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SSFC Spotlight: John Pulskamp looks to cement spot with Sporting Kansas City

The goalkeeper is pushing for the number-one role.

Minnesota United FC v Sporting Kansas City Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

The start of the upcoming Major League Soccer season is drawing closer, set to kick off at the end of the week. Every year brings forth the emergence of new talents, while established prospects take on greater responsibility. John Pulskamp appears set to assume the number-one role with Sporting Kansas City, having claimed the lion’s share of minutes to close out of 2022. The 21-year-old goalkeeper is a player to watch, earning first-team experience at a younger age than most at his position.

Born in Bakersfield, California, Pulskamp competed with Central California Aztecs and Real So Cal, noted for his maturity at a young age and placing a priority on communication. In 2017, he joined the LA Galaxy Academy. The goalkeeper received a few call-ups to the match-day squad for the reserve team but remained on the bench, departing the youth setup “in an interesting way” with some “interesting conversations had.” English side Bournemouth brought him in for a trial, spending six months training, but contract negotiations stalled due to assumed issues acquiring a work visa without a European passport.

In 2019, Pulskamp joined the Sporting Kansas City reserve team on a professional deal, turning down a commitment to the University of Portland. In his first professional season, Pulskamp made 14 appearances in the USL Championship, registering a 4-8-2 record and three shutouts. The club rewarded him with a Homegrown contract on a deal for three years with a team option for 2023.

“We’re very excited about signing a young goalkeeper of John’s quality,” said head coach Peter Vermes. “More importantly, I’m proud of the way he has bet on himself, worked his way from Sporting KC II and earned an MLS contract. Now it’s about taking that next step as a professional and we believe John will continue to improve as he gains more experience.”

The following year, the club utilized him in two matches for the reserves, with switching between levels made more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He became a back-on the senior squad, showing up on the bench for the final 11 fixtures. In 2021, Pulskamp opened the schedule as the number one, starting the first five matches, becoming the “third-youngest MLS goalkeeper to win a regular season match.” However, Kansas City relegated him to a back-up role in place of the veteran Tim Melia, only making two first-team appearances the rest of the season.

Last year began in a similar fashion, with Pulskamp playing sporadically with the reserves and in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. However, midway through the schedule, he began starting again with the first team following an injury to Melia, earning Team of the Week honors in August. The goalkeeper ended the season by featuring in 12 out of the final 14 fixtures and is looking likely to continue in the role. Kansas City re-signed him to a three-season contract extension, including an additional one-year option for 2026.

“Coming off of last year, it’s sort of my position to lose,” Pulskamp recently told The Bakersfield Californian. “I think it’s crucial for me to really just continue on the trajectory that I’ve been going. Just don’t have any drops in form, show that where I was last year is just the start, and that it’s only [going to] be improving, which it has gradually throughout the years.”

At the international level, Pulskamp has received occasional call-ups from the United States program, beginning with the U-14 team. He attended camps for the U-18 and U-20 squads, playing for the latter group in a friendly against Mexico, but the U-20 World Cup for his age group was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His first senior invitation was in December of 2021 for the friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina. The goalkeeper is also eligible to compete for Palestine and has engaged in limited contact with the country’s football association, expressing a willingness to consider any proposal.

Standing at 6’4”, Pulskamp possesses great composure and is able to cover the entirety of the goalmouth with ease, which are assets on penalty attempts. Everybody Soccer named him one of the top American goalkeepers under the age of 24, praising his “balance and quick footwork,” while he describes himself as “aggressive” and “quick off his line.” Chasing a Cup notes that shot-stopping is “problem area,” pointing to negative trends in advanced analytics. With the ball at his feet, his general instinct is to clear out as fast and far as possible, although quick throws are a regular restart to the build-up.

His constant drive has already born fruit during his young career. “If you’re in this profession and you want to be successful, you have to be self-accountable,” Pulskamp told The Blue Testament. “You have to, in a way, be your own harshest critic – not in an unhealthy way where you’re hurting your own confidence, but you need to be able to look at yourself and analyze yourself to get better because there’s a lot of guys in the roster and there’s a lot of guys in the league. If you’re not constantly looking at yourself in the mirror, you’re not going to improve at the rate of the guys who are.”

As with most young players, there will be occasional hiccups, with errors at the goalkeeper position often ending in catastrophe. Ideally, Sporting Kansas City will ride out the bad days, but results, not development, are the priority at the senior level. If Pulskamp is able to hold onto the number-one role and turn in strong performances, he could make his return to the USMNT setup. The 21-year-old will be eligible for the upcoming 2024 Olympic Games, which could be his opportunity to shine on the international stage.