For years, U.S. Soccer fans have dreamt of a player like Christian Pulisic. But one star is not enough
It was around the 80th minute when a kid to my right started to shout forlornly at the U.S. men’s national team to just “do something.” In front of me, an increasingly drunk and embittered American fan, who had already heckled U.S. head coach Bruce Arena to bring on Clint Dempsey, got ejected for turning his taunts on the innocent Costa Rican bench. The rowdy, sold-out crowd at Red Bull Arena was restless and on edge, about to boil over.
Then Marco Ureña snuck past the U.S. backline and scored his second goal of the match, drowning any hope of a U.S. comeback. Down 2-0, Christian Pulisic — frustrated and rendered largely ineffective for much of the game — tried to spark the U.S. team back to life with an individual moment of brilliance. He received the ball on the right, turned, turned again, and dribbled aimlessly into a crowd of Costa Rican defenders.
Shortly after, he left the field, and the American fans were mostly quiet then, no longer even motivated to complain.
It wasn’t the result they had come to witness. Before the match, when Pulisic walked out of the tunnel to survey the pitch, the early arriving supporters gawked in genuine awe. The weather was mild, the beer was cold, a 3-day weekend loomed ahead, and standing in front of them was the teenager they’d heard so much about, who some have already called the greatest American player of all time.
They shouted, they waved, they took pictures. One even tried to get the 18 year-old to sign a pair of shoes. More than anything, they wanted to acknowledge that he was, in fact, real, made of flesh and blood and bone, and not some illusion that long suffering American soccer fans had dreamt into existence.
Pulisic means this much to U.S. Soccer supporters not because he is good (and he is good) but because he’s the first ever physical manifestation of a true American soccer star, the type of player that can release the U.S. from the Round of 16 purgatory that the team has found itself in for the past two decades.
In the opening minutes of the match, Pulisic and the U.S. delivered. With Costa Rica pressing high, Pulisic dashed into swaths of empty grass on the right flank. The team hummed, connecting passes and threatening the Costa Rican net. Michael Bradley sprang Bobby Wood behind the back line. Darlington Nagbe sliced into the 18 yard-box. With every Pulisic touch, the stadium got louder and more electric. A goal seemed certain. A victory inevitable.
And then a great Graham Zusi ball found Pulisic wide right, and his cross looked destined to find Jozy Altidore’s right foot and the back of the net. But Costa Rican defender Kendall Watson bungled Altidore over — what appeared to be a clear penalty — and the referee waved play on despite the howls of American players and their supporters.
From that point on, the Americans’ advantage seemed to drift away. The Ticos adjusted, double-marking Pulisic, kicking him every chance they got. The open space on the right flank evaporated and then re-appeared as a river of distance between the two U.S. centerbacks. Marco Ureña filled it, and Costa Rica scored their first goal.
The second half brought rising tempers and tensions, on and off the pitch, but the U.S. never managed to regain their early attacking flair. Arena brought on Clint Dempsey, and then Jordan Morris. They lumped long balls forward and swung free kicks into the box, hoping that a deflection would drop a loose ball into the 6 yard-box, a serendipitous moment of deliverance from defeat.
When it did come, a deflection off a Clint Dempsey free kick that fell into Pulisic’s path, Keylor Navas managed to swat the first-time shot aside. With Costa Rica bunkered, the U.S. wasn’t good enough to break them down.
This is the frustrating reality that American fans continue to live inside, the jarring whiplash of a team that looks poised to make a run at the World Cup one night and like they might not even make it to Russia on another. As Arena rightly said after the game, “They outplayed us and outcoached us tonight.”
Luckily, CONCACAF is a forgiving region. Pulisic or not, there’s more than enough talent on this team to not just beat Costa Rica but to also qualify for the World Cup. Arena must start by fixing what went wrong in New Jersey: Adding balance and bite to midfield, closing the yawning gaps in defense, adding ingenuity and guile to the attack.
If that happens (And it’ll have to to happen quickly. The U.S. faces Honduras on Tuesday night.) all those awe-struck fans will have been right to recklessly believe in a player like Pulisic, to allow themselves to believe for a moment that soccer in America could be the thing the they’ve always wanted it to become.