Pulisic ready to handle hard knocks that come with USMNT stardom

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The U.S. playmaker is drawing more and more attention from overzealous defenders, and the young star is handling the physical treatment like a pro

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad & Tobago — Christian Pulisic's mother wasn't much different than your average parent when it came to seeing her child fouled by bigger kids.

Pulisic has been making defenders look silly since his age was in the single digits, and even then he learned that there was a physical price to being so damn talented with the ball. It was a price his mother still wasn't very happy about, but one his father knew was part of the game.

USA 5/1 to beat Trinidad & Tobago 2-0

"My mom would be the one to kind of yell. My dad would just be like, 'Get up,'" Pulisic said of those early days getting hacked by defenders. "It was a good balance, I guess."

That balance helped teach him a valuable lesson. There was no point in crying or complaining, because those types of things would just mean the abuser had succeeded in trying to stifle his genius.

That is why now, be it with the U.S. national team or Borussia Dortmund, Pulisic shakes off physical play like a cow's tail might flick away flies, allowing him to focus on continuing his evolution as a top-flight attacking star.

"It's not going to change if I'm freaking out all the time or trying to make a big deal out of it," Pulisic said. "That's how it is, and that's what I have to deal with."

Asked if he sees the abuse as a sign of respect from defenders who fear him, Pulisic had to laugh a little.

"It doesn't feel like respect," Pulisic said. "I don't know what you'd call it. It's definitely something I'm getting used to but it's nothing I can't handle."

That much was made clear once again Friday during the U.S. team's 4-0 win against Panama. The same side that roughed him up in Panama City back in March tried once again to use physical play to slow Pulisic down. The Canaleros certainly weren't able to keep him from tearing their defense apart, leaving Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez to lament that Pulisic did what he wanted Friday while recording a goal and an assist.

"Yes, he's handled it well, and if he wants to go to the heights that I think he expects of himself he's going to have to do that for the next decade," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "I don't think that's going to stop. Everybody has kind of earmarked him as the superstar, and they want to get a chunk of flesh. He handles it pretty well. His mentality is good. His temperament on the field is good. He doesn’t back down. I think his head's in the right place.

"Clearly the foundation that's been built in Germany is a tough one, is steely, and it's probably what you'd expect of a player that's kind of had his schooling in the Bundesliga," Howard added. "It certainly pays dividends for us."

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Pulisic will need to show that tough demeanor again Tuesday against a Trinidad & Tobago side that has nothing to lose after being eliminated from World Cup contention long ago. The Soca Warriors will be sure to key in on Pulisic after his two-goal performance to beat them in the June qualifier in Colorado.

Pulisic owes at least some of his ability to shake off rough play to the fact he spent his formative years as a player facing older and bigger players who would often find themselves resorting to fouling the elusive youngster.

"I always took abuse. I was always very small, so growing up I was always getting kicked around," Pulisic said. "It was something I kind of grew up with. Now I guess I don't know how to explain it. It's getting a little stronger."

Though he also faces hard fouls in the Bundesliga, the level of abuse he is seeing in CONCACAF is a different level because of lax officiating. That reality has left U.S. coach Bruce Arena shaking his head when asked what he can do to better protect his young star.

"How do I (protect Pulisic)? Put him in my arms, perhaps," Arena quipped Monday. "I have no control over what happens out there. Between the lines the referee's supposed to be controlling the game so I can't protect him. We're hopeful that the referee does a good job protecting all the players."

One suggestion made after Friday's match was to have U.S. players serve as enforcers who retaliate against those players fouling Pulisic. Arena shot down that misguided notion by pointing out the fact that players can't afford taking yellow cards and red cards retaliating.

That isn't to say players don't wish they could retaliate to protect their teammate.

"It's a big problem with our sport. I wish we could (retaliate)," Howard said. "I'm envious of hockey players and baseball players, but we can't. I don't think there's anything we can do. I wish we could, because I think we'd lay it all on the line to project him.

"You try your best to do what you can, but the onus is on the individual player in soccer to have enough wherewithal about him, both mentally and physically, and not fly off the handle and ride tackles and play the game. He's done a good job with that."

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The good news for Pulisic is that there is just one more CONCACAF World Cup qualifier to worry about. If the Americans secure the result needed to book a place at the 2018 World Cup, Pulisic will be able to look forward to his first experience on the game's biggest stage — a stage where the referees are known for calling tight games and generally protecting star players.

Whether it's the World Cup and World Cup qualifiers or matches in the Bundesliga and Champions League, Pulisic is going to continue to face hard challenges from frustrated defenders. That comes with the territory. The good news for the U.S. national team and Dortmund is that Pulisic doesn't get distracted by that treatment, and instead appears to be motivated by it.

"He does handle it very well," Arena said. "That's why he's been successful. He gets back on his feet and continues to play."

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