The Birth of an American Soccer Superstar: Christian Pulisic – The New Yorker
Since 1990, the U.S. men’s national team has qualified for the World Cup, the quadrennial soccer spectacle, seven successive times, making it one of only seven countries in the world to do so. This uninterrupted success is due, in part, to the fact that the United States, situated in a region that has few soccer powers, typically faces relatively weak opponents in its qualifying tournament. On Friday, however, in Orlando, heading into its match against Panama, the U.S. team’s streak seemed very much under threat. The game was the United States’ second-to-last of the Hexagonal, the six-team tournament that determines which teams from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean go to the World Cup, which will next be held in 2018, in Russia. Just over a month ago, the United States suffered an embarrassing 2–0 loss to Costa Rica, at Red Bull Arena, in New Jersey. Four days later, the team travelled to Honduras and, after a late goal, managed to escape with a 1–1 draw. Only the top three teams automatically qualify for Russia. Heading into the Panama match, the United States was in fourth place. A loss or a draw would have forced the U.S. team, under the best-case scenario, into a two-game playoff against another country that had also failed to automatically qualify. Failure to advance to Russia would amount to a humiliating setback for the U.S. men’s soccer program, which still badly lags that of the sport’s élite countries in Europe and South America.
Prior to the match, much of the speculation had been over where Bruce Arena, the U.S. team’s head coach, would play Christian Pulisic, the team’s nineteen-year-old wunderkind. On Sunday, Pulisic was the subject of a “60 Minutes” special, in which Arena said that Pulisic had the potential to become “the first American superstar in the sport.” Pulisic, who made his début on the national team at the age of seventeen, normally plays winger for Borussia Dortmund, one of the top teams in Germany’s Bundesliga. Lately, Arena had been trying him in a similar role, on the right wing, with the idea that this would give Pulisic more space to dribble at defenders and utilize his speed. The results, however, had been uneven. On Friday, after the team lineups were announced, it became clear that Arena had decided to end his winger experiment with Pulisic and instead start him in the middle of the field, in a playmaker role, just behind the team’s two forwards.
By the eighth minute, Arena’s change had proved to be a shrewd one. After a U.S. goal kick sailed down the field, one of the team’s forwards, Bobby Wood, flicked the ball onward to his partner on the forward line, Jozy Altidore, who neatly deposited it at the feet of the onrushing Pulisic. His first touch of the ball, a quick movement with his left foot, sent him past a Panamanian defender, who seemed rooted to the spot as Pulisic dashed past. With his second touch, about twenty-five yards from the goal, he evaded a desperate sliding tackle from the same defender. Pulisic’s third touch, with the outside of his right foot, sent him and the ball around the goalkeeper, who had hurried out of goal to cut off the angle. Pulisic was now nearly at the end line, to the right of the goal. But, with his fourth touch, delivered just before his momentum sent him tumbling to the ground, he cut the ball back across the goal and into the empty net.
Pulisic sprinted toward the corner flag and slid on his knees in celebration, then got to his feet, tugged at his jersey with the United States emblem, and stomped toward the exultant fans, as if to taunt anyone who had the temerity to doubt this team, or him. The emotional release in the stadium seemed a recognition of the moment––when a player of extraordinary promise fulfills it, at a time when it is most desperately needed.
Ten minutes later, Pulisic gathered in a bouncing ball near the left sideline. He dribbled at a Panamanian player just outside the penalty box. After a quick feint, in which he stepped with his right foot over the ball, he used his left foot, almost in the same motion, to tap the ball toward the end line. With a burst of speed, he had just enough room to maneuver past the defender and send the ball across to Altidore, lurking in front of the goal. The burly forward side-footed it home, making it 2–0. The setting up of the Altidore goal brought Pulisic’s tally during the tournament to four goals and four assists, out of fourteen goals scored up to that point by the U.S. team.
Altidore added a third goal, on a penalty kick, just before halftime. In the fifty-seventh minute of the match, Arena decided to bring on another player to substitute for Pulisic. Panamanian players had been rough with Pulisic—who is just five feet eight, and about a hundred and forty pounds—throughout the match, repeatedly fouling him, whether he had the ball or not. With the game well in hand, Arena wanted to protect his precocious star. The match eventually ended at 4–0, leaving the United States in third place in the region, behind Mexico and Costa Rica, with a final crucial qualifying match on Tuesday against Trinidad and Tobago.
Afterward, Pulisic was limping as he made his way back to the locker room, a reminder of the fragility of the United States’ soccer aspirations and the ever-growing weight of expectations, now resting so heavily on his slight shoulders.