SAN JOSE, Calif. — You could excuse Christian Pulisic for not understanding the gravity of the U.S. men’s national team current World Cup qualifying predicament given his tender age of 18, but the rising star of U.S. Soccer spoke with the maturity of a veteran about the task he and his teammates face when the face Honduras tonight at Avaya Stadium (kick-off at 7:30 p.m., broadcast on FS1 and UniMas).
“We realize that we need three points,” Pulisic told a crowd of reporters on the eve of Friday’s qualifier. “We obviously did not have a great start, so we need to bounce back here and we’re going to need a big performance.”
The USA started the Hexagonal — the last round of qualifying in the CONCACAF region for the 2018 FIFA World Cup — with two losses, sinking them to the bottom of the six-team group. With eight games remaining, there is still time for the USMNT to rescue their campaign, as the top three finishers automatically qualify and the fourth place team advances to a playoff with an Asian confederation team, but the sense of urgency for the match against Honduras and next Tuesday’s away game at Panama is palpable.
“Tough games,” said Pulisic of the November losses to Mexico and Costa Rica that cost then head coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job. “We played against two good teams, but just didn’t come out with the results we wanted to. Not everything flowed, and it didn’t feel right in the moment. Looking back at it, there’s a lot of things that can be improved on and we’re going to try to bring that tomorrow.”
U.S. Soccer was quick to name Bruce Arena as its new coach following the dismissal of Klinsmann, and the former LA Galaxy manager has brought a sense of calm to the team that was his trademark in his first stint coaching the national team from 1998 to 2006.
“We have good players and good people, and that has made for a good week here in having our team prepared for the match tomorrow,” he said during yesterday’s press conference at Avaya Stadium. The team has been training all week at the home of the San Jose Earthquakes.
Pulisic, who has been growing into his role as a creative midfielder with his club team Dortmund in the German Bundesliga, will likely line up in midfield for the U.S. on the right side of a 4-4-2 formation. His role will be to provide attacking support for lead forward Jozy Altidore, as well as make his own forays on goal. The teenager brings his own high-level experience to the World Cup qualifier, having recently scored in the UEFA Champions League for Dortmund.
“It’s definitely not the same, it’s a different situation with the international qualifier,” said Pulisic. “It’s definitely a big game here, but I always take those experiences and I take them with me the rest of my life. I will definitely in these big games, so I feel much more comfortable and confident heading into this one.”
From last November, when Pulisic started for the USA against Mexico and Costa Rica, to today when he is poised to earn another cap in his burgeoning national team career, Arena has been impressed with the youngster, but he warned that Pulisic still has a ways to go before he reaches his potential on the World Cup qualifying stage.
“He continues to make progress as player and a person,” said Arena. “In the last couple of months with his club team in Germany, he’s been good. He has very little experience on the international level. He’s going to need to get a taste of it to continue to grow as a player. He has all the tools to be a very good player. I look forward to seeing how he reacts in these next two games.”
Showing poise beyond his years, Pulisic agreed with Arena that he has only begun to scratch the surface of his talents, and the combination of big club games with international appearances will only increase his effectiveness. A student of the game, Pulisic also recognizes that the pursuit to improve extends to practice and preparation sessions too.
“Absolutely, yes,” said Pulisic. “Everyday when I go out to training, I am trying to get better and better, and over four months time, being with Dortmund and playing more big games there, it’s just gaining experience. Yes, I feel even stronger than I was then.”
The biggest name in U.S. Soccer history without a doubt is Landon Donovan, who burst onto the scene for the Yanks ahead of the 2002 World Cup in Korea. Then a 20-year-old talent with loads of confidence, he was an important member of the U.S. team that reached the quarterfinals of the tournament. Arena did not hesitate to compare Pulisic today with the Donovan of yesteryear.
“He does remind me of Landon. But he has a long way to go before he gets to stand next to Landon,” said Arena. “In Landon, we saw a player have a tremendous career, both at the club and the international levels, and Christian is just starting. We don’t know what he’s going to look like ten years down the road, but certainly at this age, he reminds me a lot of Landon.”
High praise from Arena, especially for an 18-year-old, but the longtime club and national team coach of Donovan certainly knows of what he speaks. For Pulisic, the comparison was met with appreciation, but he already has his eyes set on even loftier levels of play.
“He was an idol of mine so obviously it's an honor,” responded Pulisic, “but I'm my own player as well.”