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Column: For his U.S. teammates, Christian Pulisic is a talent worth protecting

Christian Pulisic receives a pass during the U.S. win over Honduras.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

When Jozy Altidore joined the U.S. national team as a precocious teenager a decade ago, some of his chores included carrying water bottles to training sessions and picking up equipment afterward.

So now that he’s a veteran, Altidore was among those who made sure Christian Pulisic followed the same ritual during training for the team’s two World Cup qualifiers last month. But the orders had nothing to do with punishment or rookie hazing, Altidore insisted. It was more about keeping Pulisic humble and focused at a time when others have hailed the 18-year-old as the second coming of Landon Donovan.

“We have to make sure he keeps working hard, keeps his feet on the ground,” Altidore said. “Hopefully, everybody does a good job or just letting him be himself. Letting him play, let him fail, let him recover again so that he can understand what it’s like to be on both sides.

“Because it’s not always going to be a high.”

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Altidore said that ahead of last week’s World Cup qualifier, during which Pulisic put on a dazzling display of dribbling to avoid three Panamanian defenders before making a deft pass that Clint Dempsey turned into the only U.S. goal in a 1-1 draw.

The assist was Pulisic’s third — to go with one goal — in two qualifiers this year. In just 12 months with the national team he has four goals and five assists in 13 appearances, good for 13 points. Only Dempsey and Altidore have more over that span.

Donovan, widely considered the best American player of all time, didn’t get his 13th point with the national team until he was 20.

And that early success has left Altidore and others fearful that the spotlight will spoil Pulisic. So the team has closed ranks around its teenage star.

“He’s a young kid. Give him time, let him grow,” said Jermaine Jones, who plays next to Pulisic in the U.S. midfield. “Is he the face of this country? I don’t know. Can he be one day? Definitely.

“But he’s still young. Let him grow.”

Offered U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati: “Let’s give this path time to develop. People want to build him up. At the same time, everybody writes about we shouldn’t build him up too much.

“So let’s give Christian some time.”

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Yet with each performance, Pulisic is making it harder and harder to tamp down expectations. Just look at what happened in last month’s qualifiers.

In the 6-0 win over Honduras, Pulisic, a natural playmaker, had a hand in five of the U.S. goals, including a score of his own 14 seconds into the second half. Then, after being pounded repeatedly by the physical Panamanians for the first half hour of the game in Panama, Pulisic embarrassed two of his main tormentors, taking the ball away from Felipe Baloy deep in Panama’s end, then turning Roman Torres around with some slick ballhandling, to set up another goal.

Coach Bruce Arena, who introduced Donovan to the national team 17 years ago and inherited Pulisic from former Coach Jurgen Klinsmann 17 weeks ago, admits there are similarities between the two.

“Christian’s just a natural. The game’s easy for him. He’s got exceptional skill, vision, he’s pretty smooth,” Arena said.

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But, he added in the same breath, Pulisic “has a long way to go before he gets to stand next to Landon.”

He already shares a number of traits with a young Donovan, though, among them incredible talent and a confident swagger. And, like Donovan, he may have burst into the national consciousness overnight but he is far from an overnight sensation.

Both his parents played college soccer, and while Pulisic tried a wide range of sports as a boy growing up in Hershey, Pa., he settled on soccer when he was 7 and living in England, where his mother Kelley was teaching on a Fulbright scholarship.

The family later moved to Michigan, where Pulisic’s father Mark coached an indoor soccer team, before returning to Hershey. By age 10, the pint-sized Pulisic’s skills were so apparent that his dad began taking him on summer trips to Europe, where he trained with prominent academy teams in England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

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By 13 he was playing for age-group national teams and at 14 he joined to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s under-17 residency program in Bradenton, Fla. Then, just as he should have been preparing to enter his junior year at Hershey High, Pulisic was preparing to move to Germany and the youth ranks of Bundesliga giant Borussia Dortmund.

Donovan followed a similar path, going from Bradenton to Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen. But, while the homesick Donovan struggled with the transition, Pulisic, who moved to Germany with his father, has thrived. And what followed has been an ever-expanding list of accomplishments:

--In March 2016, at 17, he became the youngest American male to play in a World Cup qualifier.

--A month later he became the youngest foreigner to score a Bundesliga goal. And when he added a second six days later, he became the youngest player of any nationality to score twice in Germany’s first division.

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--Last May, his second-half goal against Bolivia made him the youngest American male to score for the U.S. in an international match. And then, in a four-day span in September, he became the youngest American male to score in a World Cup qualifier and the youngest American male to start in a qualifier.

“Mentally, it can be a lot,” Pulisic reflected during a lengthy conversation last winter, six weeks after his 18th birthday. “For young players, it is tough dealing with the pressures.

“Luckily, I have had a lot of strong people around me who have helped me through it. I wouldn’t be even close to where I am if I didn’t have the support system I do.”

And part of that support system are his protective teammates on the U.S. national team.

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“He’s going to carry the torch for the next generation,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who made his professional debut a month before Pulisic was born. “While doing some great things now.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: kbaxter11

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