If there was a single aspect of the USMNT’s exhilarating, thoroughly commanding 6-0 crushing of Honduras in last Friday’s critical World Cup qualifier that was less than perfect, it was at least one outside the purview of everyone involved.
This should probably go down as an era-inaugurating performance. The U.S. looked as capable and coherent and confident as we’ve ever seen, with much of their brilliance coming from the feet of our 18-year-old wonderteen Christian Pulisic, who seems to match and surpass the sky-high expectations of American fans desperate for a true star right as they ramp up the hype even higher. The only thing wrong was that all these beautiful passes and intricate interplay and magnificent goals happened in the dead of night on a Friday. That might have been the best USMNT match any of us have or will see for years, and most of the potential audience missed it.
If you did catch it though? My lord, what a game. First, the necessary caveats: This was a highly motivated U.S. team buoyed by their desire to impress their recently appointed new manager Bruce Arena, in a match they had to win in order to start getting back on track in the World Cup qualification process, against less-than-fearsome Honduras. In addition to all that, the game was at home. There was no way the U.S. were losing this match. And yet the style with which they won was awe-inspiring.
There were many laudable performances, and it was a refreshing reminder of the benefits an actual manager can bring to a team by doing things like giving players roles on the pitch that fit their best characteristics. Rather than go on and on about hat-trick scorer Clint Dempsey and the impressively involved Jozy Altidore and the revitalized Michael Bradley, though, let’s focus on the man of the hour, Christian Pulisic. There was no doubt whose night Friday belonged to:
Pulisic set up the American’s first goal when his smart positioning and movement allowed Altidore to find him open in the penalty area, his keeper-deflected shot rolling into the path of Sebastian Lletget who tapped it into the net. He assisted the third goal by pirouetting the ball away from two defenders, lifting a gorgeous chip over Honduras’s back line onto Dempsey’s chest, who then belted the ball into the top corner. He scored the fourth right after halftime with another smart run in behind and a cool finish. Pulisic laid another one on a platter for Dempsey for the U.S.’s fifth, splitting two defenders with an impeccable through ball that set Dempsey up for an easy goal. He even won the foul that resulted in Dempsey’s hat-trick goal from a free kick.
Not only did Pulisic have a direct hand in five of the Americans’ six goals, he was central to nearly every positive passage of play all match. He was a danger from all spots on the pitch, an 18-year-old given complete freedom to float over to both wings and behind the striker and even deep in the midfield to look for space and help maintain possession. He skipped through swarms of Honduran defenders as if they were the callow teens and he the crafty and powerful adult. At all times he made it a point to show for the ball, to demand his teammates find him by demonstrating his gift for consistently making something happen when he got it, even pointing and gesticulating at his more experienced teammates, instructing them exactly what he wanted them to do with the ball and when. This was an exceedingly winnable home match against Honduras, but it still felt as if for the first time we were getting a glimpse of what the USMNT’s Pulisic Era will look like. Even at this early stage, it looks glorious.
Perhaps the best sign is that Pulisic clearly feels confident and empowered enough to lord over veteran international players who’ve played for the likes of Villarreal, Roma, Fulham, and Stoke City, who’ve competed and won multiple big World Cup matches, and who are veritable legends in American soccer. And he should, because he and everyone on the pitch must know that he is, right now, better than all of them. Even his inchoate club career towers over the vast majority of his teammates’. Pulisic is the youngest player to ever score two goals in the Bundesliga, a key rotation player for the second-biggest club in Germany, and has already featured and starred in multiple Champions League matches. The kid may still be a kid in the eyes of many, but his list of achievements and, more importantly, the moments of genius he regularly creates with the ball at his feet belie any notions of deference to his elders or waiting his turn. Pulisic’s time is now, and everyone knows it.
As big a match as Friday’s was for the USMNT and for Pulisic himself, it still pales in comparison to other games Pulisic has been asked to deliver in. Remember, it was just a couple weeks ago when he was busy helping pull Borussia Dortmund into the quarterfinals of the biggest soccer tournament in the world. A little World Cup qualifier against lowly Honduras early in the hexagonal round isn’t going to shake a kid who’s confronted Real Madrid.
Nevertheless, it still felt revelatory watching Pulisic control and dominate the game last Friday, even for those of us who’ve watched him with Dortmund and know full well that these kind of matches are what he’s capable of. Diehard USMNT fans have waited forever for that one superstar player to drag the U.S. from mediocrity to greatness, and in doing so to capture the imagination of the country so as to keep the team there with generations of newly soccer-mad American talent that grows up dreaming of becoming The Next So And So in the same way every tween with a soccer ball in Brazil wants to be The Next Neymar.
The superstar we hopefuls have pined for would, in our dreams, do what Pulisic did on Friday, and here he was doing it. We have, for the very first time, an honest-to-goodness potentially world-class player who already is probably better than American soccer’s most iconic figure ever was.
So it’s a little bit of a shame that this breakout performance just so happened to be buried late on a Friday night when most of the country had other things to do than sit on a couch and watch a soccer game. No worries, though. This show is just beginning. There will be more than enough opportunities for the country as a whole to realize what we’re in for, and to take it all in.