When Christian Pulisic first left Hershey to chase a dream in Germany in 2015, not many people outside of soccer circles paid much attention.
Now when he returns home, the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder doesn't have to look very hard to find fans wearing yellow and black or red, white, and blue jerseys with his name on the back.
In fact, he’s such a big deal now that he gets gifts like a pair of Reese’s-themed customized cleats from his hometown chocolate company that knows a thing or two about making a name for the small Central Pennsylvania town on the world stage.
For those who knew him when, his growing status on the world stage as the U.S. soccer wunderkind is a point of pride.
Tanner Therit, a Hershey native who plays soccer at nearby Lebanon Valley College, where Christian’s dad, Mark Pulisic, was the head coach for 12 years, first crossed paths with Christian on the soccer pitch and in school.
“He was always a phenomenal athlete and in middle school I remember everyone asking after gym classes how fast his mile was for the day or how well he did on the PACER test,” he said. “He started traveling a lot more in high school, so I knew that his soccer career was going to be serious. When I heard that he was training with the Youth National Team I knew that was only the start.”
Pulisic’s roots in the area extend well beyond Hershey and nearby Lebanon Valley College since he had teammates from all over the region at the Lancaster County-based PA Classics. He also trained with the Harrisburg City Islanders and in the Philadelphia Union’s youth environment before heading abroad.
“Hard for me to say for sure but I would imagine that kids in our club see Christian and it makes it easier for them to visualize that one day it could be them playing for the national team or in Europe,” said Steve Klein, Director of Coaching for PA Classics. “If Christian can grow up playing for PA Classics and can have this much success on the world stage, then it proves that it can be done.”
Jack Brown, a midfielder on the U12 academy team at PA Classics, has a picture with Christian taken at a soccer camp he visited at LVC last summer and a signed jersey hanging in his room.
“I think it’s really cool that I can play for the same club as he did,” Brown said. “It gives me lots of inspiration and confidence knowing he’s making it in Europe and with lots of hard work and dedication I can try to follow in his steps.”
LVC head coach Charlie Grimes, who served as an assistant coach on Mark Pulisic’s staff for three years, has been in a unique position to see the hard work up close and marvel at the rapid progression.
“I remember Christian would come to campus and he always had a ball,” said Grimes, who grew up in the area and played college soccer at nearby Elizabethtown College. “It’s remarkable not only to have somebody from our area make it to the professional level, but become really recognizable on the world stage. He’s not just any old professional player. He’s well known all around the globe.”
Grimes has twice been to Germany, the first time when Christian was still playing for Dortmund youth teams and again a year later after he had broken into the first team.
“Just seeing the difference in that year of how things changed, wow,” Grimes said, recalling that Christian displayed a smoothness on the ball and an extra gear that suggested he was headed toward bigger and better things.
Now it’s not uncommon for Grimes to see people of all ages wearing Pulisic jerseys in his travels.
“Just last night I was at a youth soccer practice and saw some kids wearing Pulisic Dortmund gear,” he said. “It’s neat to see and it’s a good thing for American soccer at this time and for young players to look up to and aim for in their particular sport.”
While it’s easy to wonder how much bigger the homecoming would be had the U.S. qualified for the World Cup in Russia next month, Monday night will be a small consolation for Pennsylvanians to see the rising star in person at Talen Energy Stadium.
“I’m really excited to play in Philadelphia,” Pulisic was quoted saying in an article on the Philadelphia Union website. “Obviously, that’s so close to my home. A lot of my family will be there. I’m super excited to put on the U.S. jersey again.”