Teenage American soccer phenom Christian Pulisic came through for Team USA again on Thursday, scoring the team’s only two goals in a win. Now he expects the Americans to win on the road against Mexico.
USA TODAY Sports
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — If you’re minded to temper the hype surrounding Christian Pulisic, thinking his career is still too early and raw for anyone to gaze into the future and wonder what might come next, then there is one person making your job very difficult.
Common sense says that the age of 18 is too young to tell whether a player can elevate himself to world-class status and lift a national team program along with him.
Past experience says there were many before the Pennsylvania-raised teenager to have been anointed as some kind of savior to American soccer, none of whom have lived up to those unrealistic proclamations.
A year’s worth of United States action and a handful of games is a tiny sample size, no one disputes that. Doing the business at a World Cup, against the finest players in soccer, is a different matter to the CONCACAF region.
Yet for as long as Pulisic keeps performing at the kind of level you’d expect from a hardened veteran, mixed with the energy and joy of youth, that hype is only going to simmer and meld.
Thursday’s pair of goals against Trinidad and Tobago sealed a 2-0 victory and gave us a new element to Pulisic, an eminently pleasing one. Could it be that this emerging talent also has that wonderfully useful trait of being “clutch.”
It wasn’t his greatest performance in a U.S. shirt, but was arguably his most important. The scoreline conveys a comfortable night’s work, but this was a game in danger of turning into a headache for head coach Bruce Arena until his youngest player made the decisive breakthrough early in the second half.
Goal scoring is sometimes about being in the right place at the right time, but Pulisic forced himself into optimum position, willed himself there, took a chance by surging forward at the decisive moment and sliding to connect with DeAndre Yedlin’s low cross.
It was the kind of move a confident player makes, and Pulisic, quite rightly, has that in abundance. He doesn’t strut or swagger, but it comes out in different ways.
He showed it with the way he interacted with teammates, older, vastly more experienced heads like Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. He proved it with the finish for his second goal and the one that effectively sealed a much-needed win, calmly slotting the ball past T+T goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams.
Perhaps more than anything, it came bursting out of him moments after the final whistle when he delivered the kind of promise that will endear him even further to the nation’s soccer fans.
“We feel really confident going into that game,” he said of Sunday’s visit to Mexico. “We are going to come out with a win there, too.”
Those are some big words, but they didn’t sound empty. Pulisic plays for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga, one of the world’s most technical and difficult leagues, and has matched up against many of the best on the planet in the Champions League.
Heading down to the cauldron of Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca on Sunday is a challenge, but you can forget about him being overawed by it.
“He is having fun,” Arena said. “I am trying not to get in his way too much. He is a big boy now.”
It was just over two months ago that the campaign looked worryingly grim. The mess left behind by Jurgen Klinsmann was still hanging, zero points had been accumulated from the first two games and a bitter struggle to get back into qualifying contention was staring the squad in the face.
Now, things are back on course, and while a positive result in Mexico is dearly desired, even a defeat would not be terminal to the team’s chances of making it to Russia next year.
Narratives shift quickly in international soccer, where momentum is sometimes a figment of the mind but casts a surprisingly wide net. Rather than nervously looking over its shoulder, now the Americans head south with a spring in their step.
The power of youth is in its fearlessness and such an attribute can rub off on others. There is a solid core to the U.S. group — few goalkeepers have more experience than Tim Howard, Michael Bradley aims to lead by example, Dempsey and Altidore have been loyal and productive servants for most of their careers.
Yet it might be that this time the hype is real and justified, that for the foreseeable future the U.S. will fare as Pulisic fares. It might be that such a burden is one that he thrives upon, rather than being anchored by.
At risk of being one of the proponents of overblown hype, a trap it is so easy to fall into, gazing ahead the greater fear for an observer is that of being too late to jump on the Pulisic train.
It is a locomotive and it is steaming along right now. Long may it do so. All aboard.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @mrogersUSAT.
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