USMNT hoping Pulisic's Champions League form emerges against Honduras
SAN JOSE, Calif. – It was just two weeks ago that circumstances put Christian Pulisic in a key role on a massive stage.
Marco Reus’ injury played a part in Pulisic finding his way back in the starting lineup for Borussia Dortmund in the second leg of the club’s Champions League round of 16 game against Benfica. The scenario also meant the 18-year-old would have to play an even more important job as a creator for the Bundesliga side.
His reaction was one that belied his age and experience. Pulisic had perhaps his best performance ever as a professional, scoring one goal and assisting on another to lead Dortmund to the Champions League quarterfinals.
There is an eerily similar feel to Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras. It’s not quite the do-or-die of the Champions League game, but for the United States, the stakes feel almost as dire. Like that Dortmund game, key players are out injured, including attacking pieces Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood. There are also other players capable of producing; Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore have more experience on a stage like this.
Yet, there is a sense the U.S. hopes Pulisic will ascend to a more important role with this national team. That a player who reminds Bruce Arena of Landon Donovan, the best player in the history of the men’s national team, will begin to impact games the way Donovan did as a teenager almost two decades ago.
Pulisic didn’t seem too eager to impose that burden upon himself.
“No, I’m not going to put pressure on myself like that,” Pulisic said. “I’m just going to go out like any other game and go out confident and play like I play. We’ll see where it goes.”
Talent overwhelming perspective
He has very little experience at the international level and he’s going to need to get a taste of it to continue to grow ... I look forward to seeing how he reacts ...
It’s almost easy to forget how young Pulisic is and just how inexperienced, too. He’s in just his second professional season with Dortmund. His career with the U.S. senior team isn’t yet a year old.
Arena confronted that lack of experience bluntly, as he does, when asked about the 18-year-old on Thursday. Every morsel of praise was sprinkled with a reminder that Pulisic has room to grow, even with how much he has impressed in the Bundesliga. He reminds Arena of Donovan, for example, but “he has a long way to go before he gets to stand next to Landon,” simply because Donovan did it for so long and Pulisic hasn’t only just begun.
“He continues to make progress as a player and a person,” Arena said. “I think his last couple months with his club team in Germany has been good. He has very little experience at the international level and he’s going to need to get a taste of it to continue to grow as a player, but he has all the tools to become a very good player. I look forward to seeing how he reacts in these next two games.”
Just as Arena wasn’t afraid to throw Donovan into the mix at the 2002 World Cup, he seems set to test Pulisic in these qualifiers. It’s a conclusion his predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann reached, too, when he started the teenager in the No. 10 role against Mexico last November. El Tri overran the U.S.’s 3-5-2 formation in that game and effectively took Pulisic out of that role, but it seems the time is now for Pulisic to feature for this U.S. team.
Pairing experience with confidence
Pulisic may not start in the No. 10 role. It’s more likely he’ll play out on the right wing. Wherever he lines up, however, he’ll be asked to spark the U.S. attack whenever the ball is at his feet.
The Hershey, Pennsylvania, native is aware of the expectations even if he doesn’t wholly embrace them. His answers are measured. He called Donovan an idol, though made sure to say he was his own player, as well. He said the lessons learned with Dortmund will translate into the red, white and blue and acknowledged he has grown from that Mexico game four months ago.
“I always take those experiences and take them with me the rest of my life,” he said. “It’ll definitely help in these big games. I feel much more comfortable and confident going into this one.”
Pulisic’s performance on that Champions League stage was evidence of what a little experience paired with confidence can produce. The U.S. is ready for that to emerge on the international stage.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.