Coaches like to be secretive about their starting lineups, which is the only way to explain why Jurgen Klinsmann answered so apprehensively about whether 17-year-old Christian Pulisic would start on Tuesday against Trinidad & Tobago.
"Starting [Pulisic] is also questioning how long can he actually go, because we don't know,” Klinsmann said shortly after, in 24 minutes of play, Pulisic scored two goals and assisted in Friday’s 6-0 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “He's barely started [in] preseason, he hasn't had any games. So we start him and suddenly he starts cramping up at 60 minutes because his legs aren't built yet and you have only three subs. So these are kind of important things."
Of course, Pulisic is fit enough. In July, he started preseason training with one of the top clubs in the world, Borussia Dortmund, alongside a host of world-class players. I’d wager his legs are built up pretty good.
True, Pulisic did not play in Dortmund’s Bundesliga and German Cup openers, but he started in both friendlies Dortmund recently played for its reserves who also include three 2014 World Cup champions (Roman Weidenfeller, Mario Goetze and Andre Schuerrle) and one Euro 2016 champ (Raphael Guerreiro).
Less than two weeks ago, Pulisic went 63 minutes and scored in the second Dortmund friendly. Eight days before that, he played 90 minutes. And way back on July 28, he made a 45-minute appearance in a friendly and scored against Manchester City, six days after playing a half hour against Manchester United. (If you were wondering, Goetze and Guerrero were in good enough shape to start for Germany and Portugal, respectively, in international games this week even if they're not starting for Dortmund.)
And if there are doubts that he can go 90 minutes against Trinidad & Tobago, so what? Klinsmann has three subs at his disposal and frequently has started using them before the 70th minute.
Is there any possibility that a player who has trained for six weeks with Borussia Dortmund could not be fit enough to play 70 minutes against Trinidad & Tobago? I don’t think so.
Of course, I didn’t expect Klinsmann to reveal his starting lineup four days before kickoff. He’s not the only coach who likes to hold his cards close to his chest. And coaches also have their theories on how the training environment might be affected if players know far in advance whether they’re starting or not.
And coaches tend to be protective about very young players, feeling they have to ease them into to high-pressure situations.
But all indications are that Pulisic, who during the first half of 2016 played in a dozen competitive games for Dortmund, can handle the challenge.
It’s not even risky to start Pulisic against T&T, but if it were, some risk-taking is what we’d expect from a coach who frequently urges his players to takes risks.
The USA will qualify for the final round of World Cup qualifying unless it losses to T&T and Guatemala beats St. Vincent & the Grenadines by margins of 12 goals. Then the road gets tougher in the Hexagonal, with opponents such as Mexico and Costa Rica and likely Honduras. It would suit the USA if by that time, an attacker as dangerous and creative and confident on the ball as Pulisic is completely integrated into the team.
Pulisic has already played seven games for the USA, a total of 177 minutes in which he has scored three goals and assisted once -- contributing at a rate of more than two goals every 90 minutes.
Klinsmann has challenged his young players to “push the older ones out.” Now it’s time for Klinsmann to hold up his side of the bargain -- to bench one of the attackers who clearly isn’t as talented as the kid from Pennsylvania.