It may seem as though the USMNT’s qualification process has been going on for some 32 years. That’s what happens when you top the latter and everyone has to wait eight years between World Cup appearances (hopefully). Still, it’s important to stress that if the US can get two wins in these three games in the next week, it will basically be no worse than the playoff spot. Sure, nobody wants to deal with that trap door of an international play-off that could cause anything and would rather take one of the three automatic spots, but the US is about where it needs to be.
That’s quite remarkable, as they’ve essentially done it without their best player, Christian Pulisic, for the most part. Yes, he still is. Is he the most important? Maybe not. That title could easily fall to Tyler Adams simply because the US has no one to replace him when they have some guys who can replace Pulisic who can at least take you out of a game. Has Pulisic been their most notable? No, that’s probably Yunus Musah. Still, as far as quality goes over time, it’s Pulisic.
Still, there’s an air of confusion, not quite bordering on disappointment, but creeping a bit in that direction, with Pulisic. And a lot of that comes from everything around him that is in constant motion, more than him, and that is his day job at both the national team and Chelsea.
When Pulisic first entered the national team, he quickly became the undisputed focal point of the entire team. It was mainly because he was so good, so daring, and the rest of the team was rotting inside with age and incompetence. While Jurgen Klinsmann’s fate was all but sealed with a first home defeat to Mexico in the 2017, the move to a 3-5-2 system that night was recognition that the team revolved around Pulisic and they needed to get him to the center. . It was really only because Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones couldn’t move, much less bothered, that the whole thing failed.
Even if Greg Berhalter handed over the team, the first steps in doing so were still a lot of handing the ball to Pulisic and saying, “Do something.” That was only natural as players like Adams and Weston McKennie and others started to find their niche at international level.
But now the USMNT doesn’t need that 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 full-backs like Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson can take to the field and wide. There was obvious symbolism in that the breakout against Mexico was Weah crossing over to Pulisic coming in from wide, having come in as a submarine.
Pulisic, like everyone else, could really benefit from the fact that the US would find a real striker to combine and play against. But we did that show. At times, Pulisic had to fight his heroic tendencies in a team that used to rely solely on them, but now more often than not finds it a roadblock.
At Chelsea, the story is not much different. He came in under Frank Lampard and played in a 4-3-3, which is pretty much home for him. But due to injuries and an adjustment to the Premier League, he was unable to grab a starting spot by the neck. Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz and Timo Werner came in and this summer Romelu Lukaku, and there is competition everywhere. Lampard was eventually knocked out and Thomas Tuchel installed a three-defender system that pushes Pulisic further in or towards a fullback. Rarely has he had time to settle down. And Chelsea is even less in need of its magic acts than the USMNT. He has to fit into the system, and that system is always changing and always provides alternatives for him.
Back to the national team, and the goal against Mexico was instructive about what Pulisic should be, and likely will be in the future. He scored just when fans (and probably players) were thinking: “We’ve been in charge of this game, but we haven’t scored. There’s a suction cup in 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 kind have.
And that’s the balance for Pulisic. This team no longer requires him to go hero-ball like it once did. But he can’t just settle into the dust either. We saw the hero-ball aspect work against a devilishly organized team like Canada, where the US was just 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 there at all, mainly because of an injury.
But that one moment against Mexico, or the second half before he was kicked off the field against Honduras, is where Pulisic inspired the rest of the team. They looked easy for the rest of the game against Mexico and added a second goal. They scored three more goals in Honduras to win there after Pulisic woke them up in the first half.
Essentially, Pulisic now has to pick his spots. That’s what all the big players do (except Neymar, and that’s where you see the problems). But it’s not exactly the easiest skill to learn, and it’s hard to remember that Pulisic is only 23. Mainly because he spends most of his time fighting for a spot on the Chelsea team, which you can’t really do by choosing your spots.
There is a time for Pulisic Hero Ball. There is a time to just be part of the machine. There is a time to pop up and end up in an unexpected place. Pulisic is learning that balance as he is the only one on the team who can do it all for now. One or two more he gets right, and the USMNT can book flights to Qatar as early as next Thursday.