Older players at his club team in Germany call him Baby. After practice, as he waits for his dad to pick him up, he’s expected to collect their shin guards and other equipment.
But as Pennsylvania teenager Christian Pulisic returns to the U.S. and joins the Men’s National Team for soccer’s Copa America – kicking off Friday in Santa Clara, California, as the USA takes on Colombia – he’ll be no mere ball boy.
At 17, Pulisic (pronounced puh-LISS-ick) has already risen higher and faster than any soccer player in American history. Since January, he’s been turning heads in the top tier of the fabled German Bundesliga, drawing oohs and ahs for his ballet-like ball skills and killer instincts in front of goal. In April, he became the youngest player ever to score twice in the German top league. And on May 28, in a warm-up match against Bolivia, he became the youngest player on record to score for the U.S. National Team.
“It’s been a crazy year so far, and I’m still getting used to it,” Pulisic tells PEOPLE.
But his parents and coaches warn against putting the teen on a pedestal, especially as fans hunger for signs that the U.S. is catching up to the rest of the world, where soccer stars are often born early.
“I’m petrified that it’s all happening too fast,” says Mark Pulisic, Christian’s dad. “There’s a lot of pressure, and we want him to be able to be a kid and learn things on his own.”
For Pulisic, staying mentally grounded means watching endless episodes of his favorite show, Prison Break, in hotel rooms, and stacking his pre-match playlists with Justin Bieber. It also means getting texts from childhood friends back in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and not feeling bad that he’s missing high school parties and other typical American rites of passage.
It also means becoming close with younger National Team members such as backup goalie Ethan Horvath, 20, forward Gyasi Zardes, 24 and defender DeAndre Yedlin, 22, while “trying to feel like I belong, and never thinking I’m better than anyone else.”
It has helped that he went into the family business, he says.
Both his parents played the sport, and Pulisic “was kicking the ball from the time he could walk,” remembers mom Kelley Pulisic, a physical education instructor. “He kept setting goals for himself: juggle the ball a hundred times. Do it with the right foot only. Then only with the left. We could hardly get him to come in for dinner.”
Pulisic learned to race at opposing defenders from dad Mark, a former indoor soccer star. By age 14, he had become a standout on U.S. youth teams. In 2014, when the storied club Borussia Dortmund extended an invitation, Pulisic and his dad moved to Germany, leaving behind Kelley, half-brother Chase, 26, and sister Devyn, 19.
He continued his precocious play in the soccer-mad German city, leapfrogging youth squads to the first team in January, and becoming a favorite among local fans who have begun to chant his name in the Westfalenstadion, one of the world’s great cathedrals of soccer.
“There are lots of I-hearts and tweets and even a marriage proposal on Instagram,” says Kelley, who was alone in front of the family TV on April 17, the afternoon Christian started his first home game against rival Hamburg. “I’m a nervous wreck when he goes in,” she recalls. “I could hardly watch.”
In the 38th minute, Pulisic took a rifling pass in the penalty box, and as 80,000 Dortmund fans rose from their seats, deftly tapped the ball across his body and smashed it past a defender and the leaping Hamburg goalkeeper.
“I can’t describe the emotions,” Kelley says. “I just teared up, I was so excited. My phone started buzzing from every person I’ve met in my life.”
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Pulisic remembers the goal “as a blur, an amazing feeling, with the whole city going nuts because I had scored.” But when his mom finally reached him after the game, Pulisic says in a typical teenage downplay, “I told her to relax, it was no big deal.”
Of course, it was. And it caught the attention of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who will likely bring Pulisic in off the bench in the Copa America, which is seen as a proving ground ahead of qualifications for the 2018 World Cup.
“He knows that he has a long way to go, but he has no fear,” says Klinsmann.
The Copa America, featuring the top teams in South, Central and North America, kicks off in 10 U.S. cities from June 3-26. The USA-Colombia match can be seen live at 6:30 PT/9:30 ET on FS1, Univision and Unimas networks.