So much of the talk around Christian Pulisic is in the future tense. How good could he be, how soon will he be ready to play every week for Dortmund, when should he look to move to a first team elsewhere. This is fine, since he’s 17 and has been playing first-team soccer for less than a year. However, to focus on his future at the expense of his present is to miss the point. Christian Pulisic is already one of the best 11 players the United States has. He was the best player on the field for the USMNT. He’s already here.
Tonight, he made his first start for the United States as they swept away Trinidad and Tobago 4-0 to reach the next round of World Cup qualifying. The Soca Warriors are not among CONCACAF’s elite, but they’d already booked passage to the hexagonal round before the game and they tied the USMNT last November. They’re the sort of pesky, counterattacking team that the USMNT can occasionally struggle with, but tonight, they walloped them. Pulisic was at the heart of their dominance.
What’s most exciting about Pulisic is that he offers the USMNT something new. Nobody else in the player pool creates the sort of angles he does. The USMNT prefers to build up goals from the flanks inward, using big, battering ram strikers fed by aggressive fullbacks. Pulisic offers them another, more refined way of attacking a packed-in defense. Unlike the midfielders around him, Pulisic can shred defenders with his dribble. Specifically, he has the ability to rip away from fullbacks to get crosses into the box with violence and precision. That weapon’s a new one.
Fans saw his scoring prowess on display against St. Vincent last week, but tonight, he showed off everything else he does well. He’s a smart off-ball runner, who helped pull a center back away from Jozy Altidore on his first goal, and banged the would-be opener off both posts with a delayed run into the box.
Pulisic also broke up at least two dangerous counterattacks by running down and dispossessing opposing midfielders. By the second half, he was leading every attack. There was the time he found himself in an overly advanced 3 v. 1 and he calmly took one dribble forward, got all three to lurch at him, then played it back into the space to keep the attack moving forward. There are little bits of polish to his game, and of course, there’s also the big highlight-reel shit, like when he zipped past Trinidad’s hapless right back, took a beat, then curved a perfect pass to Altidore for another goal.
Most of the errors he made were either due to unfamiliarity or overambition. He easily could have scored three times, and one of his near-misses set the table for Paul Arriola’s closing goal (he also started that attack with a full-speed steal, then escalated it with decisive run through the center backs). Altidore scored a pair, but Pulisic was the USMNT’s best player tonight, and it wasn’t even particularly close. He and Fabian Johnson make for a fearsome left side.
There is plenty of logic behind waiting to proclaim him a savior or American Messi or anything that hyperbolic, but there is also the bare fact that he was the best, most composed player on the field in his very first start. There’s no reason to try and hurry anything along, because the present-tense Christian Pulisic is very real and very good. The best USMNT starting eleven is one that features Pulisic. As he said himself, if he’s ready, he’s ready:
I’m sick of people saying, “He’s only 17.” It doesn’t really matter to me. I feel like I can make an impact. That’s it.