Most great athletes have a moment we can look back on, one that signaled the end of their time as a prospect and made it clear that they were going to have a serious professional career. For Christian Pulisic, that happened last September against Real Madrid.
Pulisic emerged as one of soccer’s most exciting young talents as a 17-year-old for Borussia Dortmund, making 12 appearances during his debut season, including some impressive showings in the Europa League. He earned his first USMNT cap shortly afterwards and quickly went on to become the Americans’ youngest-ever modern era starter and scorer in a World Cup qualifier. But in the summer of 2016 it was still impossible to tell what Pulisic’s future was with Dortmund, and if his role would be expanded in his second season.
Those questions were erased Sept. 27, 2016, when Pulisic came off the bench in a Champions League match against Real Madrid. He changed the game instantly as he fearlessly ran at Danilo and Sergio Ramos, and he eventually set up Andre Schürrle’s equalizer as Dortmund earned a 2-2 draw.
Pulisic has made himself undroppable since, only occasionally resting to ensure he isn’t run into the ground. He finished last season with five goals and 13 assists in 43 appearances for Dortmund, racking up 2,323 minutes played — an incredible total for a teenager. For a comparison, Lionel Messi played 1,279 minutes for Barcelona in his age-18 season ahead of his breakout performances at the 2006 World Cup.
On Tuesday, Pulisic faces Real Madrid again, but under slightly different circumstances. Dortmund’s Champions League draw is harder this season, and it isn’t guaranteed progression to the knockout stage. BVB is coming off a loss to Tottenham Hotspur and enters its match against Madrid genuinely needing to avoid defeat. And Pulisic won’t be a roll-of-the-dice sub, but someone his manager has a plan and expectations for.
Pulisic has excelled past what can reasonably be expected of a teenager, but his rise has also coincided with consistent injuries to Marco Reus and the sale of Ousmane Dembele. Those two factors have thrust him into a key role, and he’s earning great reviews for his performances this season. Pulisic had a goal and an assist in Dortmund’s opener against Wolfsburg and scored this impressive winner against Hamburg.
But Pulisic wasn’t at his best in Dortmund’s loss to Tottenham in its first Champions League match. He was excellent over the weekend against Borussia Mönchengladbach, but was outshined by Maximilian Philipp. Reus should play a big role this year despite his injury history, Andriy Yarmolenko has impressed in early limited action, and Schürrle still pops up with occasional flashes of brilliance despite his inconsistency. Pulisic is the first wide player on the team sheet for Dortmund at the moment, but competition for places is fierce, and it wouldn’t take that many bad games for him to be relegated to the bench.
Dortmund needs a big performance from Pulisic to avoid defeat against Madrid, and individually, he might need a big performance to prevent manager Peter Bosz from thinking about trying other players in his place. No pressure.