PHILADELPHIA – On Thursday afternoon, a 17-year-old local kid walked onto Rhodes Field, the soccer stadium on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.
But he wasn’t here on a recruiting visit. He came in as a member of the US national team – a fact that still might be hard for some people to comprehend.
Not for Christian Pulisic.
“Everyone keeps telling me, ‘You’re only 17.’ But I don’t look at it like that,” Pulisic told reporters before Thursday’s USMNT training session. “I’m just one of the guys. I’m just a member of the team and doing what I can to be the best player I can be.”
For Pulisic, who turns 18 in September, this stretch of the Copa America Centenario represents something of a homecoming. He grew up in Hershey, Pennsylvania – about two hour’s drive from Philadelphia, where the US will face Paraguay on Saturday (7 pm ET, FS1) with a trip to the quarterfinals on the line.
Naturally, then, he’ll have a lot of supporters in the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field – “too many to count,” he said when asked how many friends and family will make the short trip.
“It’s awesome to be in my home state right now,” Pulisic said. “I’m really excited to be close to my family and friends. It’s really amazing to be here with the national team.”
Don’t expect the teenager to get lost in the emotion of the moment, though. Since making the final Copa roster, Pulisic has amazed his teammates with the kind of maturity and confidence that allowed him to score two Bundesliga goals and play regularly for Borussia Dortmund this past year.
“Christian’s been great since he came in,” US goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “It’s not surprising that he’s playing at Dortmund. There’s a reason why he’s playing there and why he’s been so successful there. In that sense, we really haven’t had to do too much. He’s got incredible ability on and off the field. When you bring that to the team, you’re always gonna have an easy transition.”
Guzan may be selling the role of the USMNT’s veterans a little short. Pulisic made a point to say that the older guys on the team have “all been really helpful” and that he’s come to them for advice “anytime he’s had a problem.”
That’s something US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann stressed as a critical aspect of the 17-year-old’s development with the national team.
“I told him before coming in to be a sponge,” Klinsmann said. “I told him, ‘You have fantastic teammates. They’ll guide you, they’ll lead you.’
“He has certain characteristics in his game that will make a difference,” the US coach added. “He’s fearless. He takes people on. So he’s always there to surprise the opponent. But he’s on an early learning curve and we have to look after him to make sure we keep him protected.”
Klinsmann may want to keep him protected but he also showed he has trust in the youngster when he brought him in as a second-half sub in the USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Colombia last Friday. Pulisic admitted there were some initial nerves for that appearance, and he expects there might be some more if he gets called upon to play in front of his home crowd in Philly on Saturday.
But for a 17-year-old who acts much older than he actually is, that’s not something that’s ever held him back – whether he’s playing in a huge stadium in the Bundesliga or at Copa America.
“As soon as you get on the field, the nerves do kind of go away,” Pulisic said. “I just try to show no fear when I go on the field – every time.”