March 30, 2017

On Christian Pulisic, his Union ties and why media hype is a non-issue

Union head coach Jim Curtin has a unique perspective on American phenom Christian Pulisic.

First contact came about five years ago when Curtin was overseeing the Union's fledgling youth program and Peter Nowak was still in charge of the senior team. The YSC academy wasn't up and running yet, but an assortment of players from local youth clubs was pulled together to play in the 2012 Generation Adidas Cup.

Curtin won the tournament with a U17 roster that included players like Zach Pfeffer, Zack Steffen and Connor Maloney.

All three would eventually make it to MLS, but nobody knew that the brightest star, Pulisic, was actually playing for the U15 squad in that tournament.

Now, still a teenager, he's starting for the United States' senior national team in World Cup qualifiers.

"It's incredible to see how he makes the game look so easy for a young kid out there," said Curtin at his midweek press conference. "Obviously, everybody sees at Dortmund the minutes that he gets there and what he does for them. It's early, so I don't want to say he's the 'go-to' guy, but a guy who is getting assists and goals for our national team in pretty limited minutes. It's been fun to watch. The way he goes about his business and the way he gets on the ball, he maybe sees things differently than the normal American player."

Nowak wanted Pulisic to be a part of the Union's youth setup, but that was never really in the cards.

The Hershey native, representing Lancaster-based soccer club PA Classics, instead ended up with the U.S. residency program and wound up joining Borussia Dortmund a short time later with his father in tow as a newly hired academy coach.

With his son now entrenched in the Dortmund side, Mark Pulisic returned to the United States last month to take an assistant coaching job with the USL's Rochester Rhinos. Manager Bob Lilley was Pulisic's teammate on the Harrisburg Heat indoor team, a squad that also included long-time City Islanders head coach Bill Becher.

In addition to the central Pennsylvania connections, the elder Pulisic played college soccer at George Mason University, where he met his future wife Kelley, who was a member of the women's team there.

"Obviously, he's from this area," Curtin said. "Everyone wants to talk about the big, key buzzword in this country, which is 'development,' – who developed what player and this and that. His parents developed Christian. That's where that needs to be mentioned. His dad was a former pro and had a great plan for his kids all along. (People argue), did Chelsea develop this player? Did Red Bull develop him? Did Dortmund develop him? Did Bayern Munich do it? Parents develop kids, first and foremost, and he's been in a great environment in that regard. To his credit now, he's gotten great coaching at Dortmund and he's really thriving. He gets to work with Bruce Arena and he's done really well there, too. I'm happy to see his progression, and not just being out there as an 18-year old, but dominating games as an 18-year old. It's special."

There are discussions among journalists about the coverage we give to Christian Pulisic. Are we going overboard? Do we risk damaging his growth by piling on the praise? Is there a hard limit on feature stories and on-camera appearances? Should we just leave him alone?

Inevitably, there are comparisons drawn to Landon Donovan, and also to Freddy Adu, America's last true teenage soccer phenom.

When Adu came to Philadelphia in 2011, I recall a bizarre and bloated press conference, one featuring the entirety of the Union front office crammed into PPL Park's tiny media room. That was a thing that the prior regime liked to do; they would often fill the room with employees to add some kind of "presence" to press events that were viewed with heightened importance.

From the very beginning, we were surrounding Freddy with cameras and recorders and people who probably shouldn't have been around him.

We also did it after games, crowding his locker and requesting availability even if he had done nothing notable over the course of 90 minutes. I can't speak for others, but I certainly felt like the amount of attention we gave him was incongruent with his on-field contribution.

"Every situation is different, I would say," Curtin said. "If you sit and talk with Christian, in two seconds you can tell that he has a really good head on his shoulders. He's a smart kid. He doesn't have a big ego and he's pretty humble. I think, right off the bat, that helps. I think the fact that he's at a club where he's pushing to get into the eighteen and to get into the lineup, and nothing's guaranteed or handed to him, that's important. The fact that he's playing on one of the top teams in Germany in a really top league, he's not anointed as 'The Man' there. There's always going to be someone they can bring in, who is 26-years old, who is going to be pushing him hard each and every day. It's a little different if you relate it to the Freddy situation. I would say his support system is a strong one. You don't want too much, too soon in terms of the accolades and the pressure to put on one person. But he's not a kid who seems to be fazed by much of it."

Curtin also pointed to German culture and philosophy as being naturally humbling for young players. If you goof off in Deutschland or act like a superstar, you quickly find yourself on the outside, looking in.

That's one key to Pulisic's heightened maturity.

He also seems to be surrounded with the right people. Once he settled in with Dortmund, his father left Germany and returned home. That's the opposite of, say, LaVar Ball, who seems to be living vicariously through his son Lonzo and doing weird things like this:

"I think it just starts with the support system around him, which is a strong one, with a strong family," Curtin reiterated. "That's the most important thing. I think it's going to lead to his longevity. Longevity is the name of the game. We've seen, like you said, whether it's basketball, football – everyone wants to anoint who is the 'next' this or that. Just let kids be kids. Don't compare them to LeBron (James). Don't compare them to Bryce Harper or whoever. Just let them go through their growth and development. I think, before it's all said and done, Christian will make a big impression on soccer in this country."