GOAL - Ryan Tolmich
Christian Pulisic had reason to be tired.
He arrived at U.S. men's national team camp in Denver this week fresh off a life-changing weekend in Portugal, one that saw him become the first USMNT star to play in a Champions League final and resulted in the Chelsea man hoisting the European trophy high above his head in celebration.
He had been through a taxing campaign with the Blues in which he made 44 appearances in all competitions while navigating off-pitch drama involving his fluctuating role with the club.
So, the expectation was that Pulisic might be experiencing exhaustion when he was asked how he was feeling in the run-up to the U.S. men's national team's Nations League semifinal clash with Honduras on Thursday.
Was he ready for the immediate turnaround to international business?
Pulisic stared into the camera, as is customary with the Zoom press conferences that are now the norm, and answered with just one intensely delivered word: "Yes."
Despite his heavy workload at the club level, the forward is almost certain to lead the USMNT into the match against Honduras, with Gregg Berhalter saying earlier this week that he'd find it nearly impossible to talk the Chelsea winger out of playing.
No matter the fatigue level, no matter the jetlag from cross-continental travel, he is set to continue one of the best weeks of his life by trying to get his hands on yet another trophy.
The first piece of silverware was, obviously, that Champions League title, when he was on the field as the final whistle blew in a scene that caused him to fall to his knees, filled with emotion, and scream towards the sky. That moment, that scream, served as the culmination of a difficult year for the winger, who battled all season long to remain a part of Chelsea's first-team picture.
Injuries derailed the start of his campaign, and struggles with form impacted parts in the middle. But, by the finish, Pulisic was smiling in a spotlight USMNT players seldom receive.
"It's been a long season," he said. "I've definitely had a lot of ups and downs but, physically, I feel very good, and mentally good too. I'm definitely looking forward to having a bit of a break but that's not to say I'm not ready for these last couple of games."
Pulisic is one of several trailblazers battling through Europe, part of a group of 10 USMNT players to lift a total of 13 trophies across Europe this season. In a sense, his spotlight is everyone's spotlight.
When he stands out, the entire USMNT project gets attention. The same goes for the successes of Sergino Dest at Barcelona or Weston McKennie at Juventus.
That informed Pulisic's decision to wear a grey USMNT sweatshirt after the Champions League final victory. It sent a message to everyone back home.
"I have to ask my dad that question," he said when asked where the hoodie came from. "It was his. I wasn't thinking at all, but once he brought it down, he was like, 'You should put this on' and I was, 'Yeah, that's a great idea.'
"It really just shows what we're representing out there. Being an American playing on the national team and then winning the Champions League, I think it's just a cool message."
Pulisic and the USMNT have a chance to send a message of their own this week as they look to end the first CONCACAF Nations League with a trophy in hand.
It's taken nearly two years for the competition to get to this point and, in some ways, that gives it increased importance. With many USMNT regulars set to sit out the Gold Cup to rest up for World Cup qualifying, this is Berhalter's last chance to get his A-team together until things really heat up in the fall.
In the Nations League, the USMNT can get one over on their CONCACAF rivals, with Costa Rica or Mexico awaiting in Sunday's final should the U.S. take down a very resolute Honduras team on Thursday.
Pulisic figures to be a huge part of the effort, with the Chelsea star expected to take either Brenden Aaronson or Gio Reyna's spot in the XI.
In his last USMNT appearances, a pair of friendlies against Northern Ireland and Jamaica, Pulisic shined in a partnership with Dest, using those performances as a springboard back into the Chelsea team.
"He is a player that has gone when no other American player has gone and won the Champions League with this club and played a key role in doing that," Berhalter said of Pulisic.
"So, as a group we're extremely, extremely proud of him. I think it says a lot about him that he's here now and he wants to be on the field playing. It says a lot about him as a competitor and his role within this team."
Although Tyler Adams is an injury doubt, the returns of Pulisic and Steffen give Berhalter something pretty close to his best lineup for the two games.
And, despite everything that's happened over the last week or so, despite all the miles travelled and all of the celebrations, Pulisic says he's more than ready as he looks to add another trophy to his already-growing resume.
"Going from one competition to the next, it's what I've been doing all season," he said, "so, it's constantly having to refocus and get ready for the next game and quick turnarounds. It's something that I'm used to. There's not really a switch I need to flip. I was playing you know at the highest level and I'm feeling ready and excited for these games coming up as well."
"It's been an incredible couple days, definitely," he added. "Obviously, getting to celebrate and having some family and friends there and being with my teammates, it was really an incredible achievement so we're really proud.
"Now it's right back to work, but I'm happy, I'm excited to have a chance to go after this trophy with the national team."