Sunday night might have been one of the most exciting and important nights in USMNT history. The U.S. team notched its second-ever result at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, a 1-1 draw with El Tri that put the USMNT back in prime World Cup qualifying position with four games left to go in the Hexagonal. (The next match is against Costa Rica right before Labor Day.) It was a well-played game, smartly coached by Bruce Arena and sharply defended by veterans like Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez against a longtime rival in one of the toughest places to play on the planet. It also featured one of the loveliest U.S. goals you will ever see, from the much-maligned and never-more-important Michael Bradley.
And yet still, through it all, even in one of the quieter games he has ever played for the USMNT, I couldn't take my eyes of Christian Pulisic.
Pulisic, the 18-year-old wunderkind who scored twice in the Trinidad and Tobago win last week and has instantly become the team's best player (and already one of the best the U.S. has ever had), wasn't a major factor in the draw. He didn't score any goals, he only had one real shot and he was subbed out in the final minutes for Graham Zusi when Arena wanted to assure he got the draw. Heck, our own Cy Brown didn't even mention him in his game recap.
But Pulisic was at the center of everything that happened in the game, even when he wasn't near the ball, even when he wasn't doing much of anything. Arena's much-debated, now-praised decision to play a defensive formation (essentially, as MLS.com's Matt Doyle put it, playing like Costa Rica) allowed Mexico to hold the ball for most of the game -- 74 percent possession -- but they were never really able to turn that into a heavy attack, or at least not the heavy attack you might expect against a team that wasn't afraid to park the bus on defense. (In fact, the one goal Mexico did score was off a counter-attack rather than a sustained aggressive attack in the run of play.) The reason for this is that for the first time, the United States can play a defensive game and still have the threat of a sudden score, and that's because of Pulisic. You could almost sense Mexico pulling back a bit -- an amazing thing to see, in that raucous stadium -- to guard against Pulisic taking off on a breakaway. Even when he wasn't doing anything, you could tell Mexico was thinking about him.
And it did feel like a Pulisic moment was coming, didn't it? After the Trinidad and Tobago win, Pulisic had offhandedly said he saw "no reason" that the U.S. couldn't go into Mexico City and win -- again, something they have never done -- but 75 minutes into Sunday night's game, a victory had never seemed more possible. All they needed was one Pulisic touch late. Then … they got one. Pulisic took off, got a little space, zipped across the middle and … shanked his shot far wide. It was the last real chance the U.S. would get.
The most surprising thing, though, was actually that Pulisic missed; in every other way, he has seemed perfect. (And even after that miss, he went back to his defensive position and played terrifically and quietly, as he had done for the rest of the game.) The United States has a player on its men's national team who is so good that it's actively surprising when he doesn't score the winning goal … on the road … against Mexico … in a World Cup qualifier … with 87,000 people screaming at him to die. And he is 18 years old.
It's worth unpacking that, again. The last time the United States played a World Cup qualifier in Mexico -- a nil-nil draw back in March 2013 -- Pulisic was 14 years old. Soccer is a sport in which younger players can thrive at higher levels more than they usually do in other sports. I was at an Atlanta United game a couple weeks ago when they brought in a 16 year old; no one that young has played in an MLB or NFL game since Joe Nuxhall pitched as a 15-year-old during World War II -- but even among international soccer players, Pulisic is exceptional. FiveThirtyEight's Michael Caley wrote last week that Pulisic wasn't just one of the most dangerous players in German soccer last year for Borussia Dortmund, but one of the best teenagers in all of Europe over the last decade. The kid is already thriving at the highest levels of his sport. If he were from England, he'd be their next great hope. If he were German, he'd be the next star to come out of their machine. But he's American. He's from Hershey, Pennsylvania, the son of a former semipro coach. He's an American kid. Just because we have been so desperate for the Great American Hope for so long that we have anointed all sorts of sorry souls that title far too early in their careers doesn't mean that we don't have one in Pulisic. He's the one we were waiting for.
But that's the thing: Pulisic is not a star you wish on. He's already here. He's already the best player on the team, the guy the attack has been centered around during these two crucial qualifiers. Past stars like Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore have been pushed aside; Dempsey didn't even play against Mexico (after a well-publicized hollering session with Arena after the game), and Altidore may have lost his starting spot to Bobby Wood, depending on Arena's formation decisions. Arena has cobbled together a confident, versatile squad that can play a lot of different ways, but every single one of them is dependent on Pulisic. He's the straw that stirs every drink, even on nights like Sunday, when he's more of a perceived threat than an actual one. At age 18.
This is unprecedented in America in every way. Think of our superstars in every sport. LeBron James, maybe the most accomplished professional teenage athlete of our time, was still in high school at 18. He was still a year away from being drafted by the Cavaliers, where he was good as a rookie but still didn't make the All-Star team. (You wouldn't have called LeBron the best player in the NBA until he was 23 or 24, at the earliest.) Bryce Harper was hitting .256 in Double-A Harrisburg when he was 18; Mike Trout was in Single-A Cedar Rapids when he was 18. Tom Brady was the third-string quarterback for Michigan when he was 18. These are the best athletes of our time, our heroes, our legends. And they weren't even close to the pinnacle of their sports at 18.
Pulisic isn't just the best American soccer player right now. He's one of the best players in the world, something Americans never have been, regardless of their age. (I made this joke before, but the best American soccer player of all time, Landon Donovan, is roughly the international equivalent of Jeff Conine being the best Florida Marlin of all time; it's true, and I guess it's an honor, but no one's putting up any statues of Jeff Conine.) Pulisic is the centerpiece, the most vital cog, the one showcase do-whatever-you've-got-to-do-we're-all-counting-on-you player, the generational player that truly does point US Soccer in the direction so many of us have been waiting for our entire lives. This is the guy. This is the guy right now.
The United States is going to make the World Cup next year -- Sunday's draw more or less assured it -- and it will make next summer as thrilling and wild as the World Cup summer was three years ago. (The Confederations Cup, which features Mexico but not the United States, takes place in Russia this weekend, and it's sort of a test run: Soccer during your work day is the best.) But this isn't going to be a novelty, not anymore. The United States has one of the best players in the world, and they're going to have him for the next 15 years. If he plays as long as Clint Dempsey -- and he might play longer -- he will still be at the center of what the USMNT is doing through 2034. He could have five more World Cups in his future. He might be the best player the U.S. has ever had already. Imagine what he will be like then. This is what we were waiting for. The day after one of the biggest USMNT draws ever, and after Michael Bradley's staggering goal, the main USA story is still the teenager. I've never been more excited about the U.S. men's national team. This is just getting started.
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