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Christian Pulisic’s Moment With the USMNT Has Arrived

Pulisic played well in the United States’ World Cup opener against Wales. He might need to be even better against England.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After the United States men’s national team’s frustrating 1-1 tie with Wales in their World Cup opener on Monday, exhausted American players took a lap around the field to thank their vociferous fans who had trekked to the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. Christian Pulisic strolled around gingerly, almost stumbling about, battered as he was from a hundred minutes of punishment from the burly Welshmen.

The American star forward had made the difference. He had been the Christian Pulisic that Americans desperately hoped he would be in his first World Cup match, the last best chance of breaking down the stodgy banks of defenders encountered at the summit of the international game. Pulisic prodded and poked and hassled the Welsh, running at them every chance he got. He teased and pierced, finding seams and cracks. He was the author of the most threatening moments the Americans managed to stir up in the game. And in the 36th minute, he’d slipped Tim Weah through the Welsh defense to put the USA ahead with a luscious finish.

Pulisic had also not made the difference, inasmuch as there is no difference between two teams in a game that ends in a tie—not mathematically, anyway. For all that Pulisic had done, his team needed a little more from its golden boy. For one more of those dribbles to come off. For one more pass to find a teammate positioned for a chance on goal. For any of his set pieces to find the many strong headers on the team. It wasn’t quite enough. Or maybe it was too much, like all the times he passed up on giving the ball to open teammates. Pulisic has previously said that he feels like he has to do more with the national team than he does with his club team, Chelsea, where he is a role player who often comes off the bench. He admits that he sometimes overdoes it when he dons the stars and stripes. The central awkwardness here is that the Americans now have more weapons than Pulisic alone. He’s no longer attacking plan A through Z, the way he was when he first emerged. The team has several other creators now but continues to play in the service of Pulisic. It makes the Americans more predictable than is really necessary or probably advisable.

Monday’s result puts the U.S. in a slightly precarious position in Group B. It can now ill afford to lose against a deep and gifted England on Friday, which rumbled over Iran 6-2 in its own opener. An even bigger effort will be required to keep this World Cup campaign on track. From Pulisic. From everyone.

“There’s a lot of positives from the game in general,” Pulisic said after the Wales match. “The team looks good. Now we have to figure out how to put that together for 90 minutes … and start to win games. We have to move on and learn from this.”

For the obvious strain that Monday’s game put on the Americans, several of whom hadn’t played that many minutes in months, head coach Gregg Berhalter expects them to bounce back quickly. “This is a pretty easy one,” he said. “You’re getting to play England. That’s the recovery right there. We get to play one of the teams we think is the favorite of the tournament. I think there’s not gonna be many tired players on Friday.”

Some good news there: The U.S. is undefeated in two games against England at the World Cup, winning 1-0 in 1950 and tying 1-1 in 2010.

The bad: Since 1950, the U.S. has won just five of its 27 World Cup games. Worse still, it has scored 26 goals in that span.

“At this level, goals are difficult—unless you’re England,” said Berhalter. “All the other teams, goals are difficult.”

His team will need a few soon. The Americans could really use a Pulisic Game.

I was once told by the parent of a current USMNT player that Pulisic is known by his teammates for being hilarious. Even for someone who has covered Pulisic for almost seven years, since he broke into the senior national team as a 17-year-old in 2016, this counted as a stunning revelation. Pulisic has been very guarded with the media. He’s opened up on subjects he cares about, like his experiences with depression early in the pandemic and his eagerness to help destigmatize mental health. Pulisic is an engaging speaker in these instances. But in press conferences or other interview settings, he’s mostly a tedious quote. The face of American men’s soccer goes out of his way to not say interesting things.

But in the past few weeks, Pulisic has shown us a new side of himself. A more outgoing side. The other day, at a press conference, he was asked the same old unchallenging questions about potential, his and his team’s. So he responded with the same rote, unoffending answers he always does. About changing the way the world sees the U.S. national team, yadda yadda yadda. Pulisic is so fluent in athletese that he sometimes sounds like the automated voice menu you get when you call your doctor’s office. Press a number, get a canned response.

But he actually smiled while he said it. He has a good smile, framed by a good face. Strong jaw. Symmetrical. Enviable hairline. The kind of smile that gets the advertisers on Madison Avenue excited. We rarely see it.

Then, after teammate Yunus Musah had responded to a question in Spanish, Pulisic quipped that his own answer was, “Yeah, what he said.” Then, hinting that he hadn’t understood any of it, another joke: “I’ll just translate for you guys quick.”

Jokes! From Pulisic! As far as comedy goes, they probably won’t lead to a stand-up special, but they were remarkable for being uttered at all.

Pulisic seems to be making a concerted effort to break through his innate suspicion of his own celebrity. To make this World Cup his World Cup. That’s what superstars do, after all: They appropriate the biggest moments, they annex tournaments like the World Cup. And here, now, just such an opportunity is presenting itself. On Friday, against a team that speaks powerfully to the imagination of America’s legion Anglophile soccer fans.

It’s Pulisic’s time to show us all of himself.

Pulisic put out a book recently. To be specific, it’s a coffee table book. It’s heavy and it looks like a ream of bundled paper. It costs $40 and its 240 pages are filled with full-page action shots of Pulisic and lots of pictures from his childhood. The images are interspersed not by prose or any real narrative but by a series of agonizingly unedited Q&As with a fawning interviewer—also, a transcript of a Q&A Pulisic did with some youth players. (“Do you like cheeseburgers?” “I love cheeseburgers, I had one last night.”)

There isn’t much that’s newsworthy in the book, other than some very mild criticism of his former Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel—who had promised him a start in a Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid after Pulisic scored in the first leg, only to change his mind, which left Pulisic “dumbfounded and very disappointed.”

We already knew that Pulisic has extraordinary recall of his long-ago games, that he likes to play chess and the guitar, that he loves burritos. We didn’t know—or I didn’t, anyway—that in school he was good at math, that he keeps Bible verses in his locker, or that he sang “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus as his initiation song when he joined Chelsea. Also, that when left to his own devices, he lives like a retired boomer: retreating to his house in Florida, taking his morning coffee on a deck overlooking the water, playing some online chess, and spending the afternoon Jet Skiing and taking out his boat before going for dinner at a restaurant called U-Tiki Beach.

It all reinforces the impression that Pulisic, who has made a habit of turning down most interview requests, prefers to keep reporters and fans at a remove from his innermost thoughts and feelings—raising the question of why the memoir, as it is styled, exists in the first place. Yet if you manage to trudge through the plugs for his sponsors, one passage is revealing. In it, he talks about how he wrestles with the public’s desire to get to know him.

“This whole transition from being a quiet guy minding my own business to having to be a footballer talking in the media about everything and anything still doesn’t come easy for me,” Pulisic tells his interviewer. “I think if you look at the total spectrum with Messi on the one end—in terms of the privacy of his lifestyle—and someone more flamboyant like Neymar at the other extreme, I’d definitely put myself at the Messi end.

“The things that I’ve found challenging,” he continued, “have been this pressure of having to be public about aspects of my life and this expectation that celebrities must be vocal and out there with their opinions.”

This all dovetails with something Pulisic told me several years ago, just after he had broken out with Borussia Dortmund. He said then that he was overwhelmed by the implications of his sudden fame. “I’m not a guy who wants to show off everything and be seen everywhere,” he said. “I like my peace. That’s just how I am. … In Dortmund I don’t enjoy going to the biggest, most crowded restaurants a lot, where there’s Dortmund fans. Mostly, I’ll just stay local or stay home and make something myself. I’m not the kind of guy who likes all the attention going out. I prefer my peace. I don’t like people talking, ‘Hey, that’s him.’ I just don’t really enjoy it all that much.”

More attention was paid to Pulisic’s recent Volkswagen commercial. In it, he stands at the spot, ready to take a penalty kick. “Under pressure, this is the man you turn to. This is your difference-maker,” the announcer says.

We cut to a flashback of his soccer career. An anchor on a sports desk proclaims him to be “America’s next big export!” Actual Clint Dempsey, sitting next to the anchor, answers: “No pressure, right?” Then they both say pressure a bunch.

Next, Pulisic’s on a therapist’s couch in full uniform. “So where do you think this pressure is coming from?” she asks him.

“Everyone,” he responds in a pained tone.

That pressure has existed since 2013, when a scrawny little 15-year-old Pulisic led the under-17 U.S. national team to a sensational 4-1 win over Brazil in the final of the Nike International Friendlies. He was named the MVP of that tournament, although fellow World Cup national teamer Haji Wright, who won the Golden Boot, perhaps gave a more commanding performance in the final. (This is ironic. Dortmund discovered Pulisic, and signed him not long after that tournament, only because it had come to scout Wright, who went to arch rivals Schalke 04 instead.)

The game was a watershed, commemorated by Pulisic’s tattoo noting the date, vaulting him from a small club in rural Pennsylvania into a battle between some of the world’s biggest teams to sign him. When he pushed into Dortmund’s first team and then the national team far sooner than even he had anticipated, he created a practical problem for the American soccer discourse. How would the mistake of overhyping previous phenoms be avoided?

Freddy Adu was praised so lavishly—and filmed in a commercial with Pelé that made a none-too-subtle suggestion—that nobody noticed that he stopped growing and never picked up the nuances of the game. Juan Agudelo turned out to have a much lower ceiling than many had hoped, and he hit it at age 18. Jozy Altidore had a fruitful career, but fell short in Europe’s biggest leagues.

It turned out that pressure was never the problem with Pulisic. He coped just fine. He became the superstar American soccer had hoped for, validated by his record-smashing $73 million move to Chelsea in 2019. It’s just that unlike the charismatic Adu and the telegenic Altidore, Pulisic was the long-awaited star who had no interest in stardom.

He seems, at last, to have made his peace with the other side of his fame. All that’s left is for him to work out how best to function in the service of his national team. And to show us something memorable.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is covering this World Cup for The Ringer, his third. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.