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Christian Pulisic vs. the World

Two middling performances in World Cup qualifiers showed the teenager’s limits. But to get to Russia and succeed, the USMNT will need his brilliance.

Christian Pulisic and other USMNT players Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Between January and August, the United States men’s national team went 14 games without losing. Multiple factors played a role in the 215-day undefeated streak: the organization and belief brought by new coach Bruce Arena, the spacial awareness of Michael Bradley, a favorable schedule that included matches against not-exactly-powerhouses like Martinique and Nicaragua. But the biggest factor was the emergence of Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old attacker whose trajectory for club and country was virtually vertical during his first year and a half as a full-time professional.

Entering the U.S.’s qualifier against Costa Rica on Friday, the team had netted 11 goals when Pulisic was on the field in 2017. He had scored, assisted, or created (by drawing a free kick) nine of them. He’d been even better in World Cup qualifying, tallying five goals and five assists in nine previous matches. He started the 2017–18 Bundesliga season on the front foot, too. In three games with Borussia Dortmund, he’s already scored against Bayern Munich in the German Super Cup and managed a goal and an assist in a league match with Wolfsburg. Pulisic faced huge expectations from American supporters who are desperate for a star, and somehow exceeded them all.

Until this week. Following a 2–0 home loss to Costa Rica and a last-gasp 1–1 draw with Honduras in San Pedro Sula, the Stars and Stripes still control their World Cup qualifying destiny. Two wins in the final two qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago — an achievable task — will almost certainly be enough to get the squad to the tournament in Russia next summer. But the two games showed young Pulisic’s limits, and that while his ceiling might not exist, he’s far from reaching it and he’s going to need an assist from his U.S. teammates to truly transform the team.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When the final whistle blew during Friday night’s match against Costa Rica in Harrison, New Jersey, Pulisic found himself sitting at the end of the American bench. Rather than one of the best, most confident teenage soccer players in the world, he looked like an 18-year-old kid unsure of how his team lost a crucial match.

Pulisic hadn’t managed to make the type of massive impact that red, white, and blue supporters have become accustomed to seeing during his short career. The Ticos marked him out of the game with double coverage. When he managed to find some space, they knocked him over, transgressions that frequently went overlooked and uncalled by Panamanian referee John Pitti. Pulisic came off in the 87th minute, frustrated and disgusted, then parked himself on the bench. Following Pitti’s last bleat, Pulisic continued sitting there as American teammates walked past him onto the field. First Brad Guzan, then Nick Rimando, both veterans who gave Pulisic a conciliatory pat on the head. Kellyn Acosta came next. The budding FC Dallas star midfielder, Pulisic’s closest friend on the U.S. squad, put his arm around his buddy and gave him a hug. The pair, who could be two central Stars and Stripes cogs for the next decade, made their way to the Red Bull Arena grass, where the rest of the American team wandered aimlessly.

The shock was understandable. While no one would say Bruce Arena’s team played their best game, they probably deserved at least a tie. Early on, there was an uncalled penalty on Jozy Altidore. Minister of Defense Tim Howard turned into a sieve on Costa Rica’s first goal. The U.S. created enough chances to win — they led Costa Rica 1.26 to 0.60 in expected goals on the evening — but they couldn’t score. When Real Madrid cheat code Keylor Navas is doing this, maybe it’s not your night:

And so they limped out of New Jersey on eight points, tied with Honduras for the third and final automatic qualification spot and a point ahead of Panama. They were momentarily down but decidedly not out, thanks to the pillow fight that is CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The Americans did, however, need a result in steamy San Pedro Sula.

Pulisic started again on Tuesday evening, the lone European-based player to figure twice in Arena’s first 11 over the past week. As Pulisic had done on Friday, he played on the right wing, a spot that can minimize his playmaking ability but frees him up with time and space when he does get on the ball. Like Costa Rica, Honduras game-planned for Pulisic by double-teaming him, then knocking him down when there weren’t any other options. He drew three fouls on the night, and it could have been more.

There were brief moments of transcendence. With the U.S. down 1–0 and flailing in the 40th minute, the teenager took the ball down beautifully with his first touch and created something out of nothing, only to watch Darlington Nagbe receive his pass and curl a shot harmlessly wide. A minute later, Pulisic created a quick give-and-go with Jordan Morris, only to see the Seattle Sounders forward’s pass go a touch too far, so Pulisic could only manage a weak shot that didn’t trouble Honduran goalkeeper Luis López. Immediately after halftime, Pulisic picked up a ball in the U.S. end, then charged upfield, deking a couple Catrachos defenders along the way. (It was eerily similar to a run he made against Costa Rica in which he turned Ticos captain Bryan Ruíz inside out.) The USMNT’s only goal came off a free kick that Pulisic drew in the late stages. If the U.S. does manage to qualify for the World Cup, that sidestep-and-get-hacked move might go down as the most important moment of the cycle.

So, that’s the good news. The bad is that the wonder boy looked ordinary for long stretches of both matches. He completed just eight of 16 passes against Honduras, and went 0-for-3 on crosses in the run of play. He paired six successful dribbles with five unsuccessful ones. He went long periods without tracking back on defense, much more comfortable pressing like he does with Borussia Dortmund than playing smart positional defense when he’s on the right side of the field and the opposition has the ball in the Americans’ half. This deficiency doesn’t show up on television, but it does in person. Pulisic left Graham Zusi alone far too often in Harrison and San Pedro Sula, which isn’t the only reason the Sporting Kansas City fullback struggled, but it certainly didn’t help.

While Pulisic wasn’t bad over nearly 180 minutes of two qualifiers, he needed to do more. So did his teammates, but the other 10 men on the field aren’t the ones who can transform the U.S. squad as Pulisic has shown he can. That’s why numbers like $100 million transfer fees aren’t completely out of the question. Is that a lot of pressure to put on a kid with 17 international caps and 53 club appearances to his name? Hell yeah it is. He hasn’t shied away from the responsibility, nor has his play before the last week indicated that he couldn’t succeed. And there’s nothing to indicate he won’t in the future, either, but that skyrocketing trajectory met resistance in the Honduras heat.

Without Pulisic, the current version of the red, white, and blue isn’t that different from past editions. Its best look is a bunch of guys working hard, working together, staying organized, being opportunistic, wearing the opposition down, and finding enough results in games that could’ve gone either way. The ceiling is somewhere between 15th and 25th in the world with a slightly better chance to upset a world power than that ranking would indicate. It’s a team that can get out of a World Cup group stage and maybe surprise a better nation or two. A 60–40 underdog still wins 40 percent of the time. (Wondo!)

Pulisic raises the team’s ceiling above that point. Not dramatically — and that’s not a problem right now, though it becomes one if we’re still having this conversation in four years — but he is a type of player that the U.S. hasn’t had before. There’s a superstar waiting to emerge, the potential for an elite playmaker who can help the American team play on the front foot rather than absorbing pressure and countering. He’s still a long way away from carrying the red, white, and blue against a top-10 team, but the mere fact that it’s not outrageous to consider the possibility that he could is remarkable in itself. A year and a half ago, he hadn’t played a World Cup qualifier for the U.S. Now, he’s the team’s best player. “Everything happened a little bit too fast,” Pulisic said during a press conference before the match against Costa Rica. His sudden rise has been astounding, but that he didn’t produce three days later was the biggest surprise of all.

Pulisic is the player American soccer has been waiting for, someone with the potential to transcend the sport and bring it further into the mainstream. He needs to get to the World Cup in Russia to do so. But to get there and to succeed when he does, he needs help from his coach — who should move him back to the middle, where he can be most effective — and from his teammates. On Tuesday night, with the qualifying campaign on the ropes, they showed they are ready and willing. Pulisic drew the free kick but three members of the American generation just ahead of Pulisic’s turned it into a goal. Acosta took the free kick; Morris kept the ball alive; and Wood slammed it home. The qualifying campaign remains more or less on track. It wasn’t pretty, but it never is. Welcome to CONCACAF, Christian. We’re glad you’re here.