SAN JOSE — Christian Pulisic gallops elegantly past defenders like a gazelle, with the enthusiasm of youth and a sense of positioning that belies his inexperience.
At age 18, he’s getting significant playing time at European power Borussia Dortmund.
And he’s American.
“I just think he’s so much further ahead than I was or than any of us were at that age,” Landon Donovan said.
A week after becoming just the seventh American to score in the Champions League — and the youngest — Pulisic got one goal and set up three others Friday in the United States’ 6-0 rout of Honduras in a critical World Cup qualifier.
“He’s a great player. He can beat people one-on-one on the dribble. He creates mismatches because of that,” Clint Dempsey said after Pulisic assisted on two of his three goals. “It’s great to have players like that can win that one-v.-one battle and kind of break teams open.”
Before Pulisic became an American phenom, he was a wunderkind in Germany. He left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund in February 2015 and after an impressive winter-break training camp made his Bundesliga debut on Jan. 30 last year. He had two goals in 12 appearances, becoming the youngest foreigner to score in the Bundesliga.
He has five goals and eight assists in 31 club appearances this season, and has scored this month in the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League.
“Playing in more big games there, it’s just gaining experience,” he said.
No. 10 jerseys in soccer have a mystique, assigned to the best players on teams like Pele, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, and worn on millions of replica kits around the globe. Donovan was 24 when he took over as the American No. 10 following captain Claudio Reyna’s retirement in 2006. Pulisic was 17 years, 349 days, when he inherited the jersey last Sept. 2 — then coach Jurgen Klinsmann attributed the decision to equipment manager Jesse Bignami. Pulisic scored twice that day at St. Vincent and the Grenadines — the youngest U.S. player with a goal in World Cup qualifying.
Almost daily, Pulisic hears comparisons with Donovan. Back in 2002, Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were both 20 when they helped the U.S. reach the World Cup quarterfinals in the best American result since the first tournament in 1930.
“He was an idol of mine,” Pulisic said. “It’s obviously an honor, but I’m my own player, as well. So I’m just trying to do it for me.”
Pulisic made his national team debut last March 29 in a qualifier against Guatemala and he scored his first international goal in a May friendly against Bolivia. At an age when many past U.S. players were finishing high school or starting college, he already has four goals in 12 international appearances, and he has become close with national team regulars, mentioning Geoff Cameron and Alejandro Bedoya.
He is used to high-pressure matches, playing home games before the demanding crowd in Dortmund’s 81,360 capacity Signal Iduna Park, where 24,000-plus yellow-and-black-clad supporters cram into the standing room-only south stand, known as the Suedtribuene.
“He has built a platform that is as of this time I think unprecedented for an American player,” former American goalkeeper Kasey Keller said.
Already, Pulisic has earned special treatment. His agent instructed the U.S. Soccer Federation not to allow one-on-one media interviews. When Pulisic speaks in group sessions, he is poised and thoughtful.
“Part of it is a testament to him and part of it is a testament to how far we’ve come, because people are prepared now much better,” Donovan said. “For people who have been in this for a long time, it’s great: Someone can go to Dortmund at 18 and not be overwhelmed by it because he’s been watching it, he’s seen it, he’s been there, he’s seen other players do it, he’s seen Dempsey in the Premier League for years, and it’s not a big deal. So it’s a natural evolution, and I’m glad it’s happening.”
Bruce Arena, who took over from Klinsmann following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in qualifiers last November, moved Pulisic into central midfield against Honduras, a role that allowed Pulisic to become the heartbeat of the U.S. attack.
“He continues to make progress as a player and a person,” Arena said. “He has very little experience at the international level and he’s going to need to get a taste of it to continue to grow as a player, but he has all the tools to become a very good player.”
Fifteen years ago, Arena decided to make Donovan a central component of his first U.S. World Cup team.
“He does remind of Landon, but he has a long way to go before he gets to stand next to Landon,” Arena said. “Christian is just starting and we don’t know what it’s going to look like 10 years down the road.”