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Pulisic Patriot Connection: Mason Played Role in Soccer Tale

Release: 09/04/2017
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Courtesy: George Mason

FAIRFAX, Va. – At this point, Christian Pulisic is more than a household name to soccer fans.

The 18-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, has been touted as the next big star for United States soccer. The midfielder is back up with the U.S. national team playing in a pair of World Cup qualifiers over the next five days. Over the last year and a half, he has made 16 appearances for the U.S.

Almost every time he steps onto the field he seems to make history. Less than 18 months ago, at just 17, he became the youngest American to play in a World Cup qualifier when he did so against Guatemala. Two months later, he became the youngest U.S. player to score in the modern area when he found the back of the net in a friendly against Bolivia. Later that September, he outdid himself again, becoming the youngest American to start a World Cup qualifier.

Amidst all this, he is already setting the foundation for what appears to be a promising professional career. He signed a professional deal with Borussia Dortmund – one of the most successful clubs in German soccer history – of the top-tier German league, Bundesliga, when he was just 16. Earlier this year, he scored in the UEFA Champions League to help Dortmund advance to the quarterfinals. Already this season – his second full year with Dortmund – he has started in six matches.

A whirlwind would be an understatement.

"Fast and furious," Pulisic's mother, Kelley said. "We never really thought… Everybody has hopes and dreams – it just happened so fast. We're as shocked as everybody else. Obviously, we're thrilled. The biggest thing my husband and I always say is we want everybody to be patient because he has had this crazy ride."

Guiding, helping and supporting him every step of the way are his parents – Mark and Kelley.

Like any parents, Mark and Kelley beam with pride as they watch their child achieve his dreams. They have to admit, though, it is special to see him excel at a sport that is dear to both of their hearts.

"It is amazing because that is why my husband and I met – because of soccer," Kelley said. "To have one of our kids follow that same path is pretty cool. Obviously, he has gone way past where we ever went with it."

Soccer brought them together – and George Mason served as the meeting place.

Mark and Kelley, who both graduated from Mason with degrees in physical education, enjoyed successful collegiate soccer careers for the Patriots. Mark played forward at Mason from 1986-89 and is in the George Mason Men's Soccer Hall of Fame. Kelley was a standout defender for the Patriots from 1989-92.

"Obviously it is extra special because it is the place where I met my wife," Mark said. "We look back on those times as time is flying by here and we're getting older. The distance is greater but the memories are still close by."

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The Pulisic family (from left to right): Christian (18), Kelley, Devyn (20), Mark and Chase (28). (Photo courtesy of the Pulisic family).

For both Mark and Kelley Pulisic (Harlow), soccer has been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember.

Kelley first started playing at 5 years old. When she began, though, there weren't any all-girls teams in her area. So she played with the boys.

"It didn't bother me because I fit right in," she said. "That was kind of my style. I was kind of a rough and tough little kid."

Kelley grew up in nearby Burke, latching onto the local club team, the Braddock Road Shooting Stars. Of the 18 players on the team, Kelley said 16 received D-I soccer scholarships. One of those was future U.S. star Mia Hamm, who moved to the area later and was teammates with Kelley on the Shooting Stars and at Lake Braddock High School.

"I say my club team because I was there first," Kelley said, laughing. "The level was pretty intense. There were plenty of us who were on regional and state teams. It was very high level. When she came to the team, she raised it even more. But there were plenty of other players where it was (intense) every day."

With her older brother, Corey, having signed on to play soccer for George Mason just a year before, Kelley became interested in continuing her soccer career just down Braddock Road at a program just four years removed from winning the program's first national championship.

When then-Mason head coach Hank Leung, who also served as an assistant for the U.S. Women's National Team, called Kelley her senior year at Lake Braddock to offer her a scholarship that sealed the deal.

She helped the Patriots reach the NCAA Tournament as a freshman and earned NSCAA All-Region honors as a sophomore. Though she was a defender, she had a knack for scoring. As a senior in 1992, she was second on the team with five goals and 12 points.

"Kelley was an outstanding player for us," Leung said. "I was really pleased we could get her. It was very rare we got an outstanding player who was a local player. That was a huge plus. She was one of my captains and someone you could always count on to get everything done. Anything that needed to be done on and off the field. She was terrific in that sense."

Her consistency might have been her biggest asset, though. She cracked the starting lineup right away her freshman year in 1989 and remained a constant force on the back line of defense throughout her career (her 72 consecutive games started ranks as the fourth-longest streak in program history).

"Earning a starting spot my freshman year is probably one of the things I'll never forget," she said. "You come in as nobody and you have to try earn your place. That is how I think I live my life. If you don't have something handed to you, you got to go out and get it. I think it is where it taught me a lot.

"Just good times. Great memories, great friends that I keep forever, which is kind of more important than anything outside the soccer world."

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Kelley arrived at George Mason in 1989, which was Mark's last season for the Patriots.

Mark had become good friends with Corey already and the two even roomed together for a year. And they both donned gnarly mullets – Mark's full of curls and Corey's brown hair draping over his shoulders.

"That was the 80s, man," Corey said, laughing.

Through their friendship, Mark connected with the Pulisic family.

"I would go over to his house because he was from the area and she would come to a few of our parties that we would have," Mark said. "I got to know her. The soccer teams hung out together, as I'm sure they still do, and through common interests… we hit it off."

A native of Long Island, Mark also grew up with a ball at his feet. His father, Mate, was from Croatia and he passed his love for European football on to his son.

"Obviously as an American, you're introduced to baseball and American football," he said. "But my dad, being from Europe, he introduced me to soccer and it is something I know I fell in love with as well – quickly."

Mark was drawn to Mason in part for its soccer prowess. The Patriots were a contender every year under the late Gordon Bradley, who had coached the New York Cosmos in the 1970s near Mark's hometown of Centereach, N.Y.

Bradley took over the Mason program in 1985 and led the Patriots to a Colonial Athletic Association championship and the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his first season as head coach. For Mark, it fit the bill of a competitive program and also forced him out of his comfort zone.

"I wanted to get away from home and challenge myself away from the comforts of home," he said. "I was definitely looking at programs in the top 10 and George Mason was in that area. It gave me an opportunity to play a very competitive schedule and challenge myself as a player – play against the best collegiate teams."

In Mark's four years – from 1986-89 – the Patriots won 46 games, captured two CAA championships and made three trips to the NCAA Tournament. He played in 72 games, making 61 starts while scoring 35 goals and tallied 81 points – both sixth-most all-time at Mason. His 174 shots are the third-most in program history.

He earned First Team All-CAA honors three times in addition to All-South Atlantic Region accolades as a senior. In 2012, he was inducted into the George Mason Men's Soccer Hall of Fame.

"It was a great experience for me, playing at George Mason," he said. "Memories, friendships I still have and won't ever forget."

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Watching Christian play, Mark and Kelley find it hard not to see some of themselves in their son.

At 5-foot-8, he is the same height his father was in college and he is obviously a scorer – like his father. But his build is sleeker.

"I see Christian's shape of himself, the way he moves, I see a little bit more my side of the family," Kelley said. "His technical ability, his position and goal scoring is more like my husband. I'm hoping he got a little bit from both of us. Got to take credit a little bit."

Added Mark: "I'm grateful Christian got her genes as far as speed and quickness – and not mine."

Mark, a stalky 5-foot-8, 180 pounds in college, makes no qualms about how he found goals – "I was a poacher. I loved getting in the box." Kelley called her husband the "king" at making goals happen within six yards. Former Mason teammate and good friend Bob Lilley described Mark's scoring a little more bluntly as "garbage goals."

And Lilley says while Christian is a skilled passer and strong with the ball at his feet, he has also inherited his father's gritty mindset for scoring. Currently the head coach of the Rochester (N.Y.) Rhinos in the USL – where Mark is an assistant coach – Lilley will often see midfielders wait at the edge of the box, hoping the ball will come to them, rather than join the melee in the box. But not Christian.

"He can be very brave," Lilley said. "He knows the goals happen – run through the box. Get yourself in goal-scoring positions rather than wait out here and maybe they'll come out. His mindset is to get in where the garbage goals are. And that's all his dad."

Mark also was determined to be successful and achieve his goals. One of those was playing professionally. For eight years, he played for the Harrisburg Heat in Pennsylvania, a professional indoor soccer team, before delving into a coaching career.

He finished as the Heat's all-time leader in goals and points and was inducted into the team's hall of fame.

"I was a forward who was very passionate," he said. "I didn't have maybe all the abilities physically as far as speed and quickness but my determination, and passion for the game, brought me to the level where I was able to play professionally afterwards."

And those intangibles that aided both his mom and dad during their collegiate and professional careers have been passed down to Christian.

"Between the two of them, the boy has inherited the work ethic for sure," Leung said. "He is a blue-blood talent that works like hell. There is no question that comes from mom and dad. The kid came by his athleticism genetically, no question. But the fact that he is worked at, built something and done something with it is a credit to his parents for sure."

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Corey Harlow remembers hearing about his nephew playing in game after game and tournament after tournament.

Corey was back home in Virginia and concerned that Christian was wearing himself out. So he called his sister.

"I told Kelley, 'You guys are going to burn him out.' And she said, 'It's not us. It's him,'" Corey remembers. "'He is self-driven. We have to yell at him to come eat dinner.' He is out there training. Out there practicing. They would literally yell at him to come relax… He is harder on himself about soccer than anyone else could be. That's him."

As parents, Mark and Kelley were always cautious not to push any of their children – Chase (28), Devyn (20) and Christian – into soccer or any sport. With both having played they were wary of not falling into the trap some parents do in pressing their kids to follow in their footsteps.

Christian grew up golfing and playing basketball. He threw the football around in the front yard. Soccer wasn't the only sport he tried, but it was the one he kept coming back to.  

"We're very proud. It is something you never expect," Mark said. "It is not the predetermined situation where your son is going to become such a high-level player at such a young age. This just kind of happens, you know? It was something we never pushed. We never pushed him to play soccer. We introduced him to so many sports as a kid and told him to not focus on one thing at a young age, make sure he really enjoyed playing all sports and enjoyed different things.

"It was his choice to focus and really find a passion for the game of soccer. To his credit, he took it and ran with it."

Christian pulled from a wealth of experiences as he was younger. The family moved to England when he was 7 years as Kelley, a middle school health and physical education teacher, received a grant to teach there for a year. Thrust into a soccer hotbed, Christian soaked up his surroundings.

After they returned to the states, Mark got a job in Detroit as the head coach (and later the director of operations) of the Detroit Ignition of the Major Indoor Soccer League. While in Detroit, Christian played for the club team Michigan Rush and then played for US Soccer Development Academy team Pennsylvania Classics.

He was in the US U-17 Residency Program in 2013 when he was only 14. And three years ago he headed to Germany with his dad to begin his stint with Dortmund's U-17 team. In addition, Christian's cousin, Will, also played for the Dortmund U-19 squad last year and is currently a freshman goalkeeper at Duke.

"(Christian is) 5 years old and already at that age he knew what offside was," said Lilley, who has been around the family the better part of three decades and is also in the Mason Men's Soccer Hall of Fame. "He is 9 years old and you can stick him in a 5v2 circle in the middle and he could one-touch pass. He was always around soccer players. Dad was always coaching somewhere. He was just around it, loved it. He was always driven on his own. This has always been Christian's dream. Mark loves it and has a passion for it. But he has let Christian find his own way."

Mark spent the last two-plus years with Christian in Germany, helping him adjust. Both parents have been impressed with how their son has handled the media attention, playing in front of 80,000 fans at Dortmund, learning a new language and enjoying being an 18-year-old while the world watches.

"He is definitely becoming someone we look up to," Mark said. "It is not about us anymore and taking credit for what he has done. Because he is his own person and he is making his decisions. The pride as parents now seeing him become his own person."

At the end of this past school year, Kelley resigned from her position as a middle school health and physical education teacher in Hershey. She plans to take at least a year off to be able to travel to Germany and wherever else soccer takes Christian.

"There is more to the world than soccer," Kelley said. "We are just trying to make sure he keeps level-headed. Because it is a lot. It is a lot to take on as a kid. All of a sudden, you are faced with all the media. Everybody wants a piece of you… It's going to have to mellow for a little bit. We just want him to have time to grow. He's done great now but we still think he can continue to improve. Hopefully everybody will be patient with him."

As the ride continues, the Mason community will be watching with a rooting interest.

Current Patriots men's soccer coach Greg Andrulis has gotten to know Mark over the years and especially since taking the reins of the program in 2005. Though Andrulis would have liked to add another Pulisic to the Mason legacy, it became apparent pretty quickly that college soccer wouldn't be in the cards for Christian – "We would always like to think we were his first college choice," Andrulis with a smile.

But Mason's part in this family's story looms large.

"It is an awesome story," Andrulis said. "A lot of great things happen at Mason and that is one that will certainly go down in the annals of being a successful marriage – in a lot of different ways. The Pulisics, obviously, will have a tremendous impact on the sport of soccer."

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