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The U.S. Is Officially Christian Pulisic’s Team — but He Can’t Do It All

He’s the best American soccer player alive, and maybe already the best ever. He’s also still only 18.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Christian Pulisic did not single-handedly defeat Mexico on Sunday night, which, given the excitement surrounding the 18-year-old attacker, might have come as something of a surprise to the casual American soccer fan. Following a two-goal performance in the United States men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying victory over Trinidad and Tobago last Thursday, the Pulisic Hype Train reached Shanghai Maglev speeds, bolstered by stats nuggets on Twitter, many articles affirming the arrival of America’s newest/first superstar, and the now-undeniable reality that the teenage Borussia Dortmund product is the red, white, and blue’s best player.

The Americans earned a point against their archrival. That result, combined with the three points they got last week, moved the U.S. into a momentary tie for second place in CONCACAF’s six-team final round of World Cup qualifying and emphatically removed their campaign from the danger zone. But it was not Pulisic who made the difference on the field at Estadio Azteca. Rather, it was Michael Bradley’s sixth-minute golazo and 84 minutes of inspired defending led by Geoff Cameron that resulted in a 1–1 draw. (If you’re looking for a key to the American resurgence under Bruce Arena, look no further than the single goal they’ve conceded in the run of play during his seven games in charge.) While Mexico dominated possession — finishing the match with a 74–26 edge — El Tri generated just a single shot on net. The Americans might have stolen all three points had Bradley’s late-game blast been four inches to the left.

(Let’s pause a second to talk about the U.S. captain’s goal. Bradley intercepted Chicharito’s pass — after the game, he said he expected it due to film study he and the U.S. staff had done of Mexico’s patterns of play — took two touches and, at full speed, dropped a 35-yard chip over Guillermo Ochoa into an area that couldn’t have been more than a couple of yards wide. At altitude, no less!)

Pulisic, playing as the wide-left midfielder in Arena’s effective 5–4–1, wasn’t anonymous, but he wasn’t electric, either. In the first half, he was the only American player to complete 10 passes. On the night, he tallied two key passes, two recoveries, and a single tackle. In the dying stages of the match, Pulisic had a chance to win the game but couldn’t find the net with his shot from the top of the box — a moment he created himself by beating a couple of defenders off the dribble, using the type of quickness and technique that’s rarely seen in a USMNT uniform. By the end, the teenager, one of only four holdover starters from Thursday night’s starting XI, was exhausted and replaced by Graham Zusi two minutes into second-half stoppage time. It was a good performance, especially considering how little of the ball the Americans had, but it lacked the kind of game-changing moment the U.S. has seemingly come to rely on.

For all the understandable excitement surrounding the kid from Hershey, he’s only part of the equation that will lead to a successful U.S. team on the international stage.

Even with a unmemorable effort in Azteca, Pulisic has dramatically exceeded expectations in his first 15 months on the American team. But that’s kind of the point: The expectations of the U.S. fan base are so low, beaten down by prospect after prospect falling short of lofty (and perhaps unfair) hopes hoisted upon them, and the desperation for a star so high that anyone approaching world-class status gets elevated to extreme (and perhaps unfair) heights that distort their skill level.

Pulisic had an excellent year at Dortmund, sitting eighth between Douglas Costa and Marco Fabián on a list of expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes among nonstrikers in the Bundesliga. That’s fine company, but we’re not talking about Messi and Ronaldo. (Two of his teammates, Ousmane Dembélé and Shinji Kagawa, are above him.) That 0.52 expected goals and assists per 90 minutes figure puts him seventh on a list of under-20 players on clubs in Europe since the 2010–2011 season. (Dembélé’s 2016–2017 season tops that group.) Put another way, the most exciting and most successful American prospect ever wasn’t even the best teenager on his own club team. If Puslisic was Spanish or German or French, he’d be another name on a long list of teenagers who might become a superstar or settle into something a couple of tiers below.

“Christian is an outstanding young player,” Arena said during a prematch press conference. “We’re hopeful that as he moves forward in his career he’ll continue to show the dedication that he has shown in his early years. We think that he has outstanding potential.”

The American coach, never one to give away more than he needs, sounds more dour than the rapturous American supporters when talking about his young charge. That’s his job, of course, but it also hints at the greater reality of the U.S. team: Pulisic is excellent but he’s still not good enough to win difficult games by himself. He’s the best player, but the next best is probably Cameron, who starts for a mid-table Premier League team, or Bradley, whose best skill is making his teammates a little better. Pulisic is a piece of the puzzle, maybe the greatest piece any American manager has had to deploy. He’s still, however, a single piece.

Arena’s challenge is to make the puzzle, fractured into incomprehension by Jurgen Klinsmann’s Dadaist visions, fit together. When he succeeds — and the results against Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico would indicate that he’s figuring out what he has — the squad will look a lot like it has in the past.

“When we get our blend right in terms of football, physicality, athleticism, mobility, speed, mentality, spirit, when we get that right, there aren’t too many teams in the world that are going to have easy days playing against us,” Bradley said. “We feel like we can step on the field and beat anybody. But if a few too many areas start to come down, we’re also honest enough with ourselves to understand that our margin is not real big and then we’re going to start to put ourselves in some difficult spots. For me, it was the case at the end of last year that a few too many areas started to drop. I think Bruce has done a very good job of coming in and little by little, getting every … just raising the level across the board. A big part of that is this idea of team, of spirit, of mentality, of balls.”

While the puzzle gets built around Pulisic, Arena is finding other pieces, too. Sunday night’s match was the first World Cup qualifier since October 10, 2009, that neither Clint Dempsey nor Jozy Altidore started. Both players will return to the starting lineup in the future, but their spots are no longer guaranteed. Emerging talents including Bobby Wood and Darlington Nagbe are pushing for prominent roles in the front six. (Pulisic’s movement on and off the ball can make Dempsey’s skill set redundant, but that’s a whole other column.) Twenty-one-year-old Kellyn Acosta paired with Bradley in the midfield, looking strong and making a case that he should start even after Jermaine Jones returns from injury. Right on schedule, his own personal mini-hype cycle is brewing.

The U.S. youth movement, led by the teenager but bolstered by others, had a good week.

“We have a great mix of young guys who can really provide now and in the future,” said 22-year-old Paul Arriola, who played well in his first World Cup qualifying start. “I see a lot of us — Kellyn, myself, Christian, obviously — I don’t think we should be talking about us being the future anymore. I think we should step up, and this was a great game for us to demonstrate [that we could].”

Against Mexico, Pulisic had, by his outsize standards, an off night. There will be more of them in the future. His teammates, young and old, picked him up. We saw his limitations, just as we did against Panama in March. Still, one or two games don’t alter the plans to make him the centerpiece of the American squad. “We’re going to continue to lean on him as he grows,” said Tim Howard.

The U.S. will, and the U.S. should. But it’s still an open question of how much weight the 5-foot-8, 140-pound teenager can bear. He’ll need some help hoisting the load.