US phenom Christian Pulisic opens up about pressure, rivalry with Mexico

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It's been a hell of a year for Christian Pulisic.

First-team debut with Borussia Dortmund. UEFA Champions League debut. Youngest foreigner to score in the Bundesliga. Youngest player to score for the US national team. Youngest American ever to score in World Cup qualifying. And all of it before his 18th birthday.

Now the Hershey, Pennsylvania product is set to experience his country's biggest, hottest rivalry firsthand for the first time, as he prepares for what is likely to be a significant role in Friday's Hexagonal opener vs. Mexico at MAPFRE Stadium (7:45 pm ET, FS1, Univision).

“It was a dream of mine to be here,” Pulisic told a small group of reporters in a conversation at the USMNT's hotel on Wednesday. “The game doesn't really get much bigger than this one: US-Mexico, Columbus, World Cup qualifying. I understand. I'm here, I can feel the energy in this city just training here – you see banners everywhere and so much excitement. I'm really pumped for the game.

“I think this one comes down to a little less soccer and more of a fight. It's CONCACAF qualifying. It doesn't really get any bigger. It's just heart and emotions and it's about controlling that.”

Much like his on-field displays, if the teenage phenom is overwhelmed by the moment, he's doing a very good job of disguising it.

“If you asked me last November where I thought I would be [now], I would not say right where I am now,” said Pulisic. “Obviously, I wasn't expecting it to all go so fast with things at Dortmund and then moving on to the national team.

“But it's not like I can't believe it, because it's my dream. It just came faster than I thought it would. I know that I completely deserve to be here.”

Mindful of the risks that haunt young prodigies, both Dortmund and US Soccer have preached caution and kept Pulisic's media engagements to a minimum, striving to keep him focused on the work at hand. But the attack-minded midfielder carries himself with an uncanny calm in front of the microphones, just as he does on the ball in big games.

“I understand what people say. At a young age, it is a lot and this past year has put a lot of mental strain on me,” he said. “So I can understand what they mean, kind of taking it slower, whether it's not being in every game or every tough situation like that, just to kind of ease me into it. But a part of me thinks that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard, because I want to go out and play.

“I have the best support system – my family, obviously there's a few soccer players there, and people that I care about. I have coaches around me who I can talk to at any time. So that's what's helped me this whole way. I wouldn't be doing this alone. It's impossible, nobody can do it.”

Pulisic is aware of the burgeoning excitement he's prompted among US fans. He acknowledges the very real possibility that he could become the next face of US soccer like Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan before. But he also says that much of the heavy pressure he carries on his European adventure is self-imposed. His father Mark (a coach and former pro), mother Kelley (a collegiate standout at George Mason University) and the rest of his inner circle play a key role in helping manage all that.

“After, say, I don't play one game or I don't have the best game, I panic and I think to myself, 'What am I doing here? I'm expected to be so much better than this,'” he revealed. “I just talk to [friends and family] and they say, 'Christian you're 18, you have so much time to learn.' It's just simple stuff like that.

“[Sometimes] I'm just alone one day and I'm not feeling good, I'm going to training and I'm thinking, 'Man, I want to be with my friends at home, going to school, having fun with them.' It's just talking to them and understanding that it's a process. There's definitely hard parts, but the good parts are just way too good.

“The pressure that I give myself from within is what drives me, I think. I've always been hard on myself, I expect so much out of myself that that pressure can be inspiring at times. I make a great play and I think, ''Yeah, this is great, I love this, I love to be out here doing stuff like this.'”

Though he was a mainstay of the US youth national team system and a member of the federation's Bradenton Residency Program in Florida, Pulisic can't recall ever having faced Mexico in a US uniform before. That said, a childhood of eager USMNT viewing has given him no illusions about the intensity that awaits him and his teammates on Friday.

Just as when he faced mighty Real Madrid in Champions League play or got stuck in during Dortmund's heated Ruhr derby vs. Schalke, Pulisic will apply the lessons of a soccer-obsessed childhood to his latest big moment.

“I think it's just the creative side of me – I was always out playing sports, in situations that didn't matter, with my friends. My dad has really taught me that you never change your game based on the situation, on like a moment or pressure,” he said. “You just go out and play, like I always do. Because it's a big moment I'm not going to shy away and not show my talents and show what I can do. I'm just going to show it every game.”