team in the U.S. — the Heat in Harrisburg in the National Professional Soccer League, an indoor league. He acquitted himself quite well, finishing with 35 goals and 11 assists in his first season, earning a spot on the All-Rookie team in 1991-92. He added 28 goals and 15 assists last season.
“I worked hard,” Pulisic said. “I wasn’t a flashy player. I got garbage goals.”
Just surviving the 40-game season was a testimonial to Pulisic’s fortitude.
The 25-year-old forward played on the same U-19 youth team, the Oceanside Navahos, as national team goalkeeper Tony Meola in the Long Island Junior Soccer League, scored the winning goal in an unforgettable 2-1 win over B.W. Gottschee in the Boys Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association State Cup Under-19 championship game in 1987. He went on to play for George Mason University and then pursued a soccer career with the old Washington Stars of the American Professional Soccer League in 1990.
Only three weeks before the start of the season and only a day before he was to sign, Pulisic collided with the goalkeeper and tore up his right knee in every which way — the anterior cruciate ligament — the lateral ligament and the meniscus.
“I did a good job,” said a sarcastic Pulisic, who has an eight-inch scar on each side of the knee and a six-inch one in front to show for the injury.
“I lost lot of speed and a lot of quickness,” he said. “I’m not as mobile, but I used my strengths. I try to think a little more like what situations I get into when I’m in a game. The adrenalin is pumping.”