“A normal team, one guy will kick him, and if he doesn’t get a yellow card, another guy will kick him until someone gets a yellow card,” said the former United States defender Marcelo Balboa, who worked to master this particular dark art over more than a decade on the national team.
Pulisic, of course, is not the first player, or even the first American, to endure such treatment, and on Monday he pushed back on the suggestion that it was, in some ways, a sign of respect. “It’s doesn’t feel like respect,” he joked.
But he also said it was something he was getting used to and was not anything he would be unable to handle.
After Pulisic endured a particularly rough night in Panama in March, U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said: “He’s got to deal with it. It’s all part of the learning curve. Next time around he’ll be better for it.”
But the next time Pulisic faced Panama — on Friday in Orlando, Fla. — it was more of the same. When Arena was asked after that game, and again on Monday afternoon, if his team could devise some way to protect Pulisic, he scoffed. “And how should I do that?” he asked. “Hold him in my arms, perhaps?”
“I have no control over what happens out there,” Arena added. “Between the lines the referee’s supposed to be controlling the game. So I can’t protect him.”
Goalkeeper Tim Howard also lamented the limits of what Pulisic’s teammates could do to keep him upright.
“I’m envious of hockey players, baseball players,” he said. “But there isn’t anything we could do. I wish we could, because I think we’d lay it all on the line to protect him.”
The Laws of the Game and Howard’s comments aside, Arena’s other problem is that he does not seem to have the kind of player interested in embracing an enforcer’s role, at least in the way Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos polices attacks on his teammate Cristiano Ronaldo by answering them (often not very subtly), or in the way Javier Mascherano and a host of others have done for Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
The primary fear is that one day an opponent will treat Pulisic too roughly, kick him too hard, and force him out for an extended period of time. Pulisic needed treatment early in the second half of Friday’s game against Panama after he was kicked in the calf by Michael Murillo. Murillo got a yellow card for the challenge, which left Pulisic wincing. Another foul a few minutes later did not earn the same punishment, but that was one too many for Arena.
With his team ahead by three goals, Arena sent on a substitute for Pulisic, who hobbled off to cheers. On Monday, Arena seemed to suggest the injury was lingering.
“Hopefully he’s fine,” he said when asked about Pulisic’s availability for Tuesday’s game.
The Americans can qualify for the World Cup with a win, and most likely can qualify with a tie as well. But Arena said there was a chance Pulisic might not be ready.
“The conditions on the field today were such that we weren’t really able to train, so I wasn’t able to see if he was able to run all out,” Arena said. “So we’re going to make a judgment based on how he feels tomorrow. But he felt good today.”
Pulisic concurred, but he also knows that, with a long national-team career ahead of him, Friday will not be his last rough night.
Last week, he said, “I’m not going to change because of how other teams are treating me.” But that does not mean he will not be looking over his shoulder.
“The referees will protect him,” Balboa said. “They protected him pretty good Friday. But at the end of the day, how do you protect him from that kick he got? You can’t.”
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