Becoming Sporting Kansas City’s first-choice goalkeeper this season will ostensibly require John Pulskamp, at all of 21 years old, to dethrone a 13-year Major League Soccer veteran in Tim Melia.
That’s not quite how Pulskamp sees it.
“Coming off of last year,” he said, “it’s sort of my position to lose.”
After Melia went down with a hamstring injury in late July, Pulskamp completed his rise through the academy and developmental levels to take over Sporting KC’s net for the rest of the year. And as he put it, “We were turning our season around in those last couple months.”
As he settled into the role, Pulskamp kept three clean sheets while allowing just four goals over his last six starts, and the team went 4-0-2. That’s a big part of why, with the team currently undergoing preseason training in Phoenix, he believes it’s “very realistic” for him to start the season opener on Feb. 25.
“I think it’s crucial for me to really just continue on the trajectory that I’ve been going,” Pulskamp said. “Just don’t have any drops in form, show that where I was last year is just the start, and that it’s only gonna be improving, which it has gradually throughout the years.”
The confidence Pulskamp exhibits today is the same he showed back when he was just a young kid tagging along with his older brothers to play soccer, said Ray Sanders, Pulskamp’s longtime coach at the club team Central Cal Aztecs. Sanders said the young Pulskamp, growing up in Bakersfield, was like a “6-year-old man.”
“The type of person that you see who John is now, the good and the bad, that’s kind of how he was at 6, 7 years old,” Sanders said.
What Pulskamp always showed Sanders was an unshakeable confidence, with an intense work ethic to match it. He took advantage of the club’s open-door policy to play whenever he could, and he frequently had to play up to the level of bigger, more experienced opponents his brothers’ age. Not to mention that his brothers had placed him in net to begin with.
“They had a goal in their backyard, and they always wanted to practice their shooting,” said Ricardo Gutierrez, a former Aztecs coach who is now on staff at Cal. “So who did they put in the goal? Their little brother.”
As Pulskamp got older, his parents “pumped every resource” into his improvement, Sanders said, paying for private training to help him elevate his skills further. Despite the productivity of the Aztecs (now called Albion SC Central Cal) and other club teams over the years, Bakersfield isn’t exactly the archetypal soccer market.
“I was trying to kind of carve out my own little space,” Pulskamp said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of resources and different things. There was a select group of people within the community that definitely dedicated a lot of time and effort into making it a place that we could develop.”
At age 14, Pulskamp found himself in goal for a game between the Aztecs and a local men’s team, which Gutierrez said became a formative experience for him. At 15, he moved to Los Angeles-based Real So Cal, and within another year he had joined the LA Galaxy Academy, which he said is “really where I learned how to win.”
“It was a club I grew up watching, right,” Pulskamp said, “going down to L.A. to watch those games, (at what was) then called the StubHub Center, even before that the Home Depot Center.”
Playing for coaches like Brian Kleiban and Mike Munoz, Pulskamp stuck with the Galaxy for more than a year and even reached reserve side LA Galaxy II in the United Soccer League.
But he almost found himself with a chance to bypass the American soccer pyramid entirely when he went on trial to Premier League side Bournemouth. He spent six months in England training with the Cherries, both at the under-23 and top levels — ”a huge moment in my career, an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
“We were trying to work out a contract situation,” Pulskamp said, “but without getting into all the finer details, essentially in England it’s very difficult to get a work visa as a soccer player without a European passport.”
He said he still hopes to work his way back to the Premier League one day.
Either way, his future was not with the Galaxy, where he said he fell out with the higher-ups at the club. When he moved on to the Sporting organization in 2019, his rise accelerated further. Pulskamp went from serving as goalkeeper for SKC II, to helming a first-team season-opening win (due to a slew of injuries) in 2021, and then to handling his lengthy stint in 2022.
“Massive improvement from game to game,” Pulskamp said of his progression. “Every single game helps a young player, right, so playtime is really what helps a young player develop. You’re in a situation you haven’t been in a lot before, whether it’s in the USL or in the MLS.”
Pulskamp’s future is bright in MLS, but also possibly beyond its borders. He joined the U.S. men’s national team — once again in Los Angeles, “at the facility that I lived down the street from and grew up playing at” — in December 2021 for a training camp.
“I look forward to many more in the future,” he said, adding that it was a thrill to wear the shirt.
He’s come a long way already. Sanders remembered sitting with a 12-year-old Pulskamp and watching Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez play against the USMNT. Nine years later, Pulskamp started a game against the Galaxy and saved Chicharito’s attempt at a chipped penalty kick to preserve a 2-2 draw on Sept. 4, in perhaps his most prominent moment of the season.
“I can’t tell you the pride that we feel when we find out he’s doing great things and we get to watch him on TV,” Gutierrez said.
Even at this early stage of his career, Pulskamp stands as a shining example of “a normal kid from east Bakersfield who ended up making it,” Sanders said.
“We use John as a picture of something to look to, of what’s possible within the club,” he said.