It took Christian Pulisic less than a year to go from making his debut for the United States men’s national team to becoming its best player.
On March 29, 2016, he played the final nine minutes of a 4–0 beatdown of Guatemala, making him the youngest American to appear in a World Cup qualifier. On Friday night, 360 days later, the 18-year-old phenom tallied a goal and two assists in a 6–0 destruction of Honduras in San Jose. With the Americans desperate for three points after losing the two opening games of the final round of 2018 qualifying, Pulisic played the best game of his national team career.
He didn’t win the game by himself. Clint Dempsey, back for the first time after missing seven months with an irregular heartbeat, scored a hat trick. Jozy Altidore delivered deft passes and a physically dominant performance. Michael Bradley shielded a makeshift back line that consisted of the fourth-choice right back and a reality-show–winning left back who was making his first qualifying start, provided a constant outlet, and got a goal of his own. The U.S. finished with uncommon efficiency while Honduras looked lethargic and discombobulated.
But Pulisic was the star. Bruce Arena, coaching his first game that mattered since returning to the top of the American side in November, deployed his young star in the middle of the field, at the top of a midfield diamond and just below the two forwards. The manager handed Pulisic the keys to the attack and let him drive. The Borussia Dortmund starlet passed the test, and then some. Considering American soccer’s history of failed Next Big Things, perhaps the only surprising thing was how unsurprising his success was.
“This is what we have come to expect from young Christian,” goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has two decades on his teammate, said. “He’s a performer on the highest level. He doesn’t shy away from big moments. The spotlight doesn’t deter him, and for us it’s been great for a guy like him to be able to combine with Jozy and with Clint and to make it look fairly seamless.”
Dempsey, who scored on two passes from Pulisic and added a third on a free kick drawn by the teenager, agreed. “Man, he’s a great player,” he said. “He can beat people one-on-one on the dribble. It creates mismatches because of that: someone else has to try to step to him, and if you’re able to make good runs, he’ll find you. It’s great to have players like that that can win that battle and kind of break teams open.”
Pulisic breaks teams open, for club and country, with calmness and control. Two weeks ago, his goal and assist powered Borussia Dortmund into the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
While he plays quickly, with a relentless and fearless attack-first style, he does so without looking wild. Pulisic knows what he’s going to do before he ever gets the ball. The awareness makes the game slow down, even as he’s bombing forward. His vision manifests itself in multiple ways: an elegant chip to Dempsey, an inch-perfect pass to the Seattle Sounders star, and a relaxed, effortless finish. (Credit to Altidore and Dempsey, too, for their strong work on all three goals.)
Pulisic’s performance wasn’t perfect.
There were too many turnovers, a few errant passes, and other errors. Against better, more organized opposition, one or two of those mistakes could have turned into a problem, but versus Honduras, Bradley and the back line did an excellent job of cleaning up the messes. There’s room to improve. And yet, he’s already come so far.
Pulisic is the real thing. This feels like blasphemy to type. He’s only 18, and the U.S. soccer landscape is a graveyard of players like Freddy Adu, Luis Gil, and Juan Agudelo who failed to live up to the (unreasonable) expectations that American soccer fans and journalists placed on them. There was a time when everyone was really excited about Brek Shea. Or Rubio Rubin. Or pick any other name.
Fox Soccer tweeting “every single touch” compilations shows where we are on the Pulisic hype cycle, but despite the pressure, Pulisic continues, somehow, to exceed expectations. He’s starting, and occasionally dominating, Champions League and Bundesliga matches. He thrived on the wing, then just as easily owned the middle of the field. Arena, who has a deserved reputation as someone who relies a bit too much on veterans, decided his best attacker was a teen from Pennsylvania, and it took about half an hour for Pulisic to prove him right.
If you wanted to write the backstory for American soccer’s ideal first superstar, you’d probably come up with something like Pulisic’s. His parents, Mark and Kelley, played college soccer. He had a stint in England when he was 7 and re-joined the PA Classics, a development academy that prizes actual player development above winning, when his family came back to the States a few years later. At 16, he joined Dortmund, one of the best places in the world for young talent, and his father got a job as a coach with the youth teams to ease the transition. He is, according to anyone who knows him, exceptionally internally motivated. None of this made him a sure thing, but it all set him up nicely to have a chance at success. He’s simultaneously an outlier because he’s exceeding expectations and also, potentially, a sign of things to come for American soccer. He’s a special talent, well supported, following a path that’s possible to recreate. How many 12-year-olds are out there right now playing on fields across the country, watching him and dreaming?
Pulisic is the brightest light on the U.S. team, the only player the media wanted to talk to at training the day before the match against Honduras. The intensity, however, is a step down from his typical day-to-day. Dortmund plays in front of 80,000, including 25,000 fanatics who make up the intimidating Yellow Wall; San Jose’s Avaya Stadium has 18,000 seats and North America’s largest outdoor bar. When asked about the venue for the match, he laughed: “Obviously, [it’s] a bit smaller.”
Friday night, Pulisic owned the venue. He is the best player on the U.S. team, and he’s only getting better. On Tuesday, he’ll suit up for the Americans against Panama. The degree of difficulty is higher, yet just 12 months into Pulisic’s national team career, the only thing that seems crazier than betting on him is betting against him. The next decade could be a lot of fun.