It’s difficult to explain the thrall that Christian Pulisic has the American soccer scene in.
Some of it is pride that this maturing soccer nation could actually produce such a player – never mind that he went to finishing school in Germany, in Borussia Dortmund’s famed academy. A lot of it is giddiness about the possibilities that have opened up now that the U.S. finally has a player capable of unlocking a world class defense at a World Cup. And it’s part awe at his age – 19 years and a few weeks.
But an unmistakable element in the delight of seeing a genuine prodigy come of age is to bear witness to the unfathomable speed at which he’s developing. Most every time that you watch Pulisic play, he’ll be a little better than the last time. He’ll have figured something out, or sharpened some skill.
So too on Friday, in the United States men’s national team’s desperately needed 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Panama in Orlando, rescuing a troubled campaign to get to Russia next summer, Pulisic put to work some knowledge he’d recently gleaned.
In September, the Yanks’ road to Russia seemed to lead over the edge of a ravine yet again. Costa Rica’s victory in New Jersey and a somewhat flattered, late-won tie in Honduras dropped the U.S. out of the automatic qualifying spots for Russia next summer. And the Central Americans did it by savaging Pulisic, who learned a hard lesson about playing in CONCACAF.
On the ball and off it, he was getting shoved and elbowed and kicked. When he lingered on the ball, the way he can without repercussion with his club side in the Bundesliga, it would take a physical toll. Every moment on the ball, after all, was a chance for some thuggish opponent to dole out punishment.
Pulisic, unprepared and unaccustomed to getting the target-on-back treatment, faded from those games as the minutes and physicality mounted. Which only served to strengthen the merits of such a hack-a-Pulisic approach. Want to stop the U.S.? Kick Pulisic until he stops being effective.
This was true for two games. Until Friday.
Pulisic took a kicking, just as he did against Costa Rica. Just as he did against Honduras. He wilted in those games. This time around, he found a way of remaining decisive in spite of the assault, riding the mostly uncalled fouls and getting back up to go at it again.
On Friday, Pulisic took his lumps and then took his goals anyway. Eight minutes in, he latched onto a Tim Howard goal kick headed on by Bobby Wood and deadened for Jozy Altidore. He backheeled the ball into his own path, ran away from the center backs and rounded goalkeeper Jaime Penedo to score from a miniscule angle.
Eleven minutes later, he dove into a corridor of space, met a long ball and fed a low cross behind the defense to Altidore, who had a simple tap-in for the goal. Altidore would also score a penalty, and Wood would finally get his goal in the second half.
But the game was over within 19 minutes, as the Americans kept galloping through the vast spaces between the Panamanian lines, and exploiting the room behind their high defense. Pulisic broke the Canaleros’ resistance so quickly that more efficient teammates might have run the score up to 6-0, or even 7-0.
He now has eight goals in 19 U.S. games and was involved in 11 of the 14 American goals scored in the final round of qualifying until those third and fourth goals on Friday.
He was so influential, and had so resoundingly beaten Panama in the first half, that it didn’t much matter that he was pulled in the 56th minute, the better to rest him for Tuesday’s win-and-qualify game in Trinidad and Tobago.
That he needs resting at all has as much to do with negligent referees as abusive opponents. Defenders will go as far as the match officials allow them to. And there is yet to be a CONCACAF referee to put a decisive stop to the fouls – a shocking number of which aren’t even called.
The regional referees aren’t programmed to protect a true star. They aren’t used to dealing with a world class player, surrounded by lesser men, and the target such a transcendent player becomes. Until such a time that CONCACAF delivers a clear edict to protect Pulisic – and any other attacker who seems to float over the grass others merely trudge on – he’ll have to deal with this. And all you can hope is that it doesn’t curtail his career prematurely, the way it did Marco van Basten’s when Italian referees refused to put a stop to the incessant kicking of his frail ankles.
“He’s our wonder boy,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told FourFourTwo after the game. ” Everyone in CONCACAF knows it … ‘kick the kid from Dortmund.’ It’s clear. You can see it.”
So Pulisic got kicked again. And again and again. But he also won the game in 55 minutes of work. He left the field with a pronounced limp. “I just got kicked in the calf there again,” he told ESPN. “But I’ll be alright. I’ll be alright.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.