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Mark Pulisic uses Footbonaut to give Dortmund a leg up

While his son is busy becoming the most prized soccer prospect in U.S. soccer history, Mark Pulisic is getting on with the business of training the next generation of Borussia Dortmund stars.

To help him with that task, Pulisic is taking the helm of a tool very few have at their disposal.

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Borussia Dortmund signed Mark’s son Christian in 2014 when he was just 15. The pair left Pennsylvania and moved to Germany in January 2015, leaving the other three members of the family – Christian’s mother, sister and stepbrother – back in the United States.

Upon moving to Germany, Mark needed to find employment. The former professional indoor soccer player and coach wanted to continue his involvement in the game he and his son loved, and Dortmund obliged his request.

“I asked if I could be involved with the youth academy because I’ve been coaching my whole life,” Pulisic told Goal USA. The elder Pulisic was about to be given a coveted, yet unofficial title: Borussia Dortmund’s director of Footbonaut.

“To me, the Footbonaut could be used consistently with the youth programs,” Pulisic said. “So I said ‘Well I have no problem organizing training sessions and helping the teams get in there on a more regular basis.’”

For a marvel of soccer technology, the Footbonaut actually looks pretty simple on the surface.

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Take a 14 square meter artificial turf surface, add eight Jugs machines feeding soccer balls from four sides, then surround it all with 72 square panels and you’ve got yourself a fully functional Footbonaut.

A player stands at the center of the room, unaware which of the four sides will send a ball flying in his direction. A beep alerts the player who must quickly turn, receive the ball and then pass it into whichever of the panels surrounding him lights up.

Simple enough. Look a little closer though, and the true power of the Footbonaut lies in a tablet.  

In his hand during every session, Pulisic carries the tablet that controls every aspect of the Footbonaut. From the tablet, he can can modify ball speed, direction, spin, height, and which panels light up, among other things. Data is also collected and stored on each player who uses the Footbonaut, which allows coaches to target and work on specific weaknesses.

The tablet is the hub of the Footbonaut, and helps give Dortmund an advantage that almost no other team in the world has.

In March 2012 then-manager Jurgen Klopp approved the installation of the Footbonaut prototype, which was invented by Berlin-based designer Christian Guttler.

The world’s first Footbonaut was installed at Dortmund’s training facility, which also houses the club youth academy.

To this day, only one other club in the world — fellow Bundesliga side Hoffenheim — has its own Footbonaut, which is estimated to cost between $2 million-4 million, plus routine maintenance and updates to the proprietary software.

At Dortmund, every youth team from the U-9 to the U-19 level spends an hour per week in the Footbonaut. For the reserve side and the senior team, it is mostly used as a tool for players rehabbing injuries.

Thanks to the Footbonaut, those youth teams are able to give their players far more touches on the ball than almost any counterpart. Pulisic estimates that in a normal hour-long training session, a player will get 50-60 touches on the ball, while that same player can get up to 100 touches after just 10 minutes in the Footbonaut.

A visit to the Footbonaut also breaks up the monotony of the daily training routine, which Dortmund’s youth players certainly appreciate.

“Kids want change, kids like things to be different,” Pulisic said. “They don’t want the same thing day in and day out in training.

“When you come inside and you add lights and a machine that has balls circulating and shooting out, it’s just fun. It’s different and it’s unique and since they do it generally once a week, it’s exciting for them to come in.”

In the four-plus years since the Footbonaut was brought in, Dortmund has won one Bundesliga title, been the runner-up three other occasions, reached a Champions League final and also won a German cup title.

Coincidence? Well yeah, most likely. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to have an edge over the competition.

“I’ve been working with the same players over the course of two years and I see their skill development and technical development increase over the course of these two years,” Pulisic said. “For me, I think the Footbonaut has aided in that.

“[The Footbonaut] has been a good tool particularly for development, but also on the field with their coaches, they’re getting better. For me, it’s just a great additional tool for the youth department at Dortmund to have.”