Christian Pulisic embraces massive expectations on him at World Cup
Christian Pulisic is day-to-day with a pelvic contusion but said he will do “everything in my power” to play round of 16 World Cup game against the Netherlands.
USMNT advance to knockout stage in dramatic fashion, face Netherlands on Saturday
Former USWNT player Joanna Lohman breaks down how the USMNT advanced to the knockout stage and what to expect in their matchup against the Netherlands.
DOHA, Qatar — So much has been heaped on Christian Pulisic’s shoulders since he was barely a teenager.
More than just a generational American talent, he’s got the kind of physical gifts even Europeans recognize and admire, and he offered the promise the USMNT could one day be counted among the world’s elite. Maybe even World Cup champions.
That’s a lot to put on anyone, let alone someone so young, and it sometimes seemed to be all too much. With his every move analyzed and dissected, Pulisic became aloof, even wary. Only occasionally did the façade crack; after the U.S. men failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Pulisic sobbed on the field in Trinidad and Tobago, devastated the dream he’d had since he was 5 had slipped away.
At this World Cup, however, Pulisic seems unburdened. No longer prickly, he is even engaging on occasion. Watch the clip of him waiting in the lobby for his teammates following the 1-0 victory over Iran that sent the USMNT into the knockout rounds, and his joy is obvious.
“Honestly, this team helps me so much to take the pressure off of me,” Pulisic said Thursday. “A couple years ago there were times maybe I felt I needed to do more. But with these guys, I don’t feel that way at all, to be honest. I know they have my back.”
This USMNT squad is so young that some of the players were inspired by Pulisic, now 24. He was playing in the Champions League, for Borussia Dortmund, at 17. His $73 million transfer to Chelsea in January 2019 was a record for an American player. He was the first American to play in a Champions League final when Chelsea won it in 2021.
But rather than being alone in his own stratosphere, Pulisic sees his teammates as equals. They, too, are playing at the top clubs in Europe. They, too, are playing in the Champions League.
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Pulisic is still the USMNT’s biggest star, but he no longer has to light up the night sky on his own.
When he was subbed off at halftime of the Iran game, having taken a knee to the pelvic bone in a collision with the goalkeeper after he scored, Pulisic knew Brenden Aaronson would do just fine. The Americans didn’t score again but neither did they allow Iran to score, withstanding a late barrage for the 1-0 victory.
More than that, though, Pulisic has a team where he belongs.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter was intentional in building this squad, seeking not only the right mix of talent but the right mix of personalities. He scheduled activities during training camps – a visit to NASA during one, an Iron Chef-type competition during another – to promote bonding.
And with so many of the players about the same age, and many living in Europe, they have formed a tight-knit, cohesive group. They often refer to each other as brothers or family, and it’s not unusual for them to use the word love when describing their feelings for one another.
“I hope that they can see just the unity and the team spirit that we display. I hope that’s what’s helping us gain fans,” Pulisic said, a touch of earnestness in his voice. “I hope people watching, especially back home in the States, will see, ‘Wow, these guys are really giving everything for each other and for this country.’
“That’s what really makes us special,” Pulisic added. “You can see all the individual talent, you have guys playing at top clubs across the world, but without the brotherhood, without this family aspect, we wouldn’t be in this position. I hope that’s what everyone can see.”
The USMNT will need Pulisic against the Netherlands, and a standout effort. And that’s fine with him.
Asked if his goal against Iran is his “Landon Donovan moment,” referring to Donovan’s goal against Algeria in the dying seconds that took the Americans from elimination to the top of the group in 2010, Pulisic said he hoped not.
“I want to make big plays and do what I can to help this team. But by no means do I want that to be the only thing to look back on from this tournament,” he said. “There’s still a lot ahead of me, for this team and myself.”
Pulisic can affect games in ways few other players can. Where that once might have been a burden, he now considers it a blessing.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.