NEW YORK – Christian Pulisic has thrilled American fans, given a new attacking option to U.S. national team coaches and become one of the brightest young stars in Europe with Borussia Dortmund. But for Ilkay Gündogan, the youngster’s rise is no surprise.
“You could already see that he was a great talent,” said Gündogan, who currently plays for Manchester City but was a mainstay in the Dortmund squad last season, when Pulisic made his breakthrough.
“For me, the thing I’m always most interested in, especially with young players, is their character. Like, how you present yourself to others,” he told SI.com. “He was a really nice guy, to be honest. Quiet, not directly into screaming at someone in training or anything like that. Respectful, maybe a little shy.”
However, Gündogan adds, “To be shy at the beginning is not a bad thing.”
Whatever reservations the American had seemed to melt away when it came time to actually play. Already turning heads at youth level both for his club and internationally, Gündogan and his fellow pros at Dortmund came away immediately impressed by one thing in particular.
"His pace. He’s quite small, but his movement, his turns, everything was so full of pace," he said. "That was quite impressive. The U.S. is lucky to have this type of player."
Gündogan spoke with SI.com this week from East Harlem, where he and Manchester City teammate Gabriel Jesus visited the Lexington Academy. The New York City public grade school is where their club built a rooftop soccer field in 2010—and the same place where it announced the formation of New York City FC in 2013. Gündogan, still recovering from an ACL tear suffered at the end of 2016, patiently answered questions from children about what it takes to be a professional (“Lots of practice and respect for the game”), whether Germany can win a second straight World Cup next year (“I hope so”), and a number of other topics. He is currently continuing his comeback in New York but enjoyed the opportunity to break the routine.
“It’s always good to have a change, you know?” Gündogan said. “The gym in the training facility is incredible, but if you go every day at the same time it gets quite difficult.”
Though he injured his knee in England, Gündogan elected to get his surgery and complete the first months of his rehab far away, in Barcelona. The reason why was simple: The difficulty of coming in for rehab while seeing his teammates training and preparing for games every day would have been too much to handle.
However, his teammates had their own way of letting Gündogan know he was not forgotten. In one of the more touching moments of this Premier League season, the team entered the Etihad Stadium for a home game against Arsenal wearing shirts with Gündogan’s name and number on the front.
“I didn’t even recognize it at first,” said Gündogan, who watched the game from home on doctor’s orders. At first, he simply wondered why the team wasn’t wearing their customary warm-up jackets. Then, the gesture was revealed as the team lined up for the pre-match photo. It made an impact.
“In these type of long-term injuries, you lose your place. You kind of don’t know where you are. You don’t feel really close to the others,” Gündogan said. “After that, it felt like I’m still part of the group, you know?
“Injuries are just part of our profession. It’s about how we try to come back, to try to do the best every single day and come back stronger. It’s what I do now in New York, and what I do back in Manchester.”