A familiar American phenomenon has been in full force during the rise of Christian Pulisic this past year — for every US soccer fan or writer proclaiming Pulisic as the real deal, there’s been another one fretting about Freddy Adu, and the dangers of too much hope, too soon, being placed on the shoulders of the 18-year-old.
No sense postponing the hopes on Pulisic
It’s a familiar US pastime. And as Pulisic broke open a tense game against Trinidad & Tobago with two goals on Thursday night, the cautionary takes were as abundant as the hyperbolic ones.
But nobody within USMNT circles is pretending that Pulisic is anything other than their brightest: Bruce Arena called him “a big boy now”. Against Trinidad, Pulisic’s urgency in reaching the ball ahead of Clint Dempsey for the first goal had a symbolic feel. Pulisic vs Dempsey is not a zero sum choice, but it’s become clear in the last few games, that it’s impossible to give both players any sort of roaming brief. Dempsey is still dangerous, and capable of driving some games in those fits of self-righteous fervor, but his relevance to the national team will depend on him adapting to Pulisic rather than the other way around.
And if Pulisic was quieter against Mexico, there was a reason. Along with his team-mates he was absorbing pressure for much of the game, so that the moment two minutes from the end where he cut inside to shoot, and for a second dangled fresh levels of hype in front of us, was a standout rather than the rule. There’s a place for that kind of performance too, when it comes to assessing Pulisic. Eighteen or not, caveats about his age don’t really have a place any more. The team have pinned their hopes on Pulisic — if the fans do too, he’s ready to take it.
Michael Bradley deserves his brilliant goal
The opening few minutes of the Mexico game had already seen a couple of wild elbows, some unexpectedly bold US pressing, and had yet to settle into a pattern when Michael Bradley made his move.
In keeping with that aggressive US start Bradley had stepped up to win the ball, and then with a directness we rarely see from him, hit the most exquisite, shallow-arced chip over Ochoa in the Mexican goal.
The clamor and intensity and occasional downright ugliness of the opening minutes made the sweet flight of the ball off Bradley’s boot seem even more, well, beautiful, by contrast — and perhaps mixed in with the surprise of it was that the ball was hit by Michael Bradley.
Bradley had been shunted up and down the center of the formation for so long by the end of Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure, that the sight of the US captain moving dutifully but awkwardly into position to play yet another cautious square pass had come to feel like his sole possible contribution.
The last time the US played Mexico, Bradley’s most memorable first half contribution was running to the sideline in a break in play to consult with a lost looking Klinsmann as Mexico ran the US ragged in Columbus. On Sunday night there was no confusion. Direct when he needed to be (and nearly stealing the winner with another shot off the post in the second half), marshaling the midfield line of defense more often, Bradley reminded us of his virtues against Mexico.
And when he hit that shot he even made Bruce Arena smile.
‘Fortress Azteca’ may have been permanently undermined
The record used to speak for itself, with the long list of US losses at the Azteca suggesting an inferiority complex deepening for the visitors with each defeat. US teams used to appear beaten at the point of the first setback, if not before they took the field in the first place. But now, with a win and two draws in the last three visits to the stadium, Mexico’s advantage has been diminished.
When I was working on a story on the effects of altitude recently, in anticipation of this game, I spoke with Colorado coach Pablo Mastroeni, who knows a thing or two about the phenomenon. He suggested that past defeats may have as big a part to play in the outcome of the game as any consequence of the thin air.
The impregnability of the Azteca was diminished during Mexico’s struggles in World Cup 2014 qualifying, but even in the formidable run put together by Juan Carlos Osorio this time round, it’s been easier said than done to make the Azteca a fortress again. Part of the reason of course is that these days Mexico’s players are just as susceptible to the conditions as their opponents – most play their soccer in Europe.
Mexico will qualify comfortably for the World Cup. But even as they ended the Dos a Cero sequence up north, they couldn’t regain the historic dominance of the US when the series switched down south. There’s been talk of future national team games being moved away from the Azteca, and the more results like this happen, the less unthinkable that prospect seems.
It’s Arena’s team now
Bruce Arena might have wondered why he bothered to come back after he saw the reaction to his appointment. The most experienced American coach in the game was treated as an underwhelming choice when he was announced as Klinsmann’s replacement. Even the arguments about him being a safe pair of hands, for what had suddenly become a World Cup qualification emergency, seemed to damn him with faint praise.
There were advantages to that too, of course. With the bare expectation that the team get points on the board, Arena did not have to deal with any of the existential questions about the overall trajectory of the program that Klinsmann had dealt with (and frankly, invited, with his dual role as technical director). Points for wins and draws were all that mattered. Style was irrelevant.
And yet even in the exceptional circumstances of preparing a roster for two games on a three-day turnaround at altitude, there were signs of an Arena manifesto for this US team. There’s the growing clues as to Arena’s preferred midfield, with the integrations of Kelyn Acosta alongside Bradley. Acosta replaced Dempsey against Trinidad, and Arena told me after the game that the purpose of that was to “get Pulisic closer to goal”. But it also beta-tested a defensive midfield screen ready to face Mexico, and that would in the event perform admirably. Add in the faith in Darlington Nagbe, rewarded by the midfielder’s directness in helping break the deadlock in Colorado, and there are real signs of Arena’s preferred side. And with qualification looking more and more likely the bigger picture of where Arena is taking this team begins to become more of a question. So far he’s answering the question confidently.
Still no definitive answer at left-back
DaMarcus Beasley’s latest adventure involved playing 90 minutes against Mexico in the Azteca, in what’s now a record-breaking fifth World Cup qualifying cycle. Beasley did not particularly disappoint as one of seven changes Bruce Arena had made from the Trinidad game, even if he was the player Carlos Vela went past to score the equalizing goal. But his presence was a reminder of the USA’s ongoing inability to find and stick with a first-choice left-back.
Jorge Villafana did well enough against Trinidad. But when we’ve seen natural center backs like Tim Ream and Matt Besler tried out there, it’s apparent that there’s no specialist in that position who has distinguished themselves from the crowd. And that’s going to be a headache in the coming year.
This article was written by Graham Parker, for theguardian.com on Monday 12th June 2017 15.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010