Christian Pulisic: The 18-year-old with the future of US soccer on his shoulders

Story highlights

  • Pulisic carrying the weight of US soccer
  • USA struggling in World Cup qualifying
  • Teenager recently won his first major trophy

(CNN)To say Christian Pulisic is US soccer's new hope would be something of an understatement.

Rarely has the weight of one of the world's biggest nations been placed squarely on the shoulders of a teenager -- and such slender shoulders at that.
Pulisic is the first American player to break through at a top European club -- Borussia Dortmund -- at such an early age.
    But it's not just his breakthrough in Europe that has won him plaudits, it's also the manner in which he's done it.
    One of the main criticisms leveled at US football in recent years has been its insistence on producing athletes, rather than technical and tactically savvy players.
    The US Men's National Team's (USMNT) youngest ever goalscorer, Pulisic stirs excitement in his homeland like never before. His gangly frame and technical prowess break the mold of the archetypal US soccer player.
    Already with 14 senior caps to his name and over 50 first-team appearance for Bundesliga giants Dortmund, it's easy to forget Pulisic is still only 18-years-old.
    But rather than viewing the weight of expectation as a burden, Pulisic is relishing every moment of his fledgling career.
    "It's been amazing," he tells CNN Sport anchor Patrick Snell. "Everything has happened so fast. Of course I'm still so young but I wouldn't change a thing. It really is a dream come true to me.
    "You know, people ask me what it's like and I just can't describe it because it's everything I ever wanted. Just being able to play for both club and country is just the biggest honor in the world.
    "I'm just really excited moving forward."

    Trading cards

    Pulisic remembers clearly the moment he knew he'd made it as a footballer.
    It wasn't his debut for the USMNT, nor his first international goal. It wasn't even his first Champions League goal, an impudent chip -- a "truly special" moment -- against Benfica that made him the competition's youngest American scorer.
    It came during last year's Copa America Centenario, the 100th anniversary of South America's most prestigious tournament, held on home soil.
    Though the USMNT exceeded expectations on the pitch by reaching the semifinals in impressive fashion, Pulisic's crystallizing moment came when he found out he was immortalized on a Panini trading card.
    "I don't know if I had a particular idol," Pulisic says of his own collection growing up. "But, you know, I always loved collecting cards from all sports and it was a big honor to be part of that Panini family."

    Mexico rivalry

    In his brief career so far, Pulisic's experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.
    He's consistently set records, both at club and international level, and another successful season culminated in him winning a first major trophy, as Dortmund beat Eintracht Frankfurt to lift the German Cup.
    Though, like any professional athlete, Pulisic has experienced some lows. Arguably the toughest came in the USA's home defeat to bitter rivals Mexico in World Cup qualifying.
    "It was my first time playing against Mexico earlier this year and unfortunately we couldn't come out with a result," Pulisic recalls.
    "But it really does show a rivalry game and it's our biggest match-up, our biggest rival so we're always excited."
    Rather than dwelling on the past, the teenager is looking forward to avenging that defeat when the sides meet again in Mexico on Monday.
    "When it comes to the US vs. Mexico it's just something different. It's an amazing game to play in and I'm just really excited to have another chance at it."
    That defeat, however, would set the tone for what has been a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign.
    A 4-0 hammering at the hands of Costa Rica followed, before the ship was briefly steadied thanks to 6-0 victory over Honduras.
    That win should have been a turning point, but instead the US faltered to a draw against Panama, although Pulisic still maintains this was a positive result.
    Thursday's victory over Trinidad and Tobago moved the USMNT into the third and final automatic qualifying place at the halfway stage, although consistency under re-appointed head coach Bruce Arena will need to improve to guarantee qualification.
    Two goals against Trinidad mean Pulisic has now had a hand in the USMNT's previous eight goals (four goals, four assists).
    He remains unfazed about his country's inconsistent form and -- as he has done throughout his career -- is maintaining a cool head and showing a maturity beyond his years.
    "I mean, we just have to stick to our game plan," he says matter-of-factly. "We have some tough matches coming up, but I think a big quality in this team is that we always respond well.
    "After tough situations against Mexico and Costa Rica, we responded well with a win and a tie.
    "So now it's just about staying consistent and coming out with three points in this next game for sure and just continue to battle. That will give us a good chance to qualify for the World Cup."

    Dortmund

    Although the end of Pulisic's club season was just 12 days ago, a lot has already changed at Dortmund.
    Thomas Tuchel was sacked as coach just three days after leading the club to a first trophy in five years -- amid reports of a relationship breakdown between him and the board -- and replaced by Peter Bosz, the man who led Ajax to the Europa League final.
    Pulisic is grateful for the opportunities Tuchel afforded him but understands the ruthless nature of top-level football.
    "Yeah, it's tough," Pulisic admits. "That's what happens in professional sports.
    "Of course we had a pretty successful season but now the coach is gone. He did a lot for me and I'm thankful for that."
    If Pulisic is keen to shed light on the high points of his season, there is one night he can't escape. It's one that cast a dark shadow not only on Dortmund, but on the whole of football.
    On April 11, as Dortmund's team bus was making its way to Signal Iduna Park, the club's home ground, it was hit by three bombs left at the side of the road.
    Defender Marc Bartra had to be taken to hospital and underwent surgery on a broken hand sustained in the blast, while the rest of the squad were left seriously shaken.
    The match was postponed but rescheduled for the following evening, a decision that drew widespread criticism.
    Pulisic believes he and the rest of the squad should have been afforded more time to recover.
    "It was really tough, it was definitely a tough week," he says, his tone noticeably lowered. "Especially having to play so soon after that, but it's something that's tough for me to talk about.
    "It's just something you don't wish to happen to anyone. It was just a tough moment."
    Again, Pulisic's maturity is striking. For someone so young he exudes an understanding of a man twice his age.
    The scars from that night will not fade quickly but Pulisic, as he has always done, will continue to look forward.
    "Now we're lucky we're still here and we're just thankful to be alive, playing soccer and do what we love every day."