NEW YORK — As he sipped a black tea in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in midtown Manhattan Monday afternoon, Patrick Owomoyela vividly recalled the first time he watched Christian Pulisic play.
“I heard there was a huge talent that does crazy stuff in the youth department and now he’s up there and he’s doing the same stuff, basically, and he seems to be the next big thing,” Owomoyela, a former Borussia Dortmund defender, told Pro Soccer USA in an exclusive interview Monday. “The first time I saw him was actually a game with the professional team, and it was incredible.”
During his years playing in the German Bundesliga, Owomoyela said there were a handful of talented Americans, including current United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter at 1860 Munich, in the league.
But this was a different buzz.
“Suddenly there was this guy and he was just different, better than any other U.S. player I’ve seen before,” Owomoyela said. “That’s what I tell people. He’s not just good for an American player, he’s among the best in the world when it comes to this sport.”
Pulisic became a transformative star at Borussia Dortmund in his three years with the first team, opening an awareness and a marketability for the Bundesliga giant never before seen in the United States.
He’s now the face of the USMNT and became the youngest player in the team’s history to reach 10 goals with the opening strike of a 1-1 draw against Chile in an international friendly at BBVA Compass Stadium Tuesday night.
Pulisic also made headlines with a $73 million transfer to English Premier League giant Chelsea in January. He returned to Dortmund on loan for the remainder of the 2019 season, where he said he’s hoping to guide BVB in a title push the second half of the year.
“It’s not awkward at all,” Pulisic said when asked about his return to Dortmund during a roundtable discussion with reporters ahead of the USMNT’s friendly against Ecuador in Orlando last week. “My teammates are all professionals. They understand how this business works. I wanted to move and they’re all very happy for me. The club is as well. But they also understand I’m here to give 120 percent the rest of the season because I want to win just as bad as all the guys in the locker room.”
Soon, though, the 20-year-old is off for the big time — London. Chelsea. The EPL.
It’s a much larger world than he’s known at Dortmund, which, according to Owomoyela, has a small-town feel despite being Germany’s eighth largest city.
“Now Christian developed into something that makes him good enough and confident enough to take the next step and not necessarily be put in that cocoon phase and be protected,” Owomoyela said. “No, now he’s a star and now he has to take the next step and be a star, and be treated like a star and feel that pressure and not be in that soft-tissue environment. He will find out that it’s different, but I think he’s well prepared for that now since he had a great development in Dortmund.”
Pulisic will be sorely missed at Dortmund, both on the sporting side and from a marketing perspective. But after watching him create a buzz in the academy and then the Dortmund first team, Owomoyela is confident Pulisic will find success in a much larger stage at Chelsea.
“I noticed that he’s looking forward to prove, not to himself, that he’s ready for the next stage,” Owomoyela said. “He was always a guy you could easily talk to. He’s a little introverted. He’s focused. He’s determined, and I think his determination will help him for that step going to Chelsea among all these other big names.”
What made the club the perfect place for Pulisic to grow as a person and a player?
It starts, Owomoyela said, with the academy, which is run by former Dortmund player Lars Ricken. There’s a clear pathway for young players at a club not only unafraid to play its kids, but willing to let them play through mistakes with the first team.
Before Pulisic, it happened with Mario Götze, who joined the first team at 17 years old. And it continues with Jadon Sancho, the 19-year-old English winger who is taking over the mantle from Pulisic as the club’s next big thing.
“They get the chance to prove themselves, and not just once, not just be thrown in there, maybe have a bad or another bad game and then, ‘OK, he’s not there yet,’” Owomoyela said. “No, they get a real chance to prove themselves and develop on the next level. And even though Borussia Dortmund is a club that really aims for the highest success possible. Still, they know that it’s part of their story.”
Dortmund is special, Owomoyela said. There’s an intimate connection between the fans and the club and the players in a working-class city where Owomoyela said there is “either work and then football, but nothing besides that,” and the club is revered nearly as much as God.
It was one of the things that drew Owomoyela as a player, when he went there in 2008 from a Werder Bremen side near the top of the table to a 14th-place Dortmund squad just bouncing back from near bankruptcy and looking to build up again under a then relatively unproven coach named Jurgen Klopp.
Not long after, Dortmund won the league, and then the double and was in the Champions League final. Owomoyela is hoping that rags-to-riches, miracle-type story resonates with U.S.-based fans now that Pulisic is leaving for London.
It’s the story he tells on his journey around the United States, from New York to Chicago and elsewhere as part of his new job as the club’s international ambassador. It’s why Dortmund will be in America on a preseason tour this summer and have soccer clinics established throughout the country.
“That’s the strategy we’re trying to keep up knowing that our biggest door opener, our biggest hook for the U.S. is going to leave,” Owomoyela said. “But I think people already understood what’s different about Borussia Dortmund compared to different clubs in Germany that are active in the U.S. market.”
While Pulisic is the face of the USMNT team, he’s at the center of a young core under Berhalter. Also central to that group are Weston McKennie (Schalke) and Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), two more young American players finding success in the German Bundesliga.
Owomoyela said in many ways the league and young American players are the perfect fit. The league can’t afford to battle the EPL and Spain’s La Liga with big-money transfers, so while other leagues splash cash, the Bundesliga creates opportunities for younger players.
“It’s a cultural thing in the Bundesliga that the teams are young, . . . and I think talents from England, from the U.S., from Spain, young people would get a real chance in the Bundesliga to play,” said Owomoyela, who also provides commentary on Bundesliga broadcasts.
The trio are just cutting their teeth on the international level, but with their talent under the guidance of Berhalter, Owomoyela thinks the USMNT could be at the cusp of something special that could culminate with what he called a “great impact” in the 2026 World Cup.
“It’s a big chance. Now you have a lot of young talent and you have to have the right way of showing them how to do it,” Owomoyela said. “Gregg Berhalter obviously knows football from so many different angles. He is very well experienced and can give these guys the right guiding with the right influence from a Europe point of view, and also as an American. That could be a great thing coming up these next couple years.”