by Ives Galarcep
As recently as two years ago, Christian Pulisic could have walked around a U.S. national team practice and relaxed in almost complete anonymity. On Thursday, the 18-year-old sensation was the only player most of the dozens of journalists at Avaya Stadium wanted to talk to.
The scene was a clear reminder of just how much things have changed for U.S. Soccer's latest golden child, who has blown away expectations in a whirlwind year that has seen him go from Borussia Dortmund youth player to lock U.S. national team starter and revelation for Dortmund's first team.
The past seven months have been filled with big games for Pulisic, for both club and country, but he is preparing to play in the latest "biggest match of his young career" when the United States faces Honduras in a World Cup qualifier the Americans need to win to avoid making a disastrously poor start to this qualifying cycle even worse.
"Of course, we realize that we need three points (on Friday)," Pulisic said on Thursday. "We obviously didn’t have a great start so we need to bounce back here and we’re going to need a big performance.
"We played against two good teams, but just didn’t come out with the results we wanted to," Pulisic said. "It just didn’t flow, it didn’t feel right in the moment. Looking back on it there, yeah, there’s a lot of things we could have improved on, and we’re going to try and bring that tomorrow."
Much has changed since Pulisic and the U.S. left the field in Costa Rica after an embarrassing 4-0 World Cup qualifying loss. Jurgen Klinsmann was fired as U.S. coach, with Bruce Arena replacing him. Along the way, Pulisic's stock continued to soar as he stepped up in important matches for Dortmund. He provided a goal and an assist in Dortmund's decisive UEFA Champions League quarterfinal victory against Benfica, and followed up with a goal to help BVB advance in the DFB Pokal.
Those successes have Pulisic arriving at this latest U.S. camp brimming with confidence, and impressing teammates and coaches alike.
"I think he continues to make progress as a player and a person," Arena said on Friday. "I think his last couple of months with his club team in Germany have been good. He has very little experience at the international level and he’s going to need to get a taste of it to continue to grow as a player, but he has all the tools to become a very good player. I look forward to seeing how he reacts in these next two games."
Just three months ago, when Arena took the job, he preached patience and tried to temper expectations regarding Pulisic, but that has become more and more difficult with each head-turning performance he has delivered, both in the German Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League. Arena even managed to add to the growing hype when he shared which former player of his Pulisic reminds him of.
"He does remind me of Landon (Donovan)," Arena said on Friday. "But he has a long way to go before he gets to stand next to Landon, because Landon, we saw a player have a tremendous career at both the club and international levels. Christian’s just starting and we don’t know what it’s going to look like 10 years down the road, but certainly at this age, he reminds me a lot of Landon."
When asked of the comparison, Pulisic made it clear he wasn't trying to remind people of anybody.
"He was an idol of mind, so it’s obviously an honor, but I’m my own player as well so I’m just trying to do it for me, and that’s it," Pulisic said.
Pulisic will be looking to improve on the performances he delivered in the November qualifiers, though he showed some clear promise in the losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Deployed as a playmaker against Mexico, Pulisic was active and involved. He struggled to make his mark against Costa Rica, but that was a total team meltdown and he was arguably one of the few bright spots.
That was four months ago. He heads into Friday's vital qualifier a more seasoned and more confident player.
"Every day when I go out to training I’m trying to get better and better and over four months time, however long it’s been, being with Dortmund and playing more big games there it’s just gaining experience and I feel even stronger than I was then," he said.
Pulisic's growth as a player will earn him a key role in the U.S. gameplan to try and break down a Honduras side expected to deploy a defensive-minded system that will keep numbers behind the ball and look to frustrate the Americans and burn them on the counterattack. Pulisic's recent play in more of a central playmaker role for Dortmund could lead Arena to deploying him in that very role against Honduras. Pulisic began his career at Dortmund playing predominantly on the wings, but has more recently played centrally, where he was a standout in the U.S. youth national team system.
Though he wouldn't admit that it's his preferred position, Pulisic's response about playing through the middle may have provided a hint of where he will be used on Friday.
"I just like to be on the field really, anywhere on the field, but I feel comfortable in that (central midfield) position," Pulisic said. "I’ve played there a lot, so I’m ready."
The United States will need Pulisic to shine, along with the rest of his teammates, if an awful 0-3 start to the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying is to be avoided. Pulisic knows he has a big job ahead, but he isn't heading into Friday's match thinking that he has to carry a team he happens to be the youngest member of.
"I’m not going to put pressure on myself like that," Pulisic said. "I’m just going to go out like any other game, be confident, and play like I play. We’ll see where it goes."