Sun. Jul 21st, 2024


The glossiest jewel of the US’s golden generation continued to deliver as a captain and goalscorer against Bolivia on Sunday night

Mon 24 Jun 2024 14.10 BST

On 28 May 2016, Christian Pulisic became the youngest player to score for the US men’s national team, finding the net in a 4-0 win over Bolivia in a tune-up for the Copa América Centenario. But what happened the night before was, in a quieter way, no less notable.

Jürgen Klinsmann, then the US head coach, gave Pulisic permission to attend his high school prom in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the night before the match and the 17-year-old hired a private plane so he could make it back to Kansas City in time for the game.

That was the abnormal normal of his teenage years: the tension between the shy kid, a Justin Bieber fan who wanted to hang out with friends in a chocolate company town dubbed The Sweetest Place on Earth, and the reality of his work life as a soaring international starlet who travelled by executive jet before he was old enough to drive alone in Germany, where he lived. A universal rite of passage at his high school and a unique feat for his country, in the space of 24 hours.

A few weeks earlier the forward had scored his first Bundesliga goal for Borussia Dortmund and the Copa would be his first major tournament. In 2017 US Soccer published a website story named All The Things Christian Pulisic Did Faster Than Anyone – and it was not a quick read. So much so soon, yet not enough: his $73m move to Chelsea in 2019 turned sour despite the club’s 2021 Champions League triumph. After the the US failed to reach the 2018 World Cup, Pulisic was left in tears.

No wonder there were times when he seemed a little uneasy, like a young man searching for a foothold in a maelstrom. The pressure of being the glossiest jewel of the US’s golden generation even put him on a therapist’s couch – at least in a car commercial themed around his growing pains.

Now thriving at Milan and coming off a career-best club season, Pulisic looks assured in a leadership role for his country that entails wearing the armband and seizing the moment, as he did on Sunday in another match against Bolivia. If there’s still a weight on his shoulders, he’s not stooped by it. Maturity has not made him cautious or conservative; he still attacks with the rampaging boldness he showed as a callow youth.

In the third minute of the Copa América 2024 Group C opener at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, Pulisic collected the ball on the edge of the box and whipped a high diagonal shot past the goalkeeper, Guillermo Viscarra, who was also between the posts for that impactful game in 2016.

It was all the US were ever likely to need against the weakest South American team at this tournament, and means the Faster Than Anyone list requires an addendum. Pulisic is the speediest USMNT player to reach 30 goals, doing so on his 69th cap, achieving the mark 14 games quicker than Eric Wynalda and 18 games earlier than Landon Donovan. His potential made him famous; his production is only enhancing his celebrity. In Hollywood they would say he has sizzle: a star quality that sets him apart.

“It was an outstanding performance,” US head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the game. “He’s a selfless leader, he goes out and just competes and works really hard and that helps the team and you add to the fact that he’s highly skilled and can make plays on the offensive end and it’s a great combination.”

Pulisic was named man of the match, though as part of his leadership strategy he likes to stress the collective effort. After scoring from a choreographed move with Timothy Weah, Pulisic gestured theatrically into the crowd to credit Gianni Vio, the set-piece coach. Drawing a foul with a bullish run to the edge of the penalty area, Pulisic had also scored from a direct free kick in the previous game, a 1-1 friendly draw with Brazil.

In that game and on Sunday, he seemed to have stepped on the field with an agenda in mind – to define an aggressive, fearless tone from the first whistle.

Tyler Adams made his first appearance for club or country since 30 March in the USMNT’s Copa opener. Photograph: Sam Hodde/Getty Images

For all US Soccer’s talk of a “multifaceted evaluation mechanism” with “advanced data analytics, sophisticated metrics, and cutting-edge hiring methods to profile and rank each candidate” in last year’s search for a head coach, it is hard to believe that Berhalter would have been reappointed after the World Cup had Pulisic not publicly backed him. He is the most influential player, the face of the team and, though aged only 25, the most-capped player in this Copa squad.

The early lead released any American tension. Folarin Balogun, clear on the left after being set up by Pulisic, arrowed the second goal low into the far corner shortly before half-time – an assured finish and a confidence-booster for the forward, who had not scored for the US since last October. Tyler Adams, recently returned from injury, made his first start since March and played 45 minutes. The voluble midfielder captained the US in Qatar. His frequent absences have been a factor in Pulisic becoming a more assertive presence in Adams’ stead.

Substitute striker Ricardo Pepi was wasteful in the second-half, and some of the US’s passing was sloppy. La Paz is more than twice as high as Denver, but despite that home advantage Bolivia are ranked 84th in the world by Fifa, making them by far the weakest of Conmebol’s 10 nations. They have not won a competitive game on the road since the 2015 Copa América in Chile.

A two-goal margin was perhaps the minimum to be expected. Still, Berhalter was satisfied. “The game was never in doubt and I think it’s a good starting point on which to build in this tournament,” the coach said. He praised the standard of the temporary grass field, which will be a relief for organizers after criticism of the surface in Atlanta, the other World Cup 2026 semi-final venue.

Next up is a familiar and manageable Concacaf foe in Panama on Thursday, then a leap in quality to Uruguay, one of the tournament favorites, on 1 July. Uruguay beat Panama 3-1 on Sunday. Brazil or Colombia, who trounced a frigid US 5-1 in a warm-up earlier this month, probably await the Americans if they reach the quarter-finals.

Whether failing to beat teams of the caliber of Colombia or Brazil would be a fireable offense for Berhalter is a matter of conjecture that may prove to be the central narrative that emerges in the coming weeks, especially since there is little controversy surrounding his selections for what is a largely settled lineup.

In some ways, though this is now a team dominated by European-based players, a debate over the program’s identity still rages from the dog days of the MLS-dependent Klinsmann era. How to marry the American traits of yore – scrappy, hungry, sometimes outclassed but never outfought – with a progressive ambition to play and win with style and sophistication? And can the US fuse those qualities under Berhalter against stiffer competition like Uruguay, Brazil or Colombia?

“As talented as we are, we’re only as good as we are intense,” goalkeeper Matt Turner told reporters before the Bolivia game. In Pulisic the Americans have a pugnacious and brilliant figurehead who will surely be essential if Berhalter’s side is to thrive in more difficult games. Eight years on from his Copa debut, when he was a wide-eyed neophyte among veterans, can he lift his teammates to his level?

#Pulisics #pugnacious #sizzle #sets #USMNTs #Copa #América #opener #USA,
#Pulisics #pugnacious #sizzle #sets #USMNTs #Copa #América #opener #USA

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