CHICAGO — Whatever concern there may have been as Christian Pulisic missed out on about a year’s worth of time with the U.S. men's national team has been alleviated this month, as the 20-year-old attacker has “blossomed,” in the words of coach Gregg Berhalter, on and off the field.
Pulisic is healthy. He fits in. And he’s taken to a system that gives him significant freedom while requiring substantial communication and chemistry. Berhalter has attempted to solve the great Pulisic position question by asking him to impact games both centrally and from the left flank. And the result has been three goals and three assists, which have helped propel the USA to Sunday’s Concacaf Gold Cup final. Another strong performance and an American victory should put Pulisic in frame to be named tournament MVP.
“I’ve been here for over a month now with the team and am just getting to know the guys more and more on a daily basis and out on the field,” Pulisic said prior to training Saturday here at Soldier Field. “We made a lot of progress on the field as well, and I think we showed it last game [against Jamaica] even more, and now we need our best performance yet.”
After emerging as an integral part of Bruce Arena’s team during the USA’s failed World Cup qualifying effort, Pulisic faded from the national team picture. Injuries, club commitments and the uncertain state of the program all contributed. By the time the first anniversary of the loss to Trinidad & Tobago rolled around, Pulisic had played only 89 minutes (and they were poor) in a U.S. jersey in a year. Appearances against England and Italy to close out 2018 served as a bit of a reintroduction, but he played only twice for Berhalter before the Gold Cup kicked off June 19. The new manager’s system is complex, but Pulisic appears to have had no problem with the learning curve.
“The most important thing that we’ve focused on is giving Christian flexibility, putting him in positions where he could affect the game in a number of different ways,” Berhalter said Saturday. “We wanted to play him central, but also get him wide. When you think about him being central and arriving in the penalty box, the two goals [in the semifinal] were the result of him being in good positions to be able to finish off basically plays that end up in front of goal. When you think about some of the assists he’s had, they come in wide areas—notably against Curaçao.
“With Christian, we know he’s a top talent, and we want him to get into position to affect the game. We know he can affect the game on an individual level, and he’s shown that so far in the tournament.”
Pulisic starts as one of two central midfielders in front of Michael Bradley, typically shaded to the left. From there, he can act as an attacking fulcrum or playmaker, or make runs toward the corner or sideline and interchange with left winger Paul Arriola. The unpredictability poses a conundrum for defenses trying to shadow Pulisic, and his knack for beating defenders on the dribble creates additional problems.
Mexico coach Tata Martino lauded Pulisic at his press conference on Saturday.
“I think Pulisic is one of the great emerging players in world football right now. He's one of the most unbalancing players in recent times,” he said, according to ESPN. “What I think is that if we don't give him special attention and press him, it'll be bad for us.”
Pulisic played in both World Cup qualifiers against Mexico during the most recent cycle: the loss in Columbus and then the draw in Mexico City. He was in a different spot then, however, as the prodigy on a team full of veterans. Now, despite the presence of Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Ream and a couple of other older teammates, he’s more established. He’s been through the battles, faced some ups and downs and grown more comfortable in his international skin. Berhalter has noticed.
“When I think about this month for him, it’s been a lot of personal development,” the coach said. “In terms of just him blossoming—his personality within the group, his importance to the team on the field. The skills haven’t changed [in] a month. But in terms of his role, what he’s comfortable with, how he’s embracing his role in the team and his role on and off the field, I think it’s been really nice to see and that goes along with some of the other younger guys, how they’ve stepped into this position in taking responsibility both on and off the field.”
Bradley said Friday that giving Pulisic and his peers room to lead has been an important part of this month together.
“I think across the board, these guys are becoming more comfortable. I think their personalities start to come out more and more on the field, off the field, and that’s what you want,” Bradley said. “The veteran leadership, that part is important. You need that. But it’s also important that we find ways to leave space for the younger guys to start to put more on their shoulders, to take more responsibility, to take more ownership of what happens.”
Pulisic captained the team for just the second time during the quarterfinal against Curaçao, and although he’s still not the rah-rah, big-emotional-speech type of guy, the honor meant a lot to him. He demonstrated that with his effort and his game-winning assist to Weston McKennie.
“Any time I get to step out with this team, and obviously today I was able to captain the team, I just really wanted to show the team that I was there,” Pulisic said after the 1-0 win in Philadelphia. “I wanted to lead the team right from the start. I wanted the team to gain some energy off that.”
Now comes the opportunity to win a trophy with his country for the first time. The photo of him with his head down, dejected, in Couva has unfortunately become one of the most indelible images of his international career so far. Sunday offers the opportunity to create happier one.
“It’s the first [final] with the national team, so it’s a whole different thing against a big [rival] of ours, so I think that’s going to add even more to it. I’m obviously super-excited for this challenge,” Pulisic said Saturday. “It’s the biggest game there is. We want to win. It’s a final. It’s against Mexico. It adds that much more and, yeah, obviously both teams want to lift that trophy, so we want it to be us.”
Asked if he’d watched previous USA-Mexico Gold Cup tilts, he said, “More so the World Cup, but obviously I watched the last Gold Cup that we won [in 2017]. I remember watching a few of them. I don’t have very big memories of it, but I’m excited to make some new ones.”