Commentary

Dortmund's depth a blessing or a predicament for Pulisic?

By Samuel Charles
@SoccerIsArt

Christian Pulisic burst on the scene earlier this year as few American teenagers ever have, leaving hungry U.S. fans savoring what they hoped was his impending stardom, but Borussia Dortmund’s newfound depth could make playing time hard to come by for the precocious Pennsylvanian this season.

Before delving into how a transfer outlay of over $100 million on eight new faces by one of Europe’s top clubs will affect the most promising U.S. player of his generation, perhaps we should all take a deep breath and read the following sentence more than once.

Christian Pulisic is still just 17 years old.

Now for the reality that will disappoint many: Barring injuries, it's highly unlikely that Pulisic will see the playing time in 2016-17 that he enjoyed a season ago, after joining Dortmund’s first team over the winter break.

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There is considerably more depth available to Thomas Tuchel as he enters his second year as Dortmund's coach this season, particularly in attack, which is why rumors that Pulisic could be loaned out surfaced last week, prior to being quelled.

Before detailing that depth, here’s another reminder to fans of all ages riding what came to be known as “the Pulisic hype train” about the value of patience.

If all goes well, in 2030 U.S. fans will watch a 31-year-old Christian Pulisic follow his 15th season as a professional by playing in his fourth World Cup (ignoring any U18, U20 or Olympic participation with the national team).

Quality adds quantity. Right after his first-team debut, I penned an article giving several reasons why Pulisic was poised for more playing time. Those reasons included his technical ability, speed of foot and mind, and being well suited to his then first-year coach's system.

Dortmund undoubtedly had one of the world’s best starting 11's last season, but the primary reason Pulisic saw meaningful playing time was the team’s lack of depth, particularly in attack. This is true for many young players, whose first opportunities come due to depth or injury issues.

However, overnight Dortmund has become one of Europe's deepest teams. Those who follow the club closely have noted BVB could now field two teams. You'll notice Pulisic didn't quite make the second team for Luca Gierl of The Yellow Wall (an assessment I’d agree with).

Fans frustration over Dortmund being forced to sell its biggest stars reached its zenith this offseason, when three of BVB's five best players left for Munich and Manchester: Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

The club reacted with a historic spending spree, and while Mkhitaryan, a player Pulisic said he modeled his game after, was the only outgoing attacker; the majority of incoming players will play there, causing the current predicament for Pulisic.

Mario Goetze’s high-point at Bayern Munich came in Brazil while scoring the World Cup-winning goal, his return brings mixed emotions and plenty of publicity. Andre Schuerrle's arrival from Wolfsburg broke BVB's transfer record, in euros. Two of Europe's top teenagers were also added, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor.

Sought by Bayern and Barcelona, Dembele’s capture was considered a coup. He showed glimpses at Rennes last season suggesting the Frenchman’s unpredictable dribbling and blazing speed will eventually make him a household name. Mor, who impressed for Turkey at Euro 2016, is a feisty winger, and perhaps the only incoming player that Pulisic could realistically look to usurp for a place, but he has looked strong thus far.

This is Mor, a left-footed dribbling savant, setting up scoring opportunity for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in Monday’s 3-0 win German Cup win over fourth division Eintracht Trier.

Pulisic was on the bench, but didn’t play in Monday’s win; he dressed because Goetze was nursing an injury. Three regulars from last season were also absent. Marco Reus is not expected back from injury until September, while both Sven Bender and Matthias Ginter were returning from Brazil, as Olympic silver medalists for Germany.

Dortmund bought other players whose addition won't affect Pulisic, including Marc Bartra, Mikel Merino and Sebastian Rode. Although 22-year-old left back Raphael Guerreiro probably will.

Named to the team of the tournament while winning Euro 2016 with Portugal, Guerreiro also played midfield and left wing for his former club Lorient. With veteran Marcel Schmelzer in strong form at left back, Tuchel has already utilized Guerreiro in advanced roles, and he will surely continue to find ways to give him playing time (Pulisic is not the only player whose minutes may be pinched, Tuchel will have to get creative to keep this deep squad happy).

Much of this is unwelcome news to U.S. fans, but to be clear, the lack of playing time doesn’t mean Pulisic isn't progressing -- he’s absolutely a better player now than he was when he joined the first team.

These other players are further along in their development, and more ready to contribute to a team trying to challenge Bayern Munich while playing Champions League soccer this season.

There is sure to be some uninformed chatter about Pulisic “regressing,” or his development “stagnating.” Anyone who thinks a teenager is going to regress while training with Dortmund's stacked first team and playing with their U-19s should think again, and Christian doesn't sound ready to shy away from competing.

"That's how soccer functions, how every sport functions. You have to fight for your position everyday in practice. The boys are ready to take that on -- and that includes me," said Pulisic a few weeks ago.

The glass half full. There were whispers this summer that Pulisic may be loaned out after the huge influx of new talent. They got louder following reports he was upset not to have made the bench for Dortmund's loss to Bayern in last week’s SuperCup. Christian's father put an end to that a few days later with a statement that echoed reports coming out of BVB.

"Christian has no interest in leaving the club," Mark Pulisic said. "He had a good half year last season, and wants to continue to break through."

A former indoor pro, Mark coaches Dortmund's youth teams, and Christian's cousin Will Pulisic, a former U.S. U-17 goalkeeper now playing for BVB's youth ranks, joined Christian and his father in Dortmund this summer.

It’s hard to envision this young man, who roots for the exploits of LeBron James on social media, and lives thousands of miles away from his mom, being loaned out a month before he turns 18 just so he can play with some extra first-team minutes with an inferior club.

Pulisic seems to be enjoying his time at Dortmund; he is still highly regarded by German fans and BVB, which has long-term plans for him, and some areas of his development could be aided by regular minutes with Dortmund's U-19 team.

He played primarily as an attacking midfielder while starring for U.S. youth national teams and Dortmund's youth ranks, but like many coaches shepherding young players, Tuchel chose to field Pulisic almost exclusively on the wings to reduce decision-making and physicality as he transitioned to the speed of the Bundesliga, and playing against grown men.

It's still unclear where Pulisic’s future as a professional or with the USA lies, but he will undoubtedly get featured more prominently, and as a primary decision-maker, with BVB's U-19 team, while playing more centrally.

Seeing Pulisic excel at huge club, after debuting at Dortmund's legendary Westfalenstadion in front of 80,000 fans, sent a shot of adrenaline across the Atlantic directly into fans and his American peers.

While his competitive opportunities with Dortmund's first team are likely to be less frequent, the Borussians reputation as one of the world's best cultivators and producers of young talent has been well earned, and any 17-year-old player would count himself fortunate to train with Dortmund's first team, get sporadic minutes with the senior team, or play regularly with its U-19 team.

Pulisic will do all of that this season.

This kid is going to be just fine, and he’s not giving up his first-team minutes without a fight either.

Following Monday’s cup win, Dortmund played a friendly at third-division Hallescher on Tuesday, winning 3-0. Pulisic started, played about an hour and was one of BVB’s standouts -- looking as cool as ever on this composed finish to open the scoring, off a nice pass from Emre Mor.

4 comments about "Dortmund's depth a blessing or a predicament for Pulisic? ".
  1. Dakota Sillyman, August 23, 2016 at 10:20 p.m.

    I'm less concerned with immediate playing time and more so with BVB's long term plans. I think buying a bunch of players in his same position (especially the young ones) shows that they don't see Pulisic as anything more than a squad player anytime soon. Being a squad player for BVB is nothing to laugh at, but I think his ceiling is higher than that. I'd rather see him get more first team minutes on loan than continue to play in a U-19 league he's already outgrown.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, August 23, 2016 at 10:40 p.m.

    If Pulisic was six years older I might agree with you. Every coach is going to look at someone like that as a valuable long term asset to nurture and protect.

  3. Samuel Charles replied, August 24, 2016 at 4:45 p.m.

    Hey Dakota. I disagree a bit with your second conclusion. I asolutely think that BVB still considers Pulsic's (eventual) ceiling to be much more than that of a squad player. Fans, scouts and the club are still very high on him now, and his potential. The additions were about the world's 11th most valuable club rectifying its abnormal lack of depth last season, and also, making a statement after the painful loss of three big stars. ~ Dortmund's roster continues to change more than fans would like aka opportunities. ~ I'm not sure there's a right answer about playing first-team minutes elsewhere, or staying with his family at an excellent club, this year (he's already played more first-team mins than most stars at his age). I'd definitely like to see him getting some decent first-team mins in 2017-18 -- there is also the possibility he could get loaned at the winter break. But it wouldn't be the worst to slow down the hype train this year (Christian himself said that all of the sudden attention was a bit much for him). ~ Patience is key. We can argue about what's best for his growth, but i think we'll all agree what's most important, is seeing him reach his potential ~ Thanks for reading - Sam

  4. ROBERT BOND, August 24, 2016 at 9:15 a.m.

    injuries always the key-can't wish for that break......

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