“Those guys don’t come around very often,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “So you have to enjoy it and savor it, and we certainly are. We’re going to continue to lean on him as he grows.”
The goals keep coming because Pulisic moves relentlessly without the ball, probes for open space and finishes with the precision of a cardiac surgeon. In the penalty area, he stands up defenders — he does not panic or wobble — and then finds ways to beat them. In the field, battered and pummeled by older, bigger opponents trying to unnerve him, Pulisic absorbs the pounding, then gets back up.
He plays with fearlessness and confidence, befitting a talent who already has excelled at the international level, for his German club Borussia Dortmund in high-stakes matches in the Bundesliga and in the Champions League. And if moved, he talks that way, too. In a postmatch interview on Fox Sports 1 on Thursday night, Pulisic casually predicted the Americans would defeat Mexico at the Estadio Azteca, where they have won only once in the rivalry’s long history.
“There’s no reason why we can’t do it,” Pulisic said later, confirming his prediction had not been a youthful slip of the tongue.
His confidence appears to be infectious. Since Bruce Arena replaced Jürgen Klinsmann as national team coach in November, the Americans have collected seven of a possible nine points in qualifying to vault into third place — and an automatic World Cup berth — in the six-team Concacaf table. Pulisic has three goals and three assists in those three matches.
In the game in which he did not score, a 1-1 draw at Panama on March 28, Pulisic impressed Arena by how he handled the physical punishment and did the hard work to set up a goal by Dempsey. Recalling the moment on Wednesday, Arena said Pulisic, listed at 5-foot-8 and 139 pounds, “manned up” that night.
“He’s a big boy now,” Arena said after Thursday’s performance. “And to be honest with you, we’re not playing in an age-group competition. No one cares how old you are, anything like that. He’s got to deal with it. And he’s been fine.”
Added Howard: “I’m not sure he’d win in a street fight, but he’ll always get stuck into a tackle. He’s not afraid. He’s a big boy playing in the Bundesliga, so he knows what it’s about. He’s not afraid. That’s huge for us.”
The first 45 minutes of the match passed quietly Thursday and Pulisic acknowledged he felt a little tired. Though he had been training for it, he said, the altitude in Colorado zapped him. “I guess it just took me a little while to get a second wind,” he said.
His second wind arrived as a gale. In the 52nd minute, as Darlington Nagbe zipped through the midfield to work a delightful give and go with Dempsey, Pulisic intuitively darted ahead of them toward the goal. Loitering in the penalty area, he was in perfect position to pounce on a low cross from DeAndre Yedlin, sliding to stab it into the net.
Barely 10 minutes later, Pulisic pushed the ball upfield before leaving it for Yedlin, then dashed along the right side to collect a smart diagonal chip from Jozy Altidore. After a brief hesitation, Pulisic lashed a shot inside the near post.
Taken together, the goals offered a tantalizing snapshot of the Americans’ offensive potential when they — and Pulisic — have room to operate. It was, as Arena noted, his first match with a full team, or close to it, and he said that the group was still learning what he wanted them to do, and how to work to together to achieve it.
“We’re just getting a feel for each other,” Arena said, before mentioning Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer. “If Sunil had hired me much earlier, I would have had a little bit more time with this team.”
The time they did have prepared them well for Trinidad and Tobago, but the altitude clearly sapped the Americans, who will have about 70 hours to recover before facing Mexico on Sunday night at an even higher altitude in Mexico City. Arena would not divulge his intentions, but the lineup will look different.
In some respects, at least. Pulisic figures to play, a lot, again after lasting a full 90 minutes Thursday. He was asked if he could do it again at Azteca.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Pulisic said. “I’m still young.”
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