Christian Pulisic thriving as USMNT’s most important player

ARLINGTON, Texas — Christian Pulisic‘s career has taken him to all manner of places. Starting in his hometown of Hershey, Pa., he has since ventured to Dortmund, London and Milan. His forays with the United States men’s national team have taken him to some exotic ports of call, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar among them.

Yet Sunday’s Copa América opener against Bolivia was a case where Pulisic came full circle. On his international debut eight years ago, he scored a late goal to put some additional shine on 4-0 win over — you guessed it — Bolivia. The opposition goalkeeper that day was one Guillermo Viscarra. In Sunday’s match, Pulisic found the net just under three minutes in, cutting inside after a short corner was played to him, and unleashing an unstoppable shot past Viscarra and just under the crossbar. The sense of déjà vu was palpable; same opponent, same keeper, and pretty much the same result. The stakes were a bit higher on this occasion, but with Pulisic adding an assist on Folarin Balogun‘s goal the U.S. wound up winning, 2-0, and got its Copa América campaign off to a winning start.

It was a vital result given that Bolivia figures to be the weakest team in Group C. La Verde haven’t won a competitive fixture away from home soil since 2015. Dropped points would have put the U.S. in a massive bind from the start. Instead, it did enough, and it had Pulisic’s brilliance to thank. The U.S. has routinely struggled to break down defensively stout opponents as recently as last March’s Concacaf Nations League semifinal against Jamaica. But Pulisic’s third-minute goal settled nerves and provided a jolt of confidence.

The 25-year-old also showed a bit more emotion than is his habit when you consider it was the 30th goal of his international career. As he ran to the bench, he pointed towards set-piece coach Gianni Vio, who drew up the play, and was later mobbed by his teammates. When asked to explain his reaction, Pulisic said, “It’s Copa América, it’s a big tournament, I think. I mean, I feel like I’m always pretty excited after I score, but this is a big moment. It’s a major tournament, so I don’t take this for granted.”

Pulisic has all the appearances of a player at his peak. His club season with AC Milan was the best and most consistent of his career. He’s gained the trust of managers at both club and international level, and most importantly he has confidence in himself. The nagging injuries appear to be in the past — touch wood — and while he’s long been one of the USMNT’s most important players, he looks capable of dragging his team to greater heights. In the past, Pulisic seemed weighed down by expectations, including those of being a leader. Now he looks liberated by them.

“I think he’s found confidence in his game, and everybody needs that reinvigoration at some point in their career, and continue to evolve,” said midfielder Tyler Adams. “And by no means is he the finished product. He continues to grow every day.”

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Did the USMNT do enough to impress vs. Bolivia?

Herculez Gomez and Alejandro Moreno share their takeaways from the United States’ 2-0 victory over Bolivia in the Copa América.

Adams noted that Pulisic’s defensive effort was just as important as his contribution in the attacking half, adding: “What he did against the ball was so important for our team because when people see players like that doing that, everyone wants to do it.”

Pulisic’s contribution was also noted by manager Gregg Berhalter, who called his captain “a selfless leader.”

“And then what you see is him supporting his teammates, him backing guys, him pushing guys. To me, it was an outstanding performance tonight,” he said.

Looking at the score and the opponent, there’s a temptation to think that the U.S. didn’t need their captain to be at his best on Sunday, but it needed him to be pretty close. After Pulisic scored, the U.S. went into an odd funk, where it was reluctant to push the tempo. Passes out of the back started going astray. The midfield looked disjointed.

When asked about this period in the match, Berhalter said, “It’s hard to control a game against a team that is pressing you nonstop.” But the issue wasn’t so much down to what Bolivia was doing as it was the U.S. simply failing to connect on simple passes. The energy that the U.S. had brought to the opening minutes seemed to leave the building. Bolivia was at least getting a toehold in the game, even if it wasn’t threatening the U.S. goal all that much.

Fortunately, in the 44th minute, another impactful moment from Pulisic created some valuable breathing room. Collecting the ball in the center channel, Pulisic ran at the Bolivia defense, slid a pass to Balogun, who then provided a laser-guided finish inside the far post.

The match opened up in the second half. The U.S. had an xG of 2.34 after half-time compared to just 0.38 in the first half. Ricardo Pepi, who came on as a substitute for Balogun in the 65th minute, seemed absolutely snakebit in front of goal, as Viscarra denied him with several spectacular saves. The U.S. will be hoping that its failure to convert won’t cost it in terms of goal differential down the line, which could decide the group.

The impulse then is to think about the finishing, but the bigger issue is the frequency with which the U.S. continued to give the ball away out of the back. Chris Richards in particular struggled mightily with the ball. It was his giveaway that forced Weston McKennie to take a 49th-minute yellow card in order to deny Bolivia a counter-attacking opportunity. And the normally reliable Tim Ream had some shaky moments as well.

A better team than Bolivia would have punished the hosts. But, fortunately for the USMNT, this Copa América offers an instance where the order of games helps them, in that it can get some bad plays out of its system in the hope that it will be sharper in the tougher matches to come. That starts with a match against Panama this Thursday, a familiar foe that has given the U.S. difficulty in the past. With the Canaleros losing 3-1 to Uruguay in Sunday’s late match, the U.S. is in the position of possibly clinching a spot in the knockout rounds with a win. It figures to be a physical game, and the U.S. will need to bring the requisite level of focus and intensity that are its hallmarks when it’s playing well.

“It’s Copa América. Every team is going to be flying, ready to fight and we don’t expect an easy game at all,” said Pulisic about the upcoming matchup. “So we need to put on an even better performance today if we want to come out with a strong result.”

Given Pulisic’s current form, the USMNT will like its chances.