Mark Zathey is the Director of Coaching for Michigan Rush. Mark has been with the Rush since 2006 and is a leader in the Rush Operations and Direction. He has been a major influence on thousands of players and dozens of coaches. Christian Pulisic, now 18 years old and playing on the U.S. National Team and for Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, is one of the youth players who played for Michigan Rush in the mid 2000s. Rush Soccer requested a few responses from Mark regarding Christian Pulisic and his playing days with the Rush:
Rush Soccer: How do you know Christian Pulisic?
Mark Zathey: I met Christian, his sister, 'Dee Dee', and his parents, Mark and Kelley, when they moved to town for Mark's job as the head coach of the indoor pro team, the Detroit Ignition. Over his time with us, Christian played for Nick Deren, Eric Rudland, and I.
Rush: How are his parents?
Zathey: Wonderful people. Mark Pulisic is a former indoor pro, and played in the 'A' league under the MLS. A bad knee injury helped Mark turn to a coaching path earlier than he would have preferred. He spent some time in England, and earned his UEFA A. Christian's mother, Kelley, was high school teammates with Mia Hamm. Mark and Kelley met in college. They both played at George Mason University. Mark and Kelly both helped us coach on staff. They were both fantastic coaches in our club during Christian and his sister, "Dee Dee's," time with us. We were fortunate to have them join us. They are great people on and off the field. Christian was invited to guest play with Barcelona 'on trial' twice when he was with us. Barcelona offered Christian a spot in their Academy. The family did not want to move at that time as they had some anxiety about moving the family and putting too much pressure on Christian at that age.
In addition, Mark and Kelly's soccer background gave their roles as parents a unique experience in guiding Christian's development. The family 'played' with the ball in the backyard, trying new tricks everyday for 20-30 minutes. Mark felt this was Christian's most important time in soccer. No training, just practicing the craft with the ball: chipping balls in trash cans, bending balls around trees, etc. Christian's mother, Kelley, is a great coach and tremendous teacher with a warm heart. Role model? Her workout, she called, '666': 6 mile run, 6 days per week, at 6 am.
...We are products of our environment.
Rush: Why did Mr. and Mrs. Pulisic choose Rush during their club search before moving to the Detroit area?
Zathey: One thing I am proud of, and had previously only commented to our staff, is that Christian's parents, Mark and Kelley, chose the Rush over the other clubs in the area. Mark came to Michigan before the rest of the family and he went around to watch club teams train and play games well before the family moved to Michigan. Certainly after Christian arrived, the top clubs were not shy to recruit him. After I got to know Mark on a personal level, I asked him why he chose us for Christian's development. At that time, he cited the staff professionalism, quality training, focus on soccer development of our players, and welcoming nature of our parents.
Rush: What was special about Christian?
Zathey: What was 'special’ about Christian was his relationship with the ball and his desire to improve. When he dribbled and took players on in 1v1 duels, it looked like he had the ball on a string tied around his foot. He looked so relaxed and at ease with the ball on his foot. Honestly, I am not sure how much we can lay claim to Christian's development. I have been around a few dozen players who have been/are pros. Christian has been different from all the others I have been around. Those of us who saw him daily at those ages could easily tell he had 'it' from the day we first saw him. His touch, decisions, genuine passion for playing, and competition were evident to all who watched him.
There is no doubt he trained hard, listened intently, gave every ounce of energy he could in every game we had him. I think there was just a passion in him to improve himself that drove his development. Gratefully his family was able to support that internal drive. I remember we had a close game where he scored two goals and got an assist. He narrowly missed a penalty kick. We won the game, and Christian was great on the day.However, at the next training Mark told me the night after the game he had to calm Christian down so he could go to sleep. Christian was so upset with himself for missing the penalty kick. Quiet, fierce determination. In personality, Christian and his sister were both very nice and very respectful to our coaches and their teammates.
Rush: Do you have a message for young players with the same ambition?
Zathey: A message for other players who have the same ambition: Build a relationship with the ball everyday. Direct your passion into a desire to improve. Find role models. Christian's dad would sometimes call Christian 'Figo'. That was Christian's favorite player at the time. Christian was around the indoor pro players his dad coached. They watched top level games together. This helped Christian see technical skill at a professional level and develop his awareness and insight for decision-making.
The video below is of Christian and his parents on his journey from youth soccer to the professional stage (Christian is in a Rush uniform in some of the clips of his younger years).
Rush Soccer wishes Christian and his family all the best as he continues to further develop his passion for soccer at the professional level.