Whether Christian Pulisic was born to be in this position or was thrust into this position or pushed himself to be in this position is immaterial. Here he was Tuesday, in the only position that mattered, charging toward the goal in the 38th minute. “Captain America” by choice or by fate or by diligence, the moment needed a superhero draped in red, white and blue.
Christian Pulisic has his moment, and the U.S. survives because of it
Sergiño Dest was already behind the Iranian defense, and he got his head on a ball served perfectly by Weston McKennie, like Pulisic just 24. Pulisic is the star of the U.S. men’s national team because of his skill and his savvy, and that has been the case since he was a teenager.
This moment — his moment — called for something more than finesse or creativity. It may not be brave or courageous, exactly, to charge at a soccer ball in the midst of heavy human traffic, risking personal injury, showing what athletic sacrifice means. But it’s something close to that — a will, a way. Because Christian Pulisic had it in that moment — laid out on a pitch on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar, the goal more precious than the body that provided it — the United States is moving on to the knockout stage of the 2022 World Cup.
Pulisic’s strike, in which he slithered between Iranian defenders Ramin Rezaeian on his back and Majid Hosseini to his front, may have cost him an appearance in Saturday’s round-of-16 match against the Netherlands. It may have cost him future generations of Pulisics, because he collided with Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand so violently that his celebration wasn’t sliding on his knees into the corner, but writhing on the grass beyond the goal line.
He not only missed the second half, but ended up in the hospital. The official word from U.S. Soccer officials was “pelvic contusion.” Watch the goal again, and the unofficial word could well be, “%$#@&!”
That it was Pulisic who lifted the Americans to a 1-0 victory when only a victory would suffice is perfect. There has to be a burden to what he has been through, to what he represents. He was the kid on the U.S. team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, already boldly forging a new path for promising young Americans by playing professionally — as a teen — in Europe.
When the United States lost its final qualifying match before that 2018 World Cup — in Trinidad & Tobago, a stunner in which a tie would have been enough, but a result that set the American soccer establishment reeling — it was Pulisic who was left, fully clothed, crying in the shower. This, in 2022, should have been his second World Cup. It is, instead, his debut — along with (thus far) 17 other teammates who have played on this stage for the first time.
His role and responsibility for lifting the men’s national team was apparent during those qualifying matches leading up to 2018, when he was brilliant even when the team wasn’t. It was apparent after that failure, when the generational transition was in full force, and he had no choice but to lead the way.
“I definitely need to be a more important piece of this team and continue to grow as a leader,” Pulisic said late in 2018, before he and the United States faced England in a friendly in London. “It’s important for the team and myself. It’s going to be fun moving forward with these guys.”
Saying it’s fun and having fun are different things entirely, and the pressure on Pulisic is real. That he is the alpha of American soccer at the moment is neither his decision nor, perhaps, his preference. But he can’t help it if his skill separates him from his teammates and makes him the focal point of any U.S. attack. American soccer, at the moment, goes through him — which makes even the slightest chance he’ll be absent against the Netherlands terrifying.
Let’s wait on that. Savor Tuesday first.
And Pulisic is someone who understands his position even if he doesn’t exactly relish it. He grew up in Hershey, Pa., but went early to German club Borussia Dortmund, where he played first for the youth club before debuting for the senior team at 17. He moved to Chelsea of the English Premier League in 2019. He has battled injuries. He has bounced back from them. He arrived in Qatar, aware of his stature as a young star, the mantle he bears and the opportunity ahead.
“I’ve played in some big games,” Pulisic told reporters in the week leading up to this World Cup. “I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve done a lot of things I want to do, but the World Cup is something on top of all of that, and it’s something when I was a kid in Pennsylvania growing up, 5 to 10 years old, all I thought about was a World Cup, playing for the U.S. team in a World Cup. That’s just been a dream my whole life.”
So he’s living it. His debut had been solid if not spectacular before the do-or-die match against Iran — much like the American side as a whole. He assisted on the lone previous American goal, Tim Weah’s first-half strike against Wales that ended up being enough only for a 1-1 draw. He served a left-footed missile toward the goal against England, only to have it deflect off the crossbar, keeping a scoreless match scoreless.
Tuesday, though, all that combination of hype and potential and talent and tension came to him in the form of Dest’s header. The ball skipped off the grass as Pulisic charged, and he lifted his right foot to meet it. That Beiranvand’s 6-foot-4 frame stood ahead of him mattered not.
The ball found the back of the net. Christian Pulisic put it there. That is precisely the burden that was placed on his shoulders, fairly or not. “Captain America” could seem like a yoke. It shouldn’t be. He is a talent and a tone-setter. He now has his moment, one that propelled American soccer forward even if it left him bedridden. That’s a worthy sacrifice, one that tells the world that, at least on the World Cup stage, he’s just getting started.