school of thought insists that it is unhealthy to crank up the hype train’s lever so it approaches speeds worthy of a Shinkansen. But … but. Christian Pulisic. Christian Pulisic! CHRISTIAN PULISIC. Christian Pulisic.
If there is hope when the US face Mexico at Estadio Azteca on Sunday night, it lies on the 18-year-old’s small but sturdy shoulders. Hard to conclude otherwise after the 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday in Colorado.
This is a roster replete with decent players capable of getting a team to the second round of a World Cup finals, and one step farther if the draw’s kind. Pulisic, though, even so early in his career, is the only one who looks like he’d belong in the line-up of a top-10 nation, a side that expects to reach the semi-finals.
Of the two outfield regulars with the biggest reputations, though only 29, Michael Bradley appears to be settling into a role where he is more shield than sword, disrupting the opposition rather than defining the flow of his own side’s attacks. Substituted after 61 minutes on Thursday, Clint Dempsey subjected his coach, Bruce Arena, to that famous Deuce glare, eyes boring into his target’s soul like an electric drill bit.
That surely reflected natural frustration at missing an ideal opportunity to grab the goal that would bring him level with Landon Donovan at the top of the US’s all-time scoring chart. But it’s tempting also to see it as a symbolic moment, a scene stemming from the pathos of a player on the way down who knows he’s ceding his status as the key forward to a team-mate roughly half his age.
Pulisic scored his second goal of the game a minute after Dempsey trudged off. And like the former Premier League man in his prime, it was a move that showed him to be both an exuberant creator and a clinical finisher.
Forced to pick between the two, it’s not a hard choice. Given that both tend to roam all over the final third, making Jozy Altidore’s selection important because his more static style provides a fulcrum for attacks, Arena may well have to make a decision. The US have only ever won once in Mexico, a 1-0 friendly victory in 2012. Overall, El Tri have won 23 of 26 home games against their rivals. Starting with all three forwards would seem hubristic.
Arena said on Thursday that he intends to make changes for Sunday’s match. In the high altitude of Mexico City, on short rest, it would appear logical to put the 34-year-old on the bench and go with the hotter feet of the Borussia Dortmund player, who has seven goals in 15 international appearances, five of them coming in eight World Cup qualifiers.
“He’s ahead of his time – he gets the ball he’s super comfortable on it, he’s never ever panicking, you see him when he gets inside the box he stands his defender up and the world is his oyster. He’s special, these guys don’t come around very often,” said Tim Howard, the US goalkeeper.
Will Mexico try to intimidate him physically, as T&T tried as did Panama before them? “If I were any team that played us I’d certainly target him. Not sure he’d win a street fight but he’ll always get stuck into a tackle, he’s not afraid. He’s a big boy, plays in the Bundesliga, he knows what it’s about,” Howard said. “But he’s not afraid and that’s huge for us. Because you look at him, he’s not the biggest, not the strongest, teams are always going to come in and try and get stuck in to him.”
The highest-profile encounter in Concacaf’s Hexagonal qualifying phase is in one way also the lowest-pressure for the visitors. Students of the fixture’s history, as well as the relative positions of the teams, could only conclude that the Americans are highly likely to lose.
Mexico beat Honduras 3-0 on Thursday while Costa Rica and Panama shared a goalless draw. The US win lifted them to third in the standings, six points behind Mexico in first.
Mexico have conceded only once in five Hexagonal games. Arena’s team was unconvincing enough at the back, especially out wide, to merit a sense of foreboding about what might transpire in the Azteca if the favorites are at their incisive best. “We know that we are taking on a very difficult opponent, but they should think the same way about us,” the Mexico coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, told reporters.
Pulisic, though, has uncommon self-assurance as well as remarkable talent. “They’re a good team and they’re not easy to beat at home so it’s going to take a lot, but I think the guys we have, the confidence we have, I think there’s no reason why we can’t do that,” he said.