NEW YORK CITY — This may seem like a strange thing to say, but here goes:
Christian Pulisic feels like an under-publicized story right now on the American sports scene.
We are less than 10 months away from a World Cup. The best player on the U.S. men’s national team is an 18-year-old who only broke into the starting lineup last fall. He is improving every day, starting games and scoring goals for Borussia Dortmund, one of the world’s best club teams, where he’s ably filling the shoes of a teammate who was just sold for more than $115 million to Barcelona.
In his last five games for the U.S., Pulisic has scored or assisted on seven of the team’s 11 goals.
In the past 16 months, Pulisic has already accomplished enough to become the best chance the U.S. has ever had of producing its first global men’s soccer superstar. And yet the turnout for Tuesday’s U.S. press conference with Pulisic in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District was surprisingly sparse. In the media capital of the world, there were empty seats.
Don’t get me wrong. There are obviously more important things going on right now in Houston, and if we’re being honest, under-hype for a U.S. soccer prospect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But covering Pulisic now feels a little like covering LeBron James when he was a high school junior. You know that Pulisic’s life is about to change in the most dramatic of ways—as long as the U.S. can continue its 2017 resurgence and qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
In the U.S. sports landscape, what Pulisic does for the national team—and especially what he could do at a World Cup—attracts so much more attention than what he accomplishes at Dortmund that it’s almost laughable. According to Google Trends, the seven biggest spikes of interest in Pulisic in the United States going back to the start of 2016 are for things he has done with the national team—from his two goals in June’s qualifying win over Trinidad and Tobago to his U.S. debut in March 2016.
It’s as though Germany and Dortmund are in a parallel universe. Per Google, Pulisic got more interest in the U.S. for scoring two international goals against a terrible St. Vincent & the Grenadines team than he did for scoring the goal that clinched a Champions League quarterfinals berth for Dortmund in March.
If Pulisic scores again in this Friday’s qualifier against Costa Rica (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision), more Americans will discover who he is than the number who did after he was one of the best players over the first two weeks of the Bundesliga. That’s just the nature of the beast.
As we heard on Tuesday, Pulisic is already spoken of in glowing terms by the most senior figures on the USMNT. Listen, for example, to captain Michael Bradley:
“He has surprised me for sure just in terms of how good a player he is and ultimately how quickly he’s been able to find the right ways to come into our team and make a real impact even at this level. I can remember watching him with the Under-17s at the World Cup … and you could see his talent, his ability, that was so clear. But you never know for sure how quickly some of the other stuff comes along.”
“From the first camp that he’s come in with our team, he has found a really good way to fit into the group,” Bradley continued. “You can see what a good kid he is, how much he loves to play, how much he enjoys the time with our group … We want to put him in the best possible condition so he can play and enjoy himself and ultimately make the biggest difference for our team.”
Can Pulisic handle the pressure? Well, he does just fine playing in front of more than 80,000 Dortmund fans, the highest average attendance of any club in the world.
When asked about how he deals with all the attention, Pulisic had a simple enough response.
“Of course, I hear about all this stuff,” he said on Tuesday. “People talk about this kid, there’s hype, whatever. But I just try to keep it out of my mind as much as I can, because that doesn’t really matter to me. I put enough pressure on myself. … I just try to do the best I can for myself and the people around me. I think I have a lot of things to improve on, from just growing physically and being stronger to continuing to improve on doing what I do best, finding new ways to attack defenses and help my team on the offensive side.”
At this rate, Pulisic will be the U.S. posterboy of World Cup 2018. But his life hasn’t changed just yet. Not like it will next summer. Right now Pulisic feels like a powder keg ready to explode into the consciousness of mainstream America.