Sports

Why Isn’t Christian Pulisic Looking Like the U.S. Men’s Megastar He Is?

He and his teammates have some kinks to work out if they want to create the brilliant moments they’re capable of together.

Pulisic takes a corner kick, looking down at the ball and exhaling through puffed cheeks
Pulisic in the second half during the World Cup qualifying game against El Salvador at Lower.com Field on Thursday, in Columbus, Ohio. Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

There was hope before U.S. men’s national soccer team’s 1–0 World Cup qualifying win over El Salvador Thursday that this might be the one where it all starts to click into place.

For the first time since 2019, and only the second time in their USMNT careers, Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie were all starting a game together for the U.S. It’s been a long time coming for the leading lights of this generation; even the Brooklyn Nets have had all three of their superstars active more often than that. Before Thursday, Pulisic, Adams, and McKennie had never played a minute all together with right back Sergiño Dest. (The team is still missing Gio Reyna, who’s had a slow recovery from an injury sustained the last time the USMNT played El Salvador, in September.)

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But their powers combined did not summon Captain Planet. The U.S. pushed the pace but played sloppily against El Salvador. It deserved its one-goal win, but not much more than that.

Adams was customarily ubiquitous, leading all players in touches and repelling many of El Salvador’s best chances, such as when he stooped from out of nowhere like a peregrine falcon in the 12th minute to halt a 2-on-1 Salvadoran break. McKennie balanced creativity and defensive integrity in midfield, even if he couldn’t manage to leave a decisive stamp on the game. But Pulisic struggled, despite an adjustment from U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter seemingly designed to get him involved closer to the opposing goal.

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Rather than combining that trio with the fall’s breakout star, teenage striker Ricardo Pepi, Berhalter opted to use Pepi’s former club teammate at FC Dallas, Jesus Ferreira, as his forward. The decision was a mixed bag. Ferreira narrowly missed a pair of chances in the first half seemingly designed to make people wonder what Pepi would have done with them, but his passing impressed. His ability to drop off the center backs into midfield opened up opportunities for the U.S. wingers, Pulisic and Tim Weah, to race beyond him toward the goal. The U.S. had luck early on finding Weah behind Salvadoran left back Alexander Larín, but most of its best early chances were shot straight into screening Salvadoran players.

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But getting behind the defense hasn’t been Pulisic’s game with the U.S. lately. For the past year or more, he’s spent most of his time getting on the ball in front of the defense and trying to do something clever with it. His time at Chelsea–he spoke of his recent difficulties there this week–seems in danger of turning him into a tweener: not a forward, not a winger, not a pure attacking midfielder. He has the talent to create brilliant moments in the right circumstances, but spends too much of the game trying to find those circumstances. He’s been most dangerous as an off-the-ball threat, such as the cutting run across the defense he made to score the opener against Mexico in November, but he spends most of the game trying to draw defenses onto him with the ball and play his way out of that danger. Berhalter hinted at as much in his post-game press conference. “It’s just about him finding his top form and really finding ways to get him in front of the goal,” he said when asked about Pulisic’s performance.

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The American goal came on a familiar sequence early in the second half: Weah getting around his man on the right side only to hit his shot directly into the Salvadoran goalkeeper. This time, the bounce was fortunate, falling to Ferreira, whose clever header out of the scrum was dummied by both Weah and Pulisic before finding left back Antonee Robinson on the outside of the Salvadoran defense, where he hammered home.

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It would have been nice to put the game beyond a doubt with another. But the U.S.—which usually grows stronger in the second half—deflated after the goal, never seizing complete control and allowing the ending to get nervier than it should have been. Luckily for the Americans, for all its energy, El Salvador produced little in reply. Though some of its shots came close, in the end none of them were credited as being on target.

It was still a busy day for U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner, even if his goal was barely threatened. Earlier on Thursday, ESPN’s Taylor Twellman reported that Turner’s rumored move to the Premier League club Arsenal was all over but the paperwork. Presumably his lack of action gave him time to reply to the congratulatory messages he was receiving, provided he figured out how to work his phone with his gloves.

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The move is a boon for Turner, who has been one of the best goalkeepers in MLS for the last four years and presumably is set for a big raise. Arsenal may have morphed from “perennial contender” to “perennial upper mid-table finisher,” but it remains one of England’s most-storied clubs. Turner has come a very long way, career arc–wise, from going undrafted out of Fairfield University, and he deserves all the credit in the world for that.

The move might be less positive for the USMNT if it qualifies for the World Cup. This summer, Arsenal bought touted English goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, and he’s already been named the club’s Player of the Month twice this season. Turner’s not joining Arsenal until the summer, so unless Ramsdale suffers a sudden dip in form next season, it’s likely the American will still be a backup by the time the World Cup starts in November. While Berhalter has shown few qualms about playing Manchester City’s backup goalkeeper Zack Steffen, it was nice to know there was someone waiting in the wings with more recent game experience, should Steffen go cold in net. Now the two best American keepers might play just a handful of games between them in the months leading up to the tournament.

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Still, it’s breakthroughs like Turner’s that are powering the U.S.’s 2022 campaign. McKennie, Adams, and Pulisic have been tipped as the future since the moment in 2017 when the U.S. lost its spot in the last World Cup, but the team hasn’t been able to rely on them. By contrast, that year Turner was coming off a loan to the minor-league USL Richmond Kickers. Pepi, the team’s leading scorer in qualifying, was 14 that year; he’s just been sold to German club FC Augsburg for more than $20 million. Brenden Aaronson, who has the second-most qualifying goals, was playing in USL then too; his club Red Bull Salzburg reportedly just turned down a $20 million bid for him from Leeds United. This month Justin Che was loaned to Germany’s Hoffenheim, who have an option to make the transfer permanent at the end of next season, and Kevin Paredes is on the verge of being sold to German club Wolfsburg for $7 million. They’re both 18 and haven’t even featured for the senior national team yet. Young Americans Cole Bassett, James Sands, Daryl Dike, and Chris Mueller have all moved to European leagues this winter, and while crossing the Atlantic is not the only possible route to being a regular national team player, the fact that these MLS and former MLS talents are so sought after, and proving so expensive to secure the services of, is undoubtedly a sign of growth for the game and the American player pool.

The trio of McKennie, Adams, and Pulisic remain crucial to the team’s hopes, but the USMNT’s future success is going to come less from getting pulled by those three and more from being pushed by the cumulative pressure of everyone coming up behind them. The puzzle Berhalter is still trying to assemble is bigger and more complicated than those three pieces. It’s going to take more than throwing the three of them together for everything to click, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing long-term.

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