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Christian Pulisic: a career at the crossroads

Borussia Dortmund's Christian Pulisic plays for the United States against England. (Associated Press)

Nov. 10 was a fantastic evening for Borussia Dortmund. The Blacks and Yellows had just beaten Bayern Munich 3-2 at home at Signal Iduna Park to cement their first-place standing in the German Bundesliga. Seven points clear of Bayern, which dropped all the way to fifth, Dortmund was now the team of the hour. 

Not among those celebrating, however, was American wunderkind Christian Pulisic. The United States national team player spent the full 90 minutes on the bench. 

In his stead, Borussia Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre chose to start 18-year-old English talent Jadon Sancho on the right and 20-year-old Danish talent Jacob Bruun Larsen on the left. Both are currently ahead in Favre’s pecking order when it comes to selecting the three attacking players behind a nominal No. 9 — Paco Alcacer or Mario Götze. 

Meanwhile, Marco Reus has cemented his role as the club’s No. 10. As the captain and undisputed leader of the team, Reus is currently the best player in the league, which means Pulisic will have to dislodge either Bruun Larsen or Sancho for more playing time.

Pulisic has struggled at times when given a chance this season. A decent performance against Union Berlin in the second round of the DFB Pokal two weeks ago was followed by an abysmal game against Atlético Madrid on Matchday 4 of the UEFA Champions League. 

In the 59 minutes against Atlético, Pulisic won just three of his 14 duels and succeeded in only two of his five dribble attempts. Furthermore, he was dispossessed on four occasions and managed to complete just 71.9 percent of his 23 passes before Favre decided to replace him with Raphaël Guerreiro.

Numbers that reflect a general season trend.

Pulisic has played in seven Bundesliga games this season, but he’s started in jst four of them, scoring one goal and two assists. In the Champions League, he started twice and came off the bench once — against Brugge, when he also scored his only goal of the competition.

In general, his dribbling numbers have been on a downward trajectory as well. While last year he managed 2.4 dribbles per game in 32 Bundesliga games, that number is now down to 1.9 dribbles per game — the same number he reached during arguably his most successful season at Dortmund two years ago when Thomas Tuchel was in charge. 

 

Some of Pulisic’s problems this season may stem from niggling injuries that date back to two strenuous Borussia Dortmund summer tours to the United States.

In May, Dortmund traveled to Los Angeles to open LAFC’s new Banc of California Stadium. Then in August, Dortmund was in the United States once again to take part in the International Champions Cup. The Black and Yellows played three games as part of that tournament. On both occasions, Pulisic, as an American, was crucial for Dortmund’s efforts to increase its marketing profile in the United States.  

During that tour, Pulisic also felt the pressure of being perhaps the biggest soccer talent the United States has ever produced. Celebrated almost like a soccer messiah, Pulisic was front, right and center of any photoshoot or celebrity meetup Dortmund conducted.  

That, in turn, meant very little recovery time for a player who played 42 competitive games for Dortmund last season (five goals and seven assists).  

When Pro Soccer USA visited Dortmund in October to attend Borussia’s game against Monaco in the Champions League, Pulisic was not in the starting lineup due to muscular problems. 

“Pulisic is injured,” was the short reply by Lucien Favre when asked. Favre, in general, seemed more interested in talking about the many other young stars in the Dortmund setup. 

Injuries and being overplayed may be some of the reasons why Pulisic has not performed well this season at times. But there is more to the story. 

In Dortmund, Pro Soccer USA met up with ESPN’s Borussia Dortmund correspondent and creator of the popular Borussia Dortmund Yellow Wall Podcast Stefan Buzcko, who said Pulisic “is playing a good season considering he has been dealing with niggling injuries, but at the same time he is upstaged by Jadon Sancho. Christian Pulisic is currently a victim of the virtue that made him: Borussia Dortmund laying their trust into young players.”

The club is always on the lookout for the next big thing to help in the long-term close the financial gap between giant Bayern Munich. Relying heavily on discovering young players that can be sold for a profit, Dortmund has seen revenue grow exponentially the last few years and, for now, has passed Bayern in the standings.

For example, a year ago, Dortmund sold Ousmane Dembélé for €115 million (about $131.5 million) and up to €145 million including bonuses to Barcelona after signing him one year earlier for just €15 million from Stade Rennes.

As a result, Dortmund’s squad is full of young and talented players eager to get minutes. With an average age of just 24.8, the Black and Yellows have the fourth youngest roster in the league. For Dortmund, youth is not just a business model but also a way to succeed on the pitch — and Pulisic needs to keep pace with the fast development at his club.

Perhaps it was somewhat ironic that on Thursday Pulisic’s U.S. men’s national team faced England, featuring Sancho — the very man that has taken Pulisic’s spot in the starting 11 at Dortmund. 

The match was yet another opportunity for Dortmund’s clever marketing branch to grow the club in the English-speaking world. But on the pitch, it was a duel between the past and the present, and Sancho’s England dominated the USA 3-0.

“The main reason why Favre is picking the Englishman over Pulisic is Sancho’s outstanding synergy with BVB’s best player, Marco Reus, who the 18-year-old regularly finds either in the box or with passes into the halfspaces,” Buczko said, adding, “Pulisic’s playmaking quality from the wing is not as prominent.”

At the same time, Buczko also stressed that some of the criticism Pulisic has faced is unfair.

“I think he has improved, but not at the same pace as the team overall, and as a result, his mistakes have become more obvious as they were in the past.”

Statistics company Goalimpact backed that up, telling Pro Soccer USA, “Pulisic has developed as expected, but the speed of development right now is already considerably lower than it was the case when he was 19.”

Some other contributing factors, according to Buczko are “form, Sancho and tactical balance. Favre doesn’t like to start Pulisic and Sancho at the same time.”

Tactical balance, in particular, is essential for the Swiss-born head coach, who is considered a tactical maestro in Germany.

What does that mean for Pulisic’s future at Dortmund? The American is under contract until 2020, and he’s been reluctant to re-sign in the past. That means next summer would be the time for Dortmund to cash in on Pulisic.

Ahead of the season, many would have speculated that Dortmund would like to keep Pulisic around beyond his current contract, but with younger players now coming up the ranks and Pulisic’s development stalling, the Black and Yellows may want to consider cashing in to improve other areas of the squad. 

“I think Pulisic will leave the club after this season. But he will have to improve. Otherwise, it will be even more difficult for him at his next club,” Buczko concluded. 

Nonetheless, the talented American brings immense marketing value, and there will be many clubs lining up for the winger should Dortmund opt to pull the trigger on a transfer.

At the same time, however, Pulisic’s career is at a crossroads — a mega transfer that would fit the hype created around the U.S. prodigy, after all, needs the foundation of another strong season at Dortmund.

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