LONDON, England – The lights drop, smoke machines bellow and a thumping techno beat overwhelms the senses. Huge LED screens, rapidly cutting imagery of wild cats and bright concentric shapes, cocoon the huge circular room.
Twenty years ago, this vast building in London’s industrial Docklands was a printing press, producing the sports pages that landed on the doorsteps of England’s capital.
Today, Nike has transformed it into a dystopia that’s part Blade Runner and part Apple Keynote speech, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of one of their signature cleat designs. They’ve invited the cadre of global sporting heroes who would have dominated the back pages when the presses ran here two decades ago.
On the stage in front of the towering screens, Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard and an army of world-renowned players stand, shoulder-to-shoulder. They stare intensely into the distance with monastic concentration, as cameras flash and throngs of fans jostle in a bid to get the cleanest shot on their smartphones.
Taking his rightful place among the superstars on stage is a teenager from Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Christian Pulisic, arguably the greatest soccer player ever to be born within the United States, has been flown to London directly from training with Borussia Dortmund.
After his brief appearance onstage, he will be rushed across town to the airport, to ensure he boards the last flight of the evening headed to the Ruhr area. He cannot miss tomorrow’s training session; his adopted home nation isn’t typically renowned for tardiness.
Moments before this bombastic main event kicks off, I am ushered into a small, quiet room to meet the jewel in the USMNT crown.
Here, the 19-year-old sits in jeans and a Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers T-shirt — a much more understated outfit choice than most of his peers at this event would consider.
Pulisic is mild-mannered, thoughtful and affable. His entourage is small and friendly. If Americans are regarded as brash and ostentatious by European sensibilities, Pulisic does not fit the bill.
His choice of shirt prompts an easy opening salvo: “If you weren’t a soccer player, what would you be?”
Without hesitation, he says he would be playing professional basketball or American football.
“I’ve always been a pretty good athlete,” he adds, in something of an understatement for a prodigal talent who played just 15 games in BvB’s youth system before promotion to the first team at 17 years of age.
When I propose the theory that an athlete who excels in one sport is likely to be good at others — like Jimmy Graham or Michael Jordan — he qualifies his aspiration: ”Of course, I’d like to feel confident I’d excel, but I’m pretty small for the other sports.”
Given his humble-yet-pragmatic outlook, the time seems right to delve into the empty pages on his schedule this summer …
Bailey: Is there anything you think should have been done differently in the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign?
Pulisic: Yes, I think there could have been some better decisions in terms of putting players in certain positions and formations in certain games. But but looking back at it is hard. Not qualifying was devastating. I just have to move forward with the whole thing.
Do you feel a bigger weight of expectation in the national team shirt or the Dortmund one?
I would think a lot of people would expect me to say the U.S. shirt, because the whole country is relying on me to do “whatever” … whatever I’ve heard them say in the media. But I don’t look at it like that at all. When I put on the U.S. jersey, I play for myself, I play for my family, and I play for the team. That’s really all I do.
So you don’t ever get nervous?
Of course. I’m like any kid, I get nervous. But once I get on the field, I just take a few touches on the ball and dribble past a guy and it all just goes away. That’s how I’ve always gone about it.
What do you expect from the USMNT in the next World Cup cycle? And where do you see the team in 20 years’ time?
What I’m trying to do now is be a leader and help us to move forward. I’m really hoping that we can continue to grow and develop similar talents to myself. There are some talents already — we showed that in the last friendly.
But, I just hope we can continue to grow as a country and become a real world force. That’s my biggest goal and what I’m trying to help with.
You’ve experienced soccer at a youth level in the U.S. and Europe. Is there anything that U.S. Soccer could learn from the way things are done in Germany?
Absolutely. I’ve experienced first-hand how the system is in Germany. I’ve seen how well-developed and professional they are, even at a young age. I learned and grew so much as an individual there. I think there’s so many things that we could learn.
It’s hard to say exactly. I think it’s the professionalism of their academies; how the age groups are set up and how they have high-quality games every weekend.
The kids are just fighting for spots, and for contracts, because that’s their life. There’s a big difference in competition.
Is there anything the U.S. youth system does better than Germany?
[Laughs] I mean, it’s hard to say. I’m not saying the U.S. system is poor at all, because I learned a lot from it. There’s a lot of great coaches and good things I did there as well.
Do you think young players in the U.S. system would benefit from moving to Europe?
Yeah, absolutely. I tell anyone I know that if they have a chance to go over to Europe, the worst thing they can do is learn. And if it doesn’t work out, at least you learned something.
Do you ever see yourself playing in the Premier League?
Yeah, the Premier League is always a dream. It’s a great league and I know it’s really competitive, but right now I’m under contract at Dortmund and I’m very focused there. Things have been tough in recent times and I’ve been doing everything I can to help the team to get out of this little slump. Hopefully we can continue to do well in the Bundesliga and the other competitions.
There are lots of rumors tying you to Premier League clubs out there right now. Are you aware of that?
I hear things, but I’m not looking around right now. But in football, you never know what can happen.
At some point in your career, would you consider a return to the U.S. to play MLS?
That’s also something I would never put of out the question. Any American kid would love to one day play in that league, so you never know.
But right now, I’m trying very hard to be a consummate professional in Europe. That’s always been my dream.
As my time with Pulisic draws to a close, I am struck by his modesty and awareness of his status within soccer.
He knows he is being linked with transfers to the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. He knows the country places a weight on his shoulders when he pulls on the national team shirt. He knows that the media expect “Wonderboy” to be a leader.
We sometimes assume that the world’s biggest players are protected from the real world by a bubble of celebrity. That they are impervious to criticism, pressure and media hype.
But Pulisic is a teenager in a 76ers shirt.
Before he makes his way to the dystopian room with the LED screens and techno soundtrack, I ask if there’s anything he misses about living in the USA. I hope for a playful comment about Hershey’s chocolate, or a revelatory secret E! Channel obsession.
But the answer is a little more melancholy.
“I miss my family. And I miss my best friends — seeing them go to college and doing fun things.
“I miss it a lot.”
Christian Pulisic shakes my hand and goes to take his place in the limelight.
Ryan Bailey has covered soccer for Yahoo Sports since 2010, regularly providing insight on the beautiful game through his columns, interviews and video reports. Follow him on Twitter @RyanJayBailey.