With Christian Pulisic and the U.S. men’s national team preparing to play in the World Cup on Nov. 21, we wanted to feature a series of background stories about the American forward and his father and where he came from. This is the first is a five-part series.
Mark Pulisic on his year in England: “So I was getting an education. I was doing a lot of different clubs in England, tagging Christian along with me and him gaining that experience about being overseas as well. It was helpful for him as well, for sure.” (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
The first of a five-part series
By Michael Lewis
The 18-year-old attacking player named Pulisic realized his team needed another goal.
The championship game was between the two best Boys Under-19 teams around was tied at 1-1 as the contest entered its final minutes.
Earlier, Pulisic had scored off a Milton Espinoza through ball in the 11th minute before the opposition equalized on a Marcos Siega header on the half hour.
With two minutes remaining in the game, Ralph Pascarella lofted a free kick into the penalty area. A player from each team got a toe on it before the ball came to Pulisic some eight yards out and he scored for what turned into a 2-1 victory.
“I heard somebody yell there were two minutes left and I put everything into it,” Pulisic said at the time. “I had my eye on the ball … I had to turn around and I got lucky. I got my whole foot on it and got it up in the corner.”
Pulisic was just glad it was over.
“The whole second half, I felt the game was getting at me,” he said. “The last 15 minutes, I told myself that I’m not getting out of here with a loss. It was all mental and not physical.”
Christian Pulisic using his strengths to pull off his usual attacking heroics in the United States?
Well, not exactly.
That was accomplished by another Pulisic, his father, Mark, some 30 years ago.
On June 6, 1987, Mark Pulisic played a major role in the Oceanside Navahos’ 2-1 win over B.W. Gottschee to capture the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association Boys Under-19 State Cup in Farmingdale, N.Y.
The Centereach, N.Y. native was one of several high-level players on that team that would go on to play professional soccer. That included goalkeeper Tony Meola, who starred for the Long Island Rough Riders, MetroStars, Red Bulls and wore the Red, White and Blue in two World Cups for the U.S. national team, and midfielder-forward Jimmy Rooney, who starred for the Rough Riders, MetroStars, Miami Fusion and New England Revolution, among others.
That Mark Pulisic turned to soccer wasn’t by accident, though it was not forced on him, either.
Born at Central General Hospital in Plainview, N.Y. Sept. 20, 1968, Pulisic played all sports growing up on Long Island, including baseball and basketball.
“We used to play stickball games and whiffle ball games,” he said. “We were outside all the time playing many different sports, but soccer just became one of my favorites. My dad introduced it to me. That being something he wanted me to play because he played it. It’s just something that I took to.”
Mark’s father, Mate, a native of Croatia, was an enthusiast of the beautiful game, which he wanted to share with his sons and family. The Pulisics eventually moved to Centereach, in Suffolk County on Long Island.
It certainly did not hurt that the best and best-known soccer team in the U.S. was playing across the Hudson River at the time — the Cosmos — in the first incarnation of the North American Soccer League.
“My father would take us to Giants Stadium during those times, 77-78-79-80, during those times of Pele’s last years, [Franz] Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, [Vladislav] Bogicevic, all those players,” Pulisic said. “I used to enjoy going, driving that 2 1/2 hours to Giants Stadium on weekends, the traffic on Long Island to the city. We used to pack food in the back of the car. My mom, my whole family would go. We’d tailgate, bring those big orange cones, take shots in the parking lot and have little games with everyone. Kind of how we say now that kids don’t do that anymore. There’s not much street soccer. We used to do it on the weekends, going to games.”
Mate introduced Mark and his brothers to soccer. Combined with the Cosmos, Hispanics and Europeans living in the city and suburbs, it was a giant classroom for many young players.
“It was a sport that was big,” Pulisic said. “It was big at that time in the area where I grew up. My father coming from Europe, he put us in the league and introduced the game to us. He played with us and showed us how to juggle as little kids. So, we took to it, my brothers and I. I took more to it because — I don’t want to say this to my brothers — but I was probably the most talented with soccer. So, I took it to the furthest. It was just something that I loved to do.”
Pulisic played for a local team for the Sachem Soccer Club — the Sachem Braves as a travel team in the Long Island Junior Soccer League before moving over to play with the Bohemia Soccer Club.
“There were some good players there,” he said, before joining the Oceanside Navahos. “That became where more higher -level players would go. They asked me to play.”
Before there were academy teams, many youth soccer teams would break up at the higher age groups and super sides were formed at the U-19 level. The Navahos were one of them. The team also boasted future pro defenders Travis Rinker (Rough Riders) and Mark Semioli (LA Galaxy, MetroStars).
That confrontation between Oceanside and Gottschee was a study in contrast. The Navahos were from the suburbs and performed in the LIJSL, Gottschee from the city, representing the Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League. For years, many observers claimed it was one of the best State Cup championship games they had witnessed because both sides played attacking soccer instead of packing it in.
“It was a just a great game,” Pulisic said earlier this year after a Rochester Rhinos practice, where he is an assistant coach. “It was back and forth. It just was hotly contested. We were almost rivals. The players obviously knew each other on each team. The coaches knew each other. It was just passion. I just remember that game being so combative in so many different ways. It’s hard to get into specifics. I do remember the excitement after the game. Just a thrill for sure.”
Pulisic attended George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where he tallied 35 goals in four years while earning a teaching degree in health and physical education. More importantly, he met his wife Kelley, a women’s soccer player at the school who earned a similar degree years later.
“Mark showed up, maybe not with all the same press clippings of all the other guys,” Rochester Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley said, remembering Pulisic was “not intimidated.” Lilley was a senior at George Mason when Pulisic was a freshman.
Pulisic didn’t start the first several games of the season, but eventually worked himself into the starting lineup as a freshman under former Cosmos coach Gordon Bradley.
“He was always good at scoring goals,” Lilley said. “Just good in the box. Always had a nose for the goal, always able to create his shot. Was a good finisher, but he was strong. When he had ahold of the ball and shielding it and had had his arm in your chest, he was tough to move. He’s always been just hard working, disciplined, used to always wanted to do extra work after training.
“I just remember him pretty early on going about his business every day, battling, competing and working his way into the lineup pretty quick and then he’s there to stay.”
Lilley remembered Pulisic’s work ethnic as an indoor soccer player with the Harrisburg Heat.
“As a target for indoors they’re always telling you to get to the back post,” he said. “A lot of times shots get hit into the box. After practice I would always hit balls from the left flank or the right flank, just drive them from the base of the goal for him to redirect into the goal.
“He wasn’t blessed with the same type of pace that Christian has. For him a lot of it was knowing where the best spots were, where to go, learning the game, the indoor game is different than the outdoor game. but again, he adjusted pretty quickly.
“I look at Christian even now, and Mark’s discipline to get better, to work on areas he wanted to work on. He definitely passed that on to Christian. Christian’s always out in the yard working on things growing up. I just think his habits are really good. So Christian now has been able to go a lot further obviously than any of us did.”
When Pulisic graduated in 1990, there were few options for Americans players who wanted to pursue a pro soccer career. It was in the desert years of U.S. soccer, in-between the demise of the North American Soccer League in 1985 and the 1994 World Cup, which jump-started interest in the game in the states.
So, he pursued an opportunity to play with the Washington Stars in the American Professional Soccer League. in 1990. 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.
With family still in his father’s native land, Pulisic decided to test the professional wars with NK Zagreb, which had been promoted to the First Division in then war-torn Yugoslavia. The on-going conflict between Croatians and Serbians was simmering and ready to explode.
He lasted several months before deciding to return home because war was imminent.
A quarter century later, Pulisic said his experience “put a lot of things in perspective for me.”
“No. 1 is family, how important family is,” he said. Secondly, how much I really must have loved to play. I went knowing that there were problems in that country. So I had such a passion to play and wanted to become a pro. It’s now coming back to me how much it meant to me to give myself a chance to go to Europe and play. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I think it was kind of a pipe dream of mine to do that. Coming back to the U.S. with that experience, I’m sure carried me through my indoor career because I was a stronger person because of that experience.
“I just wanted an opportunity to go see where my father grew up. Stayed there with some friends of his. I’ll never forget it. It doesn’t always come up now in conversation because you have a different life now with children. But it is something that helped define me as a person as a player as well. You’ve got to remember that I had major knee surgery after my senior year at George Mason. They never thought i would play again. So this sort of experience, going overseas and then playing eight years indoors, surviving and having a career I’m proud of.”
When he returned from Europe, Pulisic wanted to play. Since minor league soccer as we know it today was still in its infancy and not many teams dotted the landscape, he to give the great indoors a tryout in 1991. He called Bob Lilley, who was with the Heat of the National Professional Soccer League. Lilley said to try out and Pulisic got into his car and drove to central Pennsylvania.
A bond was forged between the two men that would last for decades.
When he coached the Dickinson College women’s team, Lilley brought Pulisic on as his assistant, the first time they worked together.
“We were always close,” said Lilley, who was in Pulisic’s wedding party and was in Pennsylvania when daughter DeeDee and Christian were born. “My parents know his parents well, just from going to George Mason games in college. It’s been a lifelong friendship.”
Playing careers don’t last forever and Pulisic realized that. With a education degree in hand, Pulisic decided to go into coaching. First, it was the Lebanon Valley College men’s team before he created the women’s program. He coached at the school from 1993-2005.
“I wanted to get into coaching,” Pulisic said. “I understood my career wasn’t going to last that long, especially playing indoor and all the wear and tear on my body. That could change at any time. I pursued some coaching opportunities in the Harrisburg-Hershey area.”
When Kelley received a Fulbright Scholarship and an opportunity to teach in Woodstock, England, just outside of Oxford, in a teacher’s exchange program for a year from 2007-08.
For Mark, it was soccer heaven. He took several coaching courses “to learn a little bit more about the game overseas,” he said.
For Christian, it was an opportunity to learn and observe. He was a sponge.
“So I was getting an education,” Mark said. “I was doing a lot of different clubs in England, tagging Christian along with me and him gaining that experience about being overseas as well. It was helpful for him as well, for sure.”
England’s soccer culture dwarfs the U.S., so the learning curving was up, up and away.
“If cricket or rugby is their first sport, all those people still know what’s going on in the Premier League,” Pulisic said. “They have a favorite team. They not only have a Premier League team, but if they live in a city that has a lower division team, they support that team. Soccer is so big, just as it is in Germany when I was recently over there.”
The Pulisics returned to the states and earned Major Indoor Soccer League coach of the year honors with the Detroit Ignition in 2007 before moving into the front office as director of soccer operations. Lilley replaced him as coach.
In 2015, Mark relocated to Germany to stay with Christian while his son played with the Borussia Dortmund Under-19 team. The elder Pulisic coached the club’s U-10 Academy side. When Christian broke into the first team as an 18-year-old last year his father thought it was time to return home.
“It was a pretty simple. I was in Europe with my son,” he said. “It was 2 1/2 years, and I was thinking it was time. He was turning 18. He needed to take the next step in his development as a player, but also as a person and learn how to survive alone without dad there, where he kind of needs to make mistakes and learn how to correct things. And learn how to correct things and talk to people and interact with others than his father other than me being there all the time. It was time for me to leave. I wanted to give him that opportunity. I thought it was an important time in his development.”
So, Pulisic contacted several MLS and USL teams. By then most teams had their coaching staffs set up. He spoke to Lilley, who had lost his assistant coach with the Rhinos.
“I put some thought to it,” Pulisic said. “I thought, ‘Hey, I want to get back into coaching in the U.S. Rochester has a prerty good history. The team is very competitive and I can learn from someone with much success as Bob did. So I thought it was a good opportunity for me to learn the league, learn the players because you’re watching MLS games and you play them in the Open Cup. It’s a good back and forth watching USL and MLS games.”
Next: A sojourn to Croatia