Pulisic and putting the United States back on the right path

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Mark Pulisic has been on both sides of the pond as parent and coach. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

Mark Pulisic has had a long and distinguished career in soccer. He played collegiately at George Mason University, then professionally with the Harrisburg Heat. He’s been both an assistant and head coach for professional teams, college teams, and even as a youth academy staffer in Europe. He’s currently an assistant with the USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds.

The average American soccer fan, of course, doesn’t know him by that curriculum vitae. They know Mark more as “Christian Pulisic’s father.”

That may be unfair to a man who is an esteemed soccer professional in his own right. Certainly, though, his experience with his son – currently in his third season with Borussia Dortmund (who sit third in the German Bundesliga), and undoubtedly one of the public faces of the United States Men’s National Team – has helped him get a wider breadth of experiences in the soccer world.

Following the USMNT’s failure to qualify for this Summer’s FIFA World Cup, the topic of player development has been a hot one. Simply put, what are we doing wrong in America?

“It’s not so much that they’re doing something right or better than us as far as the sporting aspect: training sessions and things like that, it’s not so different,” he explained. “The biggest difference is the culture that’s built in the country where soccer’s the biggest sport. Kids are following their heroes on TV every weekend and wanting to be that – want to become a professional footballer. That’s their dream, and that’s all they think about.

“The biggest difference in training sessions is the competitiveness of the kids. Even at nine, 10, 11 years old, they’re training so hard and they’re so physical, and they’re so committed to a training session, their concentration level is so high. As a coach, you almost have to tame them down a little bit, whereas here in the States, it’s the opposite. You’ve got to continuously motivate kids. You’re wondering where a few kids in your training sessions are here in the States, and they’re at band and other activities, whereas I was there two and a half years, and these young kids, I don’t think they missed a training session the whole time. It’s just a culture, it’s inside of them that ‘this is where I want to be, I’m able to follow these Bundesliga teams on TV, and I see the life they have, and I’m going to do everything I can to be that.’

“Here in the States, you might have a handful; there, you have a bucketful of kids that want to be the best and are committed to work for it. Here, if something doesn’t go right, whether a coach doesn’t play a kid, they make excuses: it’s the coach’s fault it’s difficult. There, there’s no excuses. There’s no – or very little – parent involvement. You either have to sink or swim as a young player. You’re learning the hard knocks of the game from a young age. Here, those kids are coddled at young ages, and it’s very difficult for them to break out of their parents’ grasp.”

Pulisic’s time in the Dortmund academy allowed him to observe those differences first-hand. He worked with various youth teams in the system, and with the now-famous Footbonaut training machine. Marvel of modern technology aside, he was able to see that the issue is not with a given training method or curriculum. To the extent that we do have an issue with developing talent in the United States, it’s more about that drive to succeed, and a larger subset of youth within the country not only playing the game, but playing it with the goal of becoming a professional footballer or eventually working up to don the colors of Die Mannschaft.

It’s certainly a mentality that his son demonstrated from an early age. Christian’s desire fueled a work ethic, and that work ethic has led to success on the pitch. He’s starring for one of Europe’s top sides before turning 20.

“He has that mentality, we saw it in his eyes and his desire and all of our conversations,” the elder Pulisic said. “It’s something he wanted to try, and be successful at, and push himself. That’s the biggest thing: you as a player need to understand how you’re going to get better. You have to be put out of your comfort zone. Christian was the best player on his teams here in the States, even a year or two up. What’s really pushing him and motivating him outside of his own motivation? It wasn’t that. He wanted it, he wanted to be pushed day-in and day-out by players at the same level, not only soccer-wise physically, but that have the same mentality and goals to improve – getting pushed out of your comfort zone. That’s exactly what happened in Dortmund: he would go every day and fight, fight, fight, fight, and he’d have bad days, and he just believed in himself and kept pushing and pushing, and all those difficult days of very good players competing against him definitely raised his level of his play.”

That’s not to say every young American who has the opportunity should necessarily feel an obligation to hop across the pond in order to reach the highest levels of the game. Rob Moore, who helped facilitate Christian’s move to Dortmund, has advocated that there’s no other reasonable path to reach the highest levels of the game. Mark Pulisic, however, knows that there’s more to development than simply the on-field fit. In moving to Germany with his son, he got to experience first-hand the culture shock that can exist – and fortunately, both father and son were able to grow through it together.

“I’m not one to say every kid should go to Europe, because every kid’s not prepared or not ready to go to Europe,” Pulisic said. “Christian was ready: he had a mentality that, as parents, we saw that he would be able to survive. We didn’t obviously know that he would survive as long as he has, and been as successful as he has, but we knew that he was ready to give it a good shot.”

The younger Pulisic’s ability to excel in Germany naturally draws comparisons to another American who headed to Deutschland and was unable to make that adjustment. It’s likely premature to compare Christian to Landon Donovan on the field at this early stage of his career, just like Donovan’s stints at Bayer Leverkeusen and Bayern Munich happened under completely different circumstances than Pulisic’s arrival at Dortmund.

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Photo by Reto Stauffer (Creative Commons license).

The loneliness of a culture shock can be mitigated in a big way with a familiar face. Mark Pulisic’s profession – in the soccer world as a coach – gave him the opportunity to make the move as well.

“Having a parent there was extremely helpful [for Christian],” he said. “Just to be able to talk to me and help him get through some tough days. The first few months were very difficult: obviously for anyone, but also for Christian learning a new language, going to a German school, teammates that don’t really want to see a good [foreign] player around because he’s going to take your spot. There were challenges for sure that I helped him get through, but to say that he wouldn’t have been able to do it on his own, I’m not going to say that, because it’s quite possible he would have.

“We got through [the language barrier] together,” he added with a laugh. “We both started taking lessons right away, and he picked it up much quicker than I did, being younger. That’s a whole other thing, too: you gain respect by showing others that you’re willing to commit to being there. Part of the commitment to being in another country is learning the language, and that’s something Christian wanted to do is learn the language, because then you become more comfortable in everything you’re doing: talking to teammates, going out. He fully went in with everything to try and embrace the opportunity that was given to him.”

So what is there to be gained from the Pulisic experience? There’s no one way to skin a cat, and there’s no one way to develop an individual’s soccer talent to reach the professional level. Donovan became an all-time great despite his initial move to Germany not working out, whereas the young man many see as his heir apparent is thriving in the Bundesliga.

Nor is there a magic bullet to solving the woes that many see with the way we develop talent in our country. Mark Pulisic has seen it on both sides of the pond, and the training methods are more similar than they are different. It has long been a hard-and-fast belief of this site that there is no one answer, but rather that the solution is finding the best development path for the individual. It’s our task as a footballing nation to make those paths clearer, and the choice between them becomes a much easier one for young players to make.

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