USMNT is Pulisic's team now, but his greatest test yet awaits at Azteca
Former U.S. national team player Brad Evans summed it up best on his Twitter account: “Here, [Christian Pulisic],” he wrote. “Take the keys.”
Pulisic has arrived, and he’s ready for whatever role anyone in U.S. soccer is ready to throw at him. He is the face of the program and he is the future. He is Bruce Arena’s playmaker and the centerpiece for this team in Russia. When the U.S. steps on the field at Azteca on Sunday night, that is where he should be: At the heart of it all in the playmaker role in which he has thrived in two home qualifiers in this cycle.
The American soccer scene has been in a perpetual state of anxiety when it comes to Pulisic. There was the inevitable hysteria, followed by the warnings not to overhype, which were subsequently overcome by the inability to ignore his clear talent, and finally finished off by one last attempt to slow the frenzy.
After the 18-year-old started in the No. 10 role and scored two more goals on Thursday night against Trinidad and Tobago, however, there is no stopping the inevitable. Pulisic is the star of this team, and no matter what changes Arena makes when the Americans go down to Azteca, one constant should remain: Pulisic as the No. 10. It will be an almost unprecedented assignment – even Landon Donovan was 23 years old in his first start in a World Cup qualifier at Azteca, (though he did score against El Tri at age 20 in a World Cup game) – but it’s a job Pulisic has earned.
It is understandable that Arena has tried to give Pulisic some space to grow, but the teenager has voiced his desire to have those reins removed and his play has done plenty to back that up. His confidence is clear, almost to the point of youthful naiveté.
“It’s going to be a tough one, down there in Mexico, especially,” Pulisic said on Fox Sports after the 2-0 win over Trinidad. “But we really want some revenge on them from when they got us earlier this year, so we’re really confident going into that game and we’re going to come out with a win there, too.”
The U.S. men have never won a World Cup qualifier in Mexico, and El Tri has dropped just two home qualifiers in its history. Pulisic doesn’t care. It’s the same brashness that makes him such a dangerous player in the final third.
Pulisic has scored or assisted on eight of the U.S. national team’s last nine goals. Both of his finishes against Trinidad and Tobago showed his uncanny ability to be in the right spot at the right time, and to understand off the ball movement that breaks down an opposing team. Whether playing with Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey ahead of him, or underneath a lone striker, Pulisic has the knack for getting into the right spot and creating opportunities. He did so against Honduras in March in a 6-0 win, and he repeated that effectiveness against Trinidad and Tobago.
Arena moved him back out to the wing on the road against Panama in a qualifier in November, even after his standout game against Honduras, but that shouldn’t happen against Mexico – no matter how tempting it might be to fit the puzzle pieces together.
Arena will certainly have to make changes. The U.S. midfield looked a bit too stretched up the gut in the diamond formation against Trinidad and Tobago, in part because Pulisic’s natural habit is to stay higher up the pitch. Against a more talented midfield and in the unfriendly venue that is Azteca, those vulnerabilities will be exposed.
The U.S. has often looked far better in a two-forward system, but on the road against Mexico is an exception to the rule. There may have been a hint of the plans for El Tri when Arena subbed in Kellyn Acosta for Clint Dempsey with a half hour left against T&T. That gave Acosta some time to work as a two-man defensive midfield with Michael Bradley. Adding Acosta into the mix and leaving Pulisic in the No. 10 role, however, would likely mean benching both Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood against Mexico.
It’s not an easy call to make, but it would be the right one.
Arena could try to compromise by moving Pulisic out to the right wing and leaving Dempsey in the lineup as a second forward underneath Altidore or Wood in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 hybrid, but while it’s logical to defer to Dempsey’s experience in games like this, it’s no longer clear that he’s a better option than Pulisic in that role.
If Pulisic is going to be The Guy in Russia – and right now, it looks that way – then it’s time for him to be given that test in Azteca. Even if it means sitting or finding a new role for a legend like Dempsey.
It’s time to hand the keys to the teenager.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.