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Klinsmann, USA running out of reasons to not start Christian Pulisic

The 17-year-old continues to prove himself when given opportunities, and it seems like just a matter of time until he secures a regular place in the U.S. starting lineup.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Christian Pulisic is still very much a teenager. He can’t drive a car yet in Germany—at least not until he turns 18 a week from Sunday—and he’s excited about the possibility of attending a Justin Bieber concert this month.

But the 17-year-old U.S. winger from Borussia Dortmund is also playing beyond his years, having scored twice as a substitute against St. Vincent and the Grenadines last Friday. And now the question is simple: Is Pulisic going to get his first start for the national team in Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier here against Trinidad and Tobago (7:30 p.m. ET; FS1, Univision)?

It certainly seems like it would make sense. This shouldn’t be a high-pressure game for the U.S., with advancement to the final-round Hexagonal all but assured. (Even if the U.S. loses and Guatemala wins, Guatemala would have to make up a 12-goal differential to pass the Americans.) Pulisic did plenty last Friday to earn the start out wide, and the likelihood of Fabian Johnson moving from winger to fullback against the speedy Trinidadians would create a spot for Pulisic.

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But the man who makes that call, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, has been playing coy in recent days about starting Pulisic, almost going out of his way to give reasons not to put him in the lineup.

“It’s a process,” Klinsmann said of knowing when to start Pulisic. “To start a game in World Cup qualifiers with things on the line is tricky. So you think about who you want to start, who grinds the first half and maybe 60 minutes into the game, who grinds the opponent, who gets the opponent tired, who makes the physical plays.

“It’s a big difference to start a game or to come off the bench. So we bring him along, and when we feel like, ‘O.K., this is now a good opportunity,’ then we’ll do it. But at the same time, he needs minutes in his club team as well. Starting him is also questioning then: How long can he go? Because we don’t know. He just barely started preseason. He doesn’t have any games. So you start him, and then suddenly he cramps up after 60 minutes because his legs are not built yet, and you only have three subs. So these are kind of important things.”

Perhaps the coach doth protest too much. Listening to Klinsmann twist himself into a pretzel giving reasons not to start Pulisic, you find yourself comparing the coach to Lou Holtz in his Notre Dame days trying to talk up a middling early-season opponent. The reality is that Pulisic is ready to start, and that his stamina is so strong right now that he could probably play 180 minutes if he had to. And Klinsmann almost assuredly knows that.

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Like any other player, Pulisic wants to start.

“Of course I’m ready to start,” Pulisic said with a smile after the game in St. Vincent. “I think any kid wants to get on the field as much as he can, but right now I’m just trying to be a team player and do whatever I can do. So whatever that takes, I’m ready for it.”

If Pulisic can start in front of more than 70,000 fans at Dortmund and start a Bundesliga rivalry game away at Schalke, then he can certainly handle a low-pressure World Cup qualifier in front of around 20,000 fans in Jacksonville. And while it’s true that he hasn’t been getting as much playing time lately at club level—Dortmund bought four attacking players in the summer transfer window—Pulisic still looked sharp on Friday as a substitute. 

The uncertainty of the transfer window is now behind him. With all those new attackers coming into Dortmund, several teams were interested in acquiring Pulisic on loan or via purchase. RB Leipzig was ready to offer €15 million ($16.9 million), while Liverpool really did offer Dortmund £11 million ($14.8 million), as first reported by Tony Barrett of The Times of London. In the end, Dortmund said Pulisic was not for sale at any price, and the club decided not to send him out on loan.

“I’m really excited to be at Borussia Dortmund right now and start the season there,” said Pulisic, who was included in Dortmund’s roster list for the Champions League.

Pulisic did wear the No. 10 jersey for the first time with the U.S. senior team on Friday, and you get the feeling he could keep that number for a long time now.

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“It’s an honor,” he said of wearing the sacred number. “I know some great No. 10s out there.”

The question is: Once he makes his first start for the U.S., how hard will it be to keep him out of the lineup moving forward?

With Pulisic’s first start a real possibility on Tuesday, we might have an answer sooner rather than later.