What we learned from USA's qualifiers: the case for and against Pulisic

Graham Parker
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Christian Pulisic’s talent was exuberantly apparent against Panama and Honduras. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Bienvenido Velasco/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Christian Pulisic’s talent was exuberantly apparent against Panama and Honduras. Photograph: Bienvenido Velasco/AFP/Getty Images

The right line was drawn under Klinsmann era

In a lot of ways Bruce Arena inherited a very generous brief from Jürgen Klinsmann. After the leaking away of the German’s authority, the two losses that opened World Cup qualifying had reduced the grander ambitions of the Klinsmann project to the stark triage mode of “getting out of the Hex”.

So no more overhauls of the US Soccer pyramid; no more strategy docs intended to establish a pipeline of talent from the lowest youth level to the full national team; no more unfulfilled claims about the new swashbuckling attacking style the US would be playing. Or at the very least, the suggestion was, those conversations would have to wait until the US had beaten Honduras, and then managed to not lose in Panama.

And over two games, Arena’s team did just that. And while fourth place in the Hex after four games is not ideal, they are now back in a fairly standard regional grind through qualifying rather than dealing with an existential crisis.

Yet while it was important to draw a line under the abject loss in Costa Rica that had ended any vestige of Klinsmann’s authority, it was also important that Arena showed a few flourishes to go alongside the pragmatism he was hired for.

So while on the latter point Arena did drolly note to the press that one of the reasons he’d selected Jorge Villafaña at left back was: “He’s a left back, which is one of the criteria I think you should have for selecting a left back,” he also made clear to his players that by putting them in the best position to succeed he was also trusting them with a mandate to be creative in pursuit of that success. 

And that distinction from the latter days of the Klinsmann era may end up as just as important a line under the last regime as the results on the field. By the end, Klinsmann’s obsession with pushing players to test themselves had ended up undermining confidence rather than manufacturing it, as he second-guessed his way out of the players’ trust and ultimately out of a job. Arena trusts his players to succeed rather than daring them to.

Christian Pulisic: the case for hype

There were moments in both qualifiers when Pulisic looked head and shoulders above the players around him. If those qualities were exuberantly apparent against Honduras on Friday night (the collective Honduran decision to stand off the US turned out to be suicidal), they showed in stark relief in Panama on Tuesday evening when Pulisic made a goal from nothing.

Panama’s defense is one of the best in the region, and in Felipe Baloy and Roman Torres they may have the best central defensive pairing. But in the 38th minute, Pulisic, rather than being bullied out wide with his back to goal, instead wriggled his way past Baloy from close quarters, then held off the powerful Torres to turn and just coolly touch the ball to the onrushing Clint Demspey to sweep the ball home.

Pulisic’s coolness under pressure was all the more remarkable for making his chance count in the midst of a fallow game for the US attack. This was a goal he dug out from a game that was pure, chippy, Concacaf qualifier, as opposed to him thriving in the midst of the team’s exuberant breakout at home against against Honduras.

He did the latter too of course — and his slide pass on another Dempsey goal was a delicious intimation of what he could do for this team if his development continues. He’s already being talked of as better than Landon Donovan at the same age, though in some ways the presence of Dempsey in the same team offers an equally useful comparison (even though Donovan is the accepted benchmark for young American hopefuls). Many of Pulisic’s most decisive interventions have a touch of Dempsey’s mental toughness and willingness to try things in tight advanced positions.

As for whether it’s too soon to be putting this expectation on Pulisic, that point is made moot by his club and national team now routinely turning to him in pressure situations and expecting him to respond. Whatever he becomes now, there’s at least a realistic benchmark at Borussia Dortmund for what would be considered an acceptable development from here on, and that mark is already set higher than it has been for the vast majority of US players who have ever played.

Christian Pulisic: the case for caution

He’s 18. And for all his preternatural air of maturity, Pulisic still has adjustments to make — particularly in what we might charitably call the “no-nonsense” environment of Concacaf World Cup qualifiers, where referees have a tendency to “allow” the game to flow into full-speed collisions. That was the experience of Pulisic in Panama, where any honest compilation of his involvement would have to include the skinny teenager being flattened by Luis Tejada halfway through the first half.

Pulisic will have to get used to that treatment now. He’s no secret weapon for the USA anymore, and as one of the brightest of the promising young crop at Dortmund he’ll be a target for European defenders. He has the skills and the temperament to handle it, but he’s entering a new level of pressure in his development.

There’ll be no stopping the more absurd claims about him on US soil though — an instant poll on BeIN sport after the Panama game had 65% of respondents claiming Pulisic would go on to be the greatest US player of all time. And even though the sample size of game data is way too small to anoint him definitively, the clamor and the potential distractions of it may not stop now until he either becomes what he promises to be, or fails. US fans’ yearning for a Messi(ah) may mean it’s already too late to accept him becoming a very good but not great player. Dempsey, now one goal behind Donovan as all-time US goalscorer, following his four goals in two games this weekend, can offer him a shrug of sympathy on that score.

Arena can trust kids

Pulisic aside, the late substitutions in the Panama game represented a fascinating moment in the ongoing evolution of Arena. At LA Galaxy, Arena had one of the best youth academies in the country, in one of the most densely populated and promising catchment areas of all of MLS (league rules permit teams to develop homegrown players within 75 miles of their stadium — which in LA’s case covers a significantly rich tranche of southern California). Yet in his time with the Galaxy, Arena was not known for crafting young teams in the same way as, for example, Oscar Pareja at Dallas. Instead Arena became the first coach to master the art of the Designated Player — integrating expensive star players into teams filled with complementary moving parts.

And by the end of his Galaxy run, only Gyasi Zardes stood out as a youth player Arena had persisted with for an extended run in the first team, and his final 2016 Galaxy side at times represented an island of expensive misfit veterans. LA fans may have been sad to see the man who won them 3 MLS Cups go, but there were some among them who’d long felt uneasy about how the Galaxy, and Arena in particular, were adapting to an age of homegrown players.

So there was a certain poetic resonance in seeing Arena not only bring on Dallas’s promising young Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola. Arriola had actually left Arena’s Galaxy for Club Tijuana, in the belief that he had more chance getting first team soccer in Liga MX than in LA. Now, with a handful of US caps, he was being thrown into a 1-1 game on the road.

Of course that move also pushed Pulisic into a more central position to control play — though for reasons already noted, Arena can hardly expect plaudits for trusting such a promising talent. But he does deserve credit for surprising us with who he chose to trust.

The defense is still a worry

Let’s start with a big caveat — the four players who lined up at the back to face Panama are not Arena’s favored starters. The loss of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron was significant, and the replacements of Tim Ream and Graham Zusi looked like stopgaps.

Ream, in fairness, started nervously and then played himself into a solid enough game — there’s no disgrace in saying his game tends to be marked out by diligence rather than dominance, and in some ways there are virtues to having a contrast in styles between Omar Gonzalez and whoever partners him at center back.

Zusi too, was diligent about playing an unfamiliar right-back role, and got some decent tackles in as Alberto Quintero tried to torment him down that flank. But you have to hope his appearance was about Arena thinking about utility options for unexpected injuries in tournaments. Arena has converted forwards and wide midfielders to full backs before, with modest success, but as a credible starter against better opposition, Zusi would be a vanity project too far.

Arena wasn’t tinkering with the defense in the way Klinsmann tended to — the worry is that, whatever the reasons, the net insecurity is the same.

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