Naysayers proclaimed that this version of the U.S. men’s national team didn’t have the typical amount of grit that has historically been a requisite part of its DNA. The Americans, for much of the last few decades, have been stubborn on the world stage, defending low and often and with an intensity that drew respect out of any opponent. But this group, some have said, didn’t feature the same makeup, with so many of their players growing of age in Europe and featuring for some of the best club teams in the world.
That was all negated in the 38th minute of the U.S.’s decisive final group-stage match against Iran on Tuesday evening, when the most famous American soccer player lifted his right leg off the grass and sent the picture-perfect headed cross from Sergiño Dest into the net.
Christian Pulisic wasn’t at full tilt. He slowed himself down a bit, in fact, to time the goal that sent the U.S. through to the knockout stage without hesitation. Then came the collision with 6-foot-4 Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand that left Pulisic down writhing in a very specific kind of pain.
Pulisic puts it away! 😤
🎥 » @FOXSoccer
— U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (@USMNT) November 29, 2022
Is there anything grittier than the star player sending himself into the opposing goalkeeper at near full speed? There is. It’s the player needing to be subbed off at halftime and head to a nearby hospital for scans on what was being called an abdominal injury that included some dizziness. It’s the player FaceTiming into the celebrating locker room from a hospital bed as he watched the tight and often torturous second half unfold so far away from the spotlight.
“Unfortunate that he had to come out from it, but obviously … he’s throwing his body on the line,” Weston McKennie said. “Then that should tell you enough of what this team means and how close this team is.”
In his red, white and blue speckled warmup shirt, a celebratory photo of Pulisic surfaced from that hospital bed with a fitting caption: “So (expletive) proud of my guys. I’ll be ready for Saturday don’t worry.” Four praying hand emojis and three hearts accompanied the declaration. He then made it back to the U.S.’s hotel before the rest of the team and welcomed them in the lobby.
the hotel was ROWDY when we got back 🎉🎉🎉🎉 pic.twitter.com/xa5lBnDWO2
— U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (@USMNT) November 30, 2022
“He’s huge,” Tim Weah said. “Going back to him not qualifying for the last World Cup, and then being here and qualifying us through, that’s just a work of God. God bless him. I love him, and he’s so important to this team. He’s a key player and a leader, so someone that we definitely need.”
In the weeks preceding this FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Landon Donovan spoke openly about how marquee U.S. players digest the rigors of being on such a demanding stage. Pulisic, Donovan said, was no different. Try as they might, all stars know they’ll be judged primarily on their performances while sporting the colors of their country with the world watching.
“You only get so many opportunities,” Donovan told The Athletic.
So far, Pulisic is playing as if he’s fully cognizant of that reality. Even prior to the heroics against Iran, it was undeniable that the 24-year-old Chelsea winger has performed like the needed centerpiece of the U.S. attack despite struggling to get regular playing time at the club level all season.
The sport can be unforgiving this way — a player can look so clean, so confident, so daring on the ball but not have enough to show for it. In the U.S.’s first two matches in Qatar, Pulisic notched the only assist on the only goal scored by the U.S., a perfectly-weighted ball that fellow winger Timothy Weah ran onto in the 36th minute of play in the Group B opener against Wales. Then he scored himself, and sacrificed his body, in the biggest moment so far.
As Donovan said earlier this fall: opportunities to change perceptions of oneself are few and far between. In the 0-0 draw with England last Friday, however, Pulisic was the best attacking player on the field. He was voted the FIFA Man of the Match in a showdown against an England side whose front six are, according to Transfermarkt, worth an estimated €525 million combined. It undoubtedly felt good to perform at the level he did against club teammates and peers from the Premier League, considering how trying of a season it’s been for him.
Prior to the draw against England, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter was asked about Pulisic’s difficulties at Chelsea.
“He’s in a very competitive environment and he finds a way to keep getting himself on the field,” Berhalter said. “That’s all you can ask of a player, that he has the mindset, the determination to stay disciplined and keep working hard and wait for his opportunity, and Christian’s definitely done that.”
That summary also applies to Pulisic with the national team at this World Cup. Against England, he completed 23 of an attempted 29 passes, had 18 total carries, 54 touches overall and created the best chance of the match for the U.S. when his left-footed shot ricocheted off the crossbar in the 33rd minute. For those who have watched Pulisic play with the national team in the last year, it’s been a revelation to see him play within himself. He’s free, but composed. He’s confident, but not rash. He’s not pressing which, he admitted in various interviews throughout the last year, he tends to do when he tries to shoulder the load entirely by himself.
Lined up in his preferred left winger role in a different formation than we’re used to seeing, Pulisic’s impact on the England match was not impacted by a change of shape. Rather than playing wide in a three-pronged attack, he was allowed to be an unlocked winger of sorts on the left side, often drifting inside to disrupt an England midfield featuring two of the best young midfielders in the world in Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham. And often, playing higher, even if it was out wide, than center forward Haji Wright.
Not so much a 4-4-2 as a
— John Muller (@johnspacemuller) November 25, 2022
According to Opta, 18 of Pulisic’s 22 goals for the USMNT have come in competitive matches. He’s not one to pad the stat sheet in meaningless friendlies. And against Iran, in a win-or-go-home World Cup match, Pulisic was as influential as he’d been in the first two outings before the goal and collision that eventually forced him off. For all the criticism Pulisic has received in recent years, Tuesday’s winner against Iran again showcased his ability to rise and meet the moment. He’s done it twice against rival Mexico in tournament finals. He did it against Iran.
And then he ended up in a hospital bed, telling his teammates and America to not worry as he got his vitals checked. At this point, we have enough evidence to be confident that he’ll be ready for the next biggest match of his life on Saturday against the Netherlands.
(Top photo: Chris Brunsklil/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
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- Christian Pulisic is rising to the moment in his first World Cup
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