It may feel like the USMNT’s qualification process has been going on for about 32 years. Which is what happens when you cock-up the last one and everyone has to wait eight years between World Cup appearances (hopefully). Still, it’s important to stress that the U.S., if it can manage two wins in these three games the next week, will basically have no worse than the playoff spot locked up. Sure, no one wants to deal with that trap door of an international playoff which could throw up anything and would just rather take one of the three automatic spots, but the U.S. is just about where it needs to be.
Which is kind of remarkable, because they’ve essentially done it without their best player, Christian Pulisic, for most of it. Yes, he’s still that. Is he the most important? Maybe not. That title could easily fall to Tyler Adams, simply because the U.S. has no one to replace him, whereas they have a number of guys who can fill in for Pulisic who can at least get you out of a game. Has Pulisic been their most noticeable? No, that probably falls to Yunus Musah. But still, as far as quality over time goes, it’s Pulisic.
Still, there’s an air of confusion, not quite bordering on disappointment but sort of inching in that direction, with Pulisic. And a lot of that stems from everything around him in constant flux more than him, and that’s with both the national team and with Chelsea, his day job.
When Pulisic first came into the national side, he quickly became the unquestioned fulcrum of the whole team. Mostly that was because he was that good, that daring, and the rest of the team was rotting out from the inside due to age and incompetence. While Jurgen Klinsmann’s fate was pretty much sealed with a first home defeat to Mexico in the 2017, the switch that night to a 3-5-2 system was recognition that the team revolved around Pulisic and they should get him into the middle. It was really only because Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones couldn’t move any more, and could even less be bothered to do so, that the whole thing failed.
Even as Greg Berhalter has turned over the team, the initial steps of that still involved a lot of giving the ball to Pulisic and saying, “Do something.” That was only natural as players like Adams and Weston McKennie and others began to find their feet at the international level.
But now, the USMNT doesn’t need that as much. They can create through the middle through Musah and McKennie. Or the other wing opposite Pulisic with Tim Weah or Gio Reyna or others. Or their fullbacks like Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson can get up the field and wide. There obviously was symbolism in that the breakthrough against Mexico was Weah crossing to Pulisic ghosting in from wide, who had come on as a sub.
Pulisic, like everyone else, could really benefit from the U.S. finding a true center forward to combine and play off of. But we’ve done that show. At times, Pulisic has had to fight his hero-ball tendencies in a team that used to solely rely on them but now finds it a roadblock more often than not.
The story isn’t much different at Chelsea. He came in under Frank Lampard and played in a 4-3-3, which is pretty much home for him. But injuries and adjustment to the Premier League didn’t allow for him to grab a starting spot by the neck. In came Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz and Timo Werner and this summer Romelu Lukaku, and there’s competition everywhere. Lampard was eventually turfed, and Thomas Tuchel installed a three-back system which either pushes Pulisic further inside or to a wingback position. Rarely has he had time to settle. And Chelsea are even in less need of his magic acts than the USMNT is. He has to fit within the system, and that system is always changing and always throwing up alternatives to him.
Back to the national team, and the goal against Mexico was instructive about what Pulisic should be, and probably will be, going forward. He scored right at that moment when fans (and probably players) were thinking, “We’ve bossed this game but haven’t scored. There’s a sucker punch lying around here somewhere, isn’t there?” And then Pulisic saved it all. A well-timed run without the ball, a cool finish, and the kind of anticipation that only players of Pulisic’s ilk possess.
And that’s the balance for Pulisic. This team doesn’t require him to go hero-ball anymore, the way it once did. But he also can’t just settle into the fabric either. We saw the hero-ball aspect gum up the works against a devilishly organized team like Canada, where the U.S. was simply too slow with the ball and waiting for Pulisic to do something. He was on the periphery as a sub against Jamaica in the last game. He hasn’t been around at all mostly due to injury.
But that one moment against Mexico, or the second half before being kicked off the pitch against Honduras is where Pulisic has inspired the rest of the team. They easily saw out the rest of the match against Mexico, and added a second goal. They scored three more times in Honduras to win there after Pulisic roused them from their slumber in the first half.
Essentially, Pulisic has to pick his spots now. Which is what all great players do (except for Neymar, and you see the problems there). But it’s not exactly the easiest skill to learn, and it’s hard to remember that Pulisic is still only 23. Especially as he spends most of his time fighting for a place in the Chelsea team, which you can’t really do by picking your spots.
There’s a time for Pulisic Hero Ball. There’s a time to just be part of the machine. There’s a time to just pop up in an unexpected spot and finish. Pulisic is learning that balance, as he’s still the only one on the team capable of all of it, for now. One or two more that he gets right, and the USMNT can book the flights to Qatar as early as next Thursday.