Though not decisive, Pulisic showed vs. Mexico that he is worthy of the hype
Christian Pulisic showed he belonged on the U.S. national team Friday night against Mexico in Columbus. He drove forward with Bundesliga bravura. He worked neat combinations with Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood in the final third. He refused to be physically intimidated, holding his ground against body slams, double marking and late tackles.
And like every American player who has earned his stars and stripes, he proved he's capable of a bad touch.
It came toward the end of a first half in which the U.S. was outplayed, outthought and outcoached at a venue where the Americans had never previously been out-anything-ed. Pulisic made a run into the box as Michael Bradley's free kick was headed by Altidore straight at the Mexico goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera who, for some reason, couldn't hold it. The ball fell invitingly for Pulisic, 10 yards in front of goal. All he had to do was put his foot through it and the U.S. and Mexico would be even at 1-1.
But the 18-year-old hesitated ever so slightly and, instead of shooting first time, he tried to control the bobbling ball, only for his first touch to take it away from him and into the grateful arms of Talavera. The Ballon d'Or might have to wait for another year.
Aside from that one speed bump, though, the rest of Pulisic's night was a relatively smooth passage for the teenager, on whose shoulders American soccer has seemingly hung everything but the solution to climate change. No pressure, Christian.
We've been here before, of course -- Hi Jozy, Freddy Adu, Julian Green, Gedion Zelalem, DeAndre Yedlin! -- but never with a precocious talent who actually appears capable of delivering on those hyperbolic expectations, if given the time and surrounding cast to showcase his gifts.
On second thought, maybe we have witnessed this phenomenon before. It is easy to forget the wonder and excitement that radiated throughout the American soccer community at the sight of 20-year-old Landon Donovan shredding defenders at the 2002 World Cup, en route to being named Best Young Player of the Tournament.
Donovan had it all -- the technical ability, the pace, the guile, the quick-thinking soccer brain, the calm in front of goal -- except, perhaps, for the mental fortitude, at least as an adolescent, to make it in the crucible of high-grade European club soccer.
It was this putative lack of resolve to push the boundaries of his comfort level, more than anything else, which ensured the best player this country has ever produced would not flourish under Jurgen Klinsman.
It is also the essential difference between the way the U.S. coach regards Pulisic, a card-carrying member of Borussia Dortmund's first team, and Donovan, who tore up Major League Soccer for more than a decade but washed out in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich.
That Klinsmann risked tactical chaos for the first half hour against Mexico with his newfangled 3-5-2 formation is a measure of how much he values Pulisic's burgeoning creative role. The system is designed to give him license to roam behind the two strikers, Altidore and Wood, and take advantage of the wonder teen's ability to dictate a game's tempo with his penetrative dribbling and precision passing.
Even if the gambit proved misguided and Klinsmann was forced to revert to a more familiar 4-4-2 formation, Pulisic didn't look out of place or over-matched in the furious intensity of central midfield, though it should be noted that he did his best work when switched to the left flank, where he could more frequently get behind the Mexican defense and utilize his dangerous crossing ability.
After making his World Cup qualifying debut in the previous round, Mexico was always going to be something of a competitive litmus test for Pulisic. It is one thing to be the best player on the field against CONCACAF minnows such as St Vincent and the Grenadines, but quite another to impose yourself on an opponent that has long been the U.S' fiercest rival in the region.
Then again, if you've already managed to enter a Champions League game against Real Madrid in the 73rd minute and have the skill and composure to set up the tying goal, as Pulisic did in September for Dortmund, then you're unlikely to be cowed by the likes of Rafael Marquez and Javier Hernandez.
There were two telling moments, late in the game with both teams desperate to break the 1-1 deadlock, which bode well for Pulisic's success on the big stage.
The first came after he pick-pocketed the ball off a Mexican player in midfield and was surging toward the penalty area when rugged defender Carlos Salcedo launched himself at the American with the full weight of his brawny physique. Pulisic went down in a heap but sprang back to his feet, as if to say "I've taken worse hits than that in the Bundesliga." Salcedo was booked for the foul and eventually sent off in the final minute for time-wasting.
Two minutes later, Pulisic was involved in another tussle, this time with Hernandez. The two players converged on a 50-50 ball and it was Pulisic who dug it out after Hernandez had wrapped himself around the teenager in a futile attempt to keep him from breaking away. The crowd roared its appreciation of Pulisic's grit but, if they hoped he might decide the match with a dazzling highlight-reel winner, they would ultimately be disappointed.
Pulisic is not yet the finished article, not yet a refined game-changer at an elite level, but he is far ahead of any of the U.S.' previously anointed soccer messiahs, with the exception of Donovan.
He may also eclipse Landon one day but let's try to resist American soccer's knee-jerk tendency to expect too much, too soon. After all, Pulisic is barely 18 and only five months removed from his high school prom. He still relishes his time away from the field where he can indulge in two of his favorite pastimes: Play Station and listening to the musical stylings of Justin Bieber.
In that last pursuit, he is not alone. After his authoritative, if not quite defining performance against Mexico, you can count me as a "Belieber" in Christian Pulisic.
David Hirshey is an ESPN FC columnist. He has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and written about it for The New York Times and Deadspin.