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Christian Pulisic interview: ‘At Dortmund I’m not just some young kid’

“It hit me on the night, right after the game – you’re there in that stadium and you think ‘Wow, yeah, I really just did that’.” Christian Pulisic is talking about the evening in early December when he started a Champions League game at the Bernabeu. He had already shown he could handle Real Madrid: 10 weeks previously he had replaced Ousmane Dembele late in the home fixture and created an equaliser for Andre Schürrle. Playing at the European champions’ home, gazed down upon by those steep stands that suck in the night sky, was something different again. The experience lasted an hour but crystalised everything Pulisic had achieved in a lifetime.

There has been little time for extensive reflection since. Pulisic comes into Signal Iduna Park on his day off, a Tuesday, for this interview and that is not the kind of luxury his first full season as a professional has often afforded. “It’s been tough with those English Weeks,” he admits, using the term deployed knowingly in Germany for the kind of weekend-midweek-weekend slog more familiar to their European neighbours. His comfort with local football idioms has been mirrored on the pitch: Pulisic has appeared in 42 of Dortmund’s 50 matches this season, a record only three of his team-mates can improve upon, and it is no accident that Thomas Tuchel has put such faith in a player who does not turn 19 until September.

“I couldn’t have imagined playing this much at the start of the season,” Pulisic tells the Guardian. “I’ve been lucky, and I’m just thankful that I’ve been able to stay healthy and the coaches have felt they can trust me to play, whether it’s been off the bench or starting.”

That division has been roughly equal and it helps that, for one so young, Pulisic has such sound tactical wiring. There is not much reason to doubt his attacking potential – that burst of pace, those quick feet, the clarity of his decision-making – but Tuchel has been particularly struck by his intelligence, his sharpness in tracking back and willingness to hold a defensive position. Pulisic recalls coming on for the final stages of the 3-2 German Cup semi-final win at Bayern Munich, which set up Saturday’s final with Eintracht Frankfurt, and “just defending for the longest 10 minutes of my life … but it was really exciting”. It is a base that sets him apart from many youngsters and has played a large role in his rise.

“It’s something I definitely picked up when I was younger and that my dad helped me with a lot too – engaging in defence, being ready and playing hard,” he says. “Obviously I have some talents on the offensive side and can help the team in that way, but there are two sides to the ball. In a tough league like this and with a good, demanding coach, I really have to work hard at it.

“I’ve been fortunate that I have good athletic ability, just in general. Quick, strong, able to bounce off players, trying to be strong in winning tackles and annoying to play against, pretty much.”

They are confident words but spoken modestly; he has inherited exceptional sporting genes from his parents Mark and Kelley, who were both footballers, but carries himself with their groundedness too. By his admission Pulisic likes to “stay nice and low-key”; it is just his character and Tuchel’s backing has helped him express himself.

“From day one he said to me: ‘If you’re good enough, you play and it won’t matter how old you are or how much experience you have’,” he says. “That helped me to go in there like any other player and not just as some young kid trying to make it – I can just be my own player.”

Those attacking gifts have been allowed to flourish as a result and never more crucially than when, in the Champions League, he put Dortmund 2-1 up on aggregate against Benfica with a smart dink over Ederson Moraes. That, he thinks, was a decisive point in his season.

“It was pretty special, perhaps the most special moment,” he says. “Chipping the goalie, scoring a big goal like that, getting to celebrate in the stadium, it was just unbelievable. But there have been so many exciting moments as a team – I’ve just had fun this year.”

Pulisic feels as if he is part of something momentous, a sense cultivated by Dortmund’s acquisitions of – among others – Dembele, Emre Mor and Alexander Isak. The strategy is to bring through a clutch of the world’s best young talents at the same time; such an approach has its short-term risks but out on the training field it has fostered a unity between young men who know how good they can be.

“I feel like we all have such a good chemistry and just want the best for each other,” he says. “We compete against each other every day but we just have fun with it. We were all new to each other this season but we’ll become even stronger.”

They are all sharing that coming-of-age period together but sometimes the experiences life throws up are less welcome. The ordeal Dortmund’s players suffered on the bus to their Champions League tie with Monaco, when their vehicle was hit by three explosions, will not fade quickly. Pulisic was at close enough quarters to witness the injury to Marc Bartra, whose wrist was broken in the blast. The match was postponed for 24 hours but nobody who heard the words of those Dortmund players who spoke afterwards can really feel that was enough. Pulisic’s tone lowers; it is not a topic upon which he wants to dwell for too long.

“It’s all about moving on,” he says. “Everybody handles it a little bit differently and it was a tough week, for sure. It was just scary stuff, and you’re obviously not thinking about football that night or even the next day. You’re just thankful you’re alive and that’s it. You don’t want that to happen to anyone – you don’t ever want anyone to experience something like that.

“I think Nuri [Sahin] said it very well, that until he stepped on the field he wasn’t really thinking about soccer. We live and die through this game, and it’s so important to us, but in those moments it’s just a little different and puts it in perspective.”

Should the game have been played? There is a heavy pause. “No, no, but that’s what happened.”

More acutely than ever it strikes you again that Pulisic is just 18. His maturity is extraordinary. In the circumstances it came as a big comfort that Kelley was visiting from their hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania. Until this year Pulisic lived with Mark, who had been coaching at Dortmund’s academy; Mark left to become assistant coach at Rochester Rhinos in February, leaving Christian to continue without daily parental influence.

“I called my mom as soon as I could,” he says. “I didn’t want her to hear about it and not know if I was OK. She spread the word to my dad, and it was very good to be able to go straight home from what happened and be with my mom. It’s tough being here alone but I was lucky she was here at that time.”

Pulisic now has a new apartment and shares it with another family member, his cousin Will Pulisic, who is a promising 19-year-old goalkeeper and arrived at Dortmund last year. Next season he is likely to be joined by a friend from Dortmund’s Under-19 squad; the adjustment has not always been easy but Pulisic has been here for three and a half years now, speaks excellent German and feels settled. He makes tacos for his team-mates – home cooking has been an urgent subject of study since Mark’s departure – and discusses baseball with Julian Weigl. When he and Will are both at home they will throw a gridiron football back and forth “just to still feel American” and there are other comforts from back across the Atlantic too. Pulisic devours American sports when he can and catches Major League Soccer highlights religiously, following his best friends from the US national team and even receiving notifications from FC Dallas, where Kellyn Acosta plays, on his phone. It is still a far cry from the Bundesliga and everything that, if his current trajectory is maintained, lies ahead but would he consider playing for a club in the States one day?

“I’d never put that out of the question. Playing in your home country would be special; obviously I don’t have any immediate plans to do that but it’s always an option. You see so many people at the games now and it’s exciting; we have a really strong soccer league we can build on.”

For now, he has enough other uses to the game in America. He has sent records tumbling in his 13 full caps since debuting for the US national team in March 2016 and with that comes expectation. He is one of several burgeoning talents at Dortmund; back home he is seen as the sport’s great hope, the player who can set the mould for his own generation and others to come. In the short term, that translates into pulling Bruce Arena’s team out of their precarious fourth place in the Concacaf World Cup qualifying group when they face Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico next month.

“We want to finish in the top three and qualify automatically,” he says. “It wasn’t a good start for us so we need three points against Trinidad and definitely want some redemption on Mexico [who won 2-1 in Columbus last November]. Three points there would be really big.

“I don’t put any extra pressure on myself for national team games. The coach tells me that: he says I don’t need to win the game by myself. As long as I do whatever I can to help the team, we’ll work together and we can get a good result. I don’t put anything more on my shoulders because of the team I’m with, and we have other great players as well.”

The Concacaf qualifiers, particularly away from home, have been an education. Breaking down the compact lines of Ingolstadt and other lower-ranked Bundesliga teams is one thing; surviving the kind of physical treatment he was subjected to by Panama in March is quite another. Pulisic assisted Clint Dempsey’s goal after another of those battling solo runs that night but came out battered and bruised.

“It’s something the European players here might never have experienced,” he says. “I’d never played in games like those before, on fields where the refs just aren’t protecting us. In Panama it was especially disappointing, but it’s just something I learn from and in Concacaf I’m going to be playing in plenty more games like that.”

The national team is in a period of transition but he senses a turning tide in the way US soccer regards itself. The sport is no longer based on hard running; there is more room for nuance and technique. “It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” he says. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues – and MLS is improving so much too. There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore. We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

There will be time for all that later. First, Eintracht Frankfurt await in Berlin. They finished 11th in the Bundesliga to Dortmund’s third and are certainly not Real Madrid, but a first major trophy of Pulisic’s career would be just as defining an experience as that night at the Bernabeu. “I really want that trophy,” he says. “I want it bad and I think the whole team really does.”

It would be the perfect way to crown a season that has exceeded all expectations – something tangible to show for all those English Weeks and extra days at the training ground. “Everything has just gone very fast here,” Pulisic reflects, and he was thinking exactly the same thing upon sharing a pitch with the Real players he used to love watching on television. On that stage, and among Dortmund’s stellar young squad, he looks completely at home.