Christian Pulisic during Copa America Centenario in 2016. (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Attending a sporting event together is an important part of establishing a healthy father-son bond.
A father going to another country to make sure his son does well as he embarks on a possible pro career, well, that is another orbit altogether.
Mark Pulisic traveled to Germany with his Christian to make sure his 15-year-old son would get off to a good start with the Borussia Dortmund when the U.S. international midfielder played in the German club’s Under-17 team during the summer of 2015.
It has worked out well for Christian, who has worked his way into the Borussia U-19 squad and eventually first team’s Starting XI with some impressive performances this young season.
It wasn’t an easy decision as the Pulisic family would be split apart for a while. Mark, who grew up on Long Island in Centereach, N.Y., decided to live with Christian in Dortmund. Kelley had a good teaching job and daughter DeeDee was finishing high school that year.
“We didn’t want to pull her,” Mark said during a recent interview at Capelli Sport Stadium, where he is an assistant coach with the Rochester Rhinos (United Soccer League). “We decided to split. It was difficult, very difficult for both Christian and I. The first few months were difficult in Germany, no two ways about it. We missed home. He missed his mom. I missed my wife. I missed my daughter. He missed his sister. We had nights where we were emotional about it, but we stuck together and said we need to give this a good year. Let’s give it a good solid year and after a year if it’s not for you, or it’s not something that you want to pursue then we will move on. We always have home. We will always have our family. We always have home back in Hershey. That was the kind of attitude that we decided to take.”
Needless to say, there were a multitude of challenges from a different country, culture and of course, a new language.
So, father and son were thrown into the deep end of the language pool, Christian perhaps even deeper because he had to communicate in school with teachers and classmates. Mark still had to learn it because he wound up coaching Dortmund Under-10 team.
“We both went over there knowing absolutely nothing,” Mark said. “They immersed Christian in a German school right away, all-German. That was difficult for him. He really didn’t enjoy not getting the support of being just an English …. They didn’t have a school that was near the training ground had English as a second language or German as a second language. They didn’t have support for his language issue. So he would take additional German lessons after school, before training. He was busy.”
Christian would attend school until 2 p.m., come home for a quick bite to eat, have German lessons from 3:30-5 p.m. before heading out to training from 6-8 p.m.
“He was doing it all and at times I thought it was too much,” Mark said. “But we would monitor it. I would make sure he was making friends and people were helping him in ways that they could. Fortunately, he had a great coach when he first went over there, so they really took care of them so he was feeling ap part of the team and finding success off the field as well.”
In the states, many students will take the romance languages, such as Spanish, French and Italian. German rarely is a first option with its guttural pronunciations.
“German is tough,” Mark said. “It took me 2 1/2 years before I felt comfortable speaking it. I lost a lot. I’ve been back here a couple of months. You forget a lot. Christian, fortunately being younger, he’s going to be set. He’s pretty fluent right now. He’s comfortable speaking it and understands everything.”
Not many young Americans have taken the great leap to play for a high-profile youth academy overseas, playing with and against superior competition. There is no handbook for it.
Mark admitted he was concerned that he was concerned if things did not work out for Christian.
“The expectations of moving your son overseas was No. 1, for us he needed to continue to enjoy playing,” he said. “Once we found it was becoming too much of a burden or it was becoming not fun anymore, that it was becoming a job, we thought we would pull him back, and say no, this isn’t it. That was kind of my job, was to make sure that I saw a passion.
The elder Pulisic, who communicated with his coach for progress reports, liked the fact that Christian had a good team around his son, which enabled him to enjoy the game.
“The realization was there were tough times that Christian was challenged in ways that he was never challenged here in the U.S., whether it was being challenged in school, learning a new language, playing against extremely competitive players who wanted him not to succeed because they wanted their positions and they didn’t want this American kid take their spot,” Mark said. “So, he was challenged with a lot of different things thrown at him at a young age. Once he decided that he could truly do it and he had enough ability and enough confidence, to do it and show his true talents, that he started to rise quickly. And that’s how quickly he went to the first team.”
And Borussia Dortmund was not like many other first teams in German or European soccer. It has been a first-class organization. Borussia won back-to-back Bundesliga crowns in 2013 and 2014, capturing it again in 2016. The German side also perennially goes deep in the UEFA Champions League.
“We’re proud. Obviously, we’re so proud,” Mark said. “We didn’t think it would come so quickly. You’ve to be lucky knock on wood.”
Mark tapped a wood table with his hand.
“He’s stayed relatively healthy,” he added. “He had great people, great coaches that gave him opportunities. Sometimes you need the right break. You need the right opportunity. You need someone to give you a chance. He was given a chance and he took it. You need to be given a chance, but then you need to run with it. And fortunately, he wanted it and he ran with it.
“There’s plenty of good players out there that unfortunately weren’t given the opportunity or given a break. Those players might have taken it as well and developed into a top tier. So there’s a lot of luck involved with having the opportunity and develop and play at the highest level. You need some luck in those first few years, those young years.”
After several appearances in friendlies during the winter of 2016, Christian Pulisic made his debut with the Borussia first team, coming on as a second-half substitute for Adrian Ramos against FC Inglostadt Jan. 30, 2016. His first start was against Bayer Leverkusen Feb. 21, 2016, as he was replaced by Marco Reus.
Christian struck for his first Bundesliga goal, lifting Dortmund to a 1-0 advantage en route to a 3-0 home victory over Hamburger SV April 17, 2016.
Mark was in the stadium when Christian took his first steps in the Bundesliga, against Inglostadt and Hamburger.
“Fortunately, I was able to see it, and witness it and my wife wasn’t,” he said. “My gut was so nervous and my stomach cramps. He went out there and watching him play and I’m shaking. He was so just so confident as a 17-year-old out there. When the game ended, I was relieved because it was over. It was one of the most memorable times of my life. After the game I was able to sit back and just think about what happened and how he got there. That was a memorable moment.”
So was that first goal for obvious reasons.
“I was so emotional,” Mark said. “There were tears in my eyes … because he was doing things I wasn’t expecting him to do.”
Of course, you must remember that Mark looks at Christian not only as a player or soccer coach but as a parent No. 1.
“You know, it’s funny,” he said. “There’s times. OK, Christian is in a game again and then I look around and how is he doing that? My legs would be so rubbery. I would be so nervous. There’s no way i could run out there. How is he doing it? There’s still nerves because you’re still nervous as a parent. You want him to do well. You’re nervous for him. So similar emotions when he was playing whether he was at his club team at 10 or 11. I have the similar nerves. My wife and I feel almost the same, but just 20 times more because he’s under such a spotlight now. So, we want him to be so successful because he’s so young and we don’t want anything negative to happen. It’s like any parent. You want the best for your kid and you want him to do the best he can and to be successful.”
Late last year, Mark felt it was time for his son to live on his own in Dortmund and returned home to the states.
Kelley and Mark Pulisic are proud of what Christian has accomplished, not necessarily on the pitch but the fact he has been living alone and thriving in a foreign country as a teenager. You probably can’t name many teens who have or can do that.
“Soccer-wise, I mean, we’re so proud of what he’s done,” Mark said. “We talk about more things about Christian, not that he scored a goal on the weekend, or he’s playing in the starting lineup. We talk more about, we hear an interview with him speaking German. How proud we are that he stuck it out and did all those language lessons, how he could speak another language fluently. The coach would put a quote in the paper: ‘He’s a great kid, he’s so easy going and he’s respectful.’ My wife and I will share those articles on Facebook to our family. We find more pride in those things than his soccer accomplishments. That’s just what type of people we are. My wife and I want to them [his children] to be good people. Of course, we’re so proud of him. If he scores a goal we’re so proud and we want to let everyone know. But there’s just so more to Christian that people talk about enough.”
Next: The hype surrounding Christian Pulisic