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Pulisic moves into second year of stardom trying hard to stay grounded

04:29 GMT+3 30/08/2017
Christian Pulisic United States WC Qualifying 060817
The U.S. national team star is putting the finishing touches on what has been a roller-coaster year and the 18-year-old is determined to keep his head

NEW YORK — Christian Pulisic isn't quite Nuke LaLoosh, the cliche-spewing young pitching sensation from the classic sports movie "Bull Durham," but you can hear the polished media training in his interview responses.

After a whirlwind year that saw him go from Borussia Dortmund prospect to impact player, from U.S. national team newcomer to focal point of the team's attack, you can understand why his teams have prepared him for the inevitable media wave that has followed his skyrocketing career.

Still, the American sensation — who is set to turn 19 in three weeks — couldn't help but reveal a bit of how the past 12 months have really been like when asked by Goal about the whirlwind ride he's been on.

"For me everything happened a little bit too fast," Pulisic said at a Manhattan news conference ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. "The past year has been a roller coaster. Being able to play at club level at a high level, and then getting called into the national team, it's amazing. But I'm just trying to stay as level-grounded as I can, finding a balance."

As calm and composed as he is on and off the field, even Pulisic can sound a bit frustrated when asked about the wave of expectations and hype that was destined to follow him once it became clear he was more than just another talented American teenager.

He isn't interested spending much time thinking about whether he's the future of U.S. soccer. He just wants to focus on playing, winning and improving.

"Of course I hear about all this stuff people talk about," Pulisic said. "This kid, there's hype, whatever. I just try to keep it out of my mind as much as I can because that doesn't really matter to me. I put enough pressure on myself. I don't need all this outside tension or whatever. I just try to do the best I can for myself and the people around me."

Pulisic has continued to impress teammates, opponents, fans and media alike with his fearlessness, skill and maturity — traits that have helped him make such a smooth transition into a marquee role for club and country.

"He has surprised me, for sure, just in terms of how good a player he is and ultimately how quickly he's been able to find the right ways to come into our team and make a real impact, even at this level," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said.

"I can remember watching him with the Under-17s at the World Cup with [U.S. assistant coach and former U-17 head coach Richie Williams] and you could see his talent, his ability," Bradley added.

"That was so clear. But you never know for sure how quickly some of the other stuff comes along. From the first camp that he's come in with our team he has found a really good way to fit into the group. You can see what a good kid he is, how much he loves to play, how much he enjoys the time with our group. And as Bruce said, we want to put him in the best possible condition so he that he can play, enjoy himself and ultimately make the biggest difference for our team. That's on everybody to make sure that we can continue to find the right ways for that."

Arena is no stranger to developing young American talents. Going back to the likes of Claudio Reyna, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, Arena has helped mold some of the best players in U.S. national team history, and he sees similarities between those U.S. legends and Pulisic, though even Arena acknowledges Pulisic is well ahead of the curve.

"Christian's a little bit more accelerated in his professional career than they were," Arena said. "At this point Christian has much better support than perhaps Landon had at this time, and Claudio, because he's got a very experienced group of players who really are our leaders such as Michael [Bradley], Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and DaMarcus Beasley, so it takes a little bit away from the pressures on Christian to be a leader in our program as well.

"Right now he's a very gifted player that we're allowing him the room to grow, both as a player and a person," Arena added. "He doesn't have that much responsibility in that regard, but simply because of the fact he's such an outstanding player there's some responsibilities on and off the field that he has to assume and he's done that, but I'm thankful we have such great leaders like I mentioned to take some of that pressure off of Christian."

At a certain point, you can't protect a young star from the glare of fame and heightened expectations. Success leads to a bigger spotlight, and right now no American soccer player on the planet is basking in a brighter light than Pulisic. His responsibilities are growing for the U.S., as well as for Dortmund, where he will be asked to help pick up the slack for the departed Ousmane Dembele.

Pulisic doesn't seem at all fazed by the growing expectations. After all, he spent the past year swimming in the deep end, and after a while you stop thinking about how deep the water is.

That might explain why Pulisic has looked even more comfortable, and even more dangerous for Dortmund early in the new Bundesliga campaign. Experience, familiarity and confidence groomed over the course of a dream year have led to an even better Pulisic, even if he doesn't admit to there being much of a change this season.

"I don't think there's too much different. Maybe we lost a player or two, but I kind of have the same role on the team," Pulisic said of his place at Dortmund. "Whenever I'm on the field, similar like I do with the national team, [my focus] is being effective, being dangerous. Helping my team to create and score goals. I understand that, and I'm excited for this new season. Whether there's more responsibility put on me or not I'm going to go out and I'm going to try to do the same things and be effective."

Both Dortmund and the U.S. are counting on Pulisic to continue to shine, and improve. Friday's qualifier against Costa Rica, being played in the shadow of New York City, will serve as Pulisic's next big challenge. It will be up to him to determine whether it will be a peak or valley along the roller-coaster ride his young career has become. So far, that ride has had far more highs than lows.