Just 18, Pulisic coming of age as US pursues World Cup spot

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Christian Pulisic has been given plenty of responsibility as an 18-year-old on the U.S. national team.

Bring up his age, though, and the central midfielder turns a little defensive.

“Everyone asks me questions about my age,” Pulisic said Wednesday, a day before World Cup qualifying resumes against Trinidad and Tobago. “It doesn’t matter anymore. We’re all at the same level.”

Sometimes, his coaches and teammates forget that he is indeed only 18. He doesn’t play like a typical teenager. The talented Borussia Dortmund phenom already is the youngest American to win a medal with a European club.

“He kind of sees things a bit different than your average 18-year-old,” forward Jozy Altidore said.

Pulisic broke into the national team as an outside midfielder under Jurgen Klinsmann. Since taking over in November, coach Bruce Arena has thrust him into central midfield, a role Pulisic filled at Dortmund after Marco Reus got hurt.

“Where would you prefer me to play him? He’s capable of it,” Arena said.

Even when the game turns chippy, like it did in a 1-1 draw with Panama in March, Pulisic has been up to the task. It was a valuable point as the Americans sit in fourth place in the six-team standings with four points, while Trinidad and Tobago is last with three points. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“He was called to man up, and he manned up,” said Arena, whose team plays in Mexico on Sunday. “From what I could tell so far in his career, everything that’s been put in front of him, he’s been able to conquer. I think that’s a strong indication that this kid is going to be a special player.”

Former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst, couldn’t agree more.

“What you have is a young, but incredibly confident player who, when he gets the ball, everybody sits up and holds their breath because even in the short time we’ve seen him, he’s proven that there is the potential for something magical to happen,” Lalas said. “That, to me, is the definition of a star.”

Pulisic has a different sort of “smell” for the game, according to Altidore. Give Pulisic a little breathing room and he’ll turn creative. That was evident in a 1-1 draw during an exhibition game against Venezuela last weekend. He received a pass at the top of the penalty area, faked right to confuse a defender, switched to his left foot and lined a shot by the diving goalkeeper.

“It naturally comes to him,” Altidore said. “Being able to train and play with Dortmund, he’s also picked up things a lot quicker than, say, the average younger kid would. He’s always had that natural feel and ability and just know-how.”

Pulisic wears No. 10 — just like Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and Landon Donovan. It’s a jersey that’s worn by the top players.

“He’s not the typical No. 10 that’s going to control the game throughout, control the rhythm and pattern of the game, play every killer pass,” Lalas said. “Will he be that some day? I don’t know. But that’s OK. Just make sure he understands that’s OK. He doesn’t have to be a Messi for this team.”

Pulisic has been a soccer prodigy most of his life, leaving Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund in February 2015. He made his Bundesliga debut on Jan. 30, 2016, and had two goals in 12 appearances, becoming the youngest foreigner to score in the Bundesliga.

Thomas Tuchel, the coach who promoted Pulisic to the first team, was fired three days after the win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Cup final, the fallout of clashes with chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc. Tuchel was replaced Tuesday by Peter Bosz, who coached Dutch power Ajax last season.

“I’m excited for the new coach,” said Pulisic, who exchanged jerseys with Denver Broncos kicker Brandon McManus in an on-field ceremony Wednesday. “I haven’t talked to or met him yet. I think it’s a very attacking-minded team. Watched his team with Ajax and was really good. So, I’m excited.”

Pulisic made his national team debut on March 29, 2016, in a qualifier against Guatemala and he scored his first international goal two months later in a friendly against Bolivia. He’s listed on the U.S. roster for next month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup but sidestepped a question about whether he would play.

His sole focus is Trinidad and Tobago as he grows more settled with the style of play.

“I was comfortable with the team right away, right when they brought me in,” Pulisic said. “The guys were good to me. I was always proud to play on this team.”

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