Pulisic learns his harshest lessons against Costa Rica and Honduras

By Ridge Mahoney

One point, one goal.

On both counts, the last two Hexagonal matches fell short in terms of production, so analyzing the 2-0 loss to Costa Rica and 1-1 tie with Honduras requires delving into matters well below the scorelines.

Concerns about the back line, which cropped a few times during the Gold Cup, recurred as evidence piled up that without centerback John Brooks and right back DeAndre Yedlin, both injured, and Jorge Villafana yet to prove himself the answer at left back, the Americans are deep in terms of quantity but not quality.

Despite a lot of spotty and sporadic midfield play, the Americans created a fair number of chances either through approach work or the dreaded-but-occasionally effective long ball out of the back. In the latter category, Jozy Altidore tested Costa Rican keeper Taylor Navas when he latched onto a missile from Geoff Cameron, and on a similar ball Bobby Woodgot in behind the Ticos back line but the U.S. wasn’t able to get a shot.

Yet the overriding conclusion of 180 minutes of play is that the U.S. fortunes are ever more dependent on Christian Pulisic, who to be fair shouldn’t be shouldering such a burden at age 18 but with Clint Dempsey no longer a 90-minute man and he and Altidore still prone to petulance in pressure situations, the wunderkind is already wearing a bulls’-eye as the player opponents must stop.

Officially, Pulisic was fouled seven times in the two games and if he played hockey, the number of hits he’d taken would also be officially logged. On ice, hits include body checks and collisions near the boards along with fouls that result in penalties, and the defensive concept of taking the body as hard and as often as possible is to induce fatigue as well as pain.

Pulisic had to pull himself to his feet gingerly a few times and hobble his way back to full speed on more than one occasion. Though he and his teammates struggled to find a consistent tempo against Costa Rica, he did manage to take four shots: an attempt from a bad angle with two teammates in the box; a close-range attempt blocked by Kendall Waston; a ball played behind him that he skied well over the bar; and the left-footed effort that took a deflection and required a spectacular Navas save to keep out of the net.

The latter shot drew the most notice, yet the ball was not struck all that solidly and probably would have been easily saved by Navas if not for the abrupt change in direction. His first attempt, which fell in the early minutes, can be blamed on the anxiety and nerves felt by all players, not just young ones, in the early minutes of a big match. From near the byline, with a couple of teammates in the middle calling for the ball, just about anything is better than blasting into the side netting.

The first-time shot blocked by Waston wasn’t the worst choice, though the veteran centerback was only a yard in front of the American and had most of the angle closed off. On the ball played behind him, just reaching it required a long stretch of the left leg and he couldn’t tell that no opponent was near enough to make a tackle. It’s a measure of his skill and agility that he got enough foot on the ball to change its direction towards the goal, albeit well over it.

These are the moments by which young players improve and mature and there will be many more of them for Pulisic, who has already assumed a stature of importance to the U.S. well beyond what is required of him at Borussia Dortmund. For though he’s a midfielder and not tasked with the same responsibilities as a forward, the fact remains that in the current corps of attackers he will be asked to score goals for the U.S.

Much consternation is generated amongst fans and observers when he’s deployed in a wide position rather than centrally, though head coach Bruce Arena maintains that Pulisic has the freedom to go wherever he wishes.

“He had a tough, tough game today,” said Arena after the final whistle ended an agonizing night at Red Bull Arena. “Obviously, they paid a lot of attention to him. You could see early in the game, they sent a second player to him; I think he got a little frustrated.

“They defended very well against him. Give them credit, they came out with a very aggressive posture and pressed us up the field. Clearly, conceding the first goal, they weren’t going to come out a whole a lot so we had to try and break down seven, eight players for long periods of the game.”

In the Honduras game his one shot, set up by Jordan Morris, was saved. Most of his passes went astray and none of them provided a scoring chance for a teammate. But if anything, he stuck to his task better than he had in the first game in which several refereeing decisions by John Pitti provoked angry protests from him and his teammates.

Many of the issues he is facing –- referees, poor fields, heat and humidity – are specific to Concacaf and the Hexagonal, and can severely test veteran players as well as the newcomers. He will be under a lot of pressure at Dortmund as well; a third-place finish triggered the departure of head coach Thomas Tuchel and replacement Peter Bosz has been joined by several new players.

A better U.S. team around Pulisic will aid and speed up the adaptation to international play, but that factor he cannot do anything about. He will take his 17th and 18th caps as harsh lessons for the next round of qualifiers, in which the stakes will be even higher than they were last week and opponent will be just as wary of the young and precocious American No. 10.

18 comments about "Pulisic learns his harshest lessons against Costa Rica and Honduras".
  1. R2 Dad, September 7, 2017 at 12:31 a.m.

    Dear CONCACAF crap officials: Persistent Infringement. Look it up. It's a violation of the laws of the game you supposedly know, understand and apply but actually don't because the country you're from doesn't ever call that foul. But somehow you're a FIFA-rated official so maybe you can play some catch-up and start carding all the goons in CONCACAF for this very specific foul: serially hacking skill players in order to injure/intimidate them. The beautiful game; it's a thing. I can send you links if you've never heard of it.

  2. stewart hayes replied, September 7, 2017 at 5:39 p.m.

    Agree completely. I think it was Guzman who stepped on his heel. The halftime report in Costa Rica has a referee report. The ref expert said it was a red card offense but of course the game referee ignored it.

  3. Brent Crossland, September 7, 2017 at 9:30 a.m.

    Totally agree. Pulisic got CONCACAFed. What instructions are these referees given? I hold my breath every time I watch a talented 18 year old play in these matches where dangerous tackles are treated as mere fouls. Contrary to Paul Gardner's many rants, I'd feel much better with an English referee in charge.

  4. beautiful game, September 7, 2017 at 9:55 a.m.

    CP's soccer IQ is well above most of his teammates,; and until that critical criteria becomes the squad's center of gravity, team performance will not change.

  5. frank schoon, September 7, 2017 at 10:18 a.m.

    There is no use yelling or complaining about the reffing, for that is a total waste of time. Pulisic is just one of the many thousands throughout the history of soccer that have become a red flag for defenders . Remember Pele,this guy got his share...this is nothing new and will continue and so far no one has been able to solve this problem. So forget about it.
    What we can do to alleviate the situation for Pulisic,as in the Costa Rican game for example, is not to create a situation where he is not only positioned near the sideline limiting his roaming ability, but also outnumbered 1v2 or sometimes 1v3. And worse, have the stupidity of failing to notice his dilemma by his teammates and continue to pass to him, when he is outnumbered. This is a NO WIN situation for Pulisic.( See Tip 135, 136). You have to look at this situation in reverse. DON"T pass the ball to Pulisic for he has DONE his job, excellently! What did he do ? Well he drew 2 to 3 opponents near him(See Tip 85). When you draw extra opponents away from their position they leave space behind for the US to take advantage of. In other words Pulisic by not doing anything has actually drawn opponents away from their space.
    The problem with the US team is that the players LACK the smarts , not aware to take advantage the new spaces offered and instead continue to pass to Pulisic when they shouldn't. Furthermore, his teammates don't create space like they do at Dortmund for Pulisic to run into or draw away opponents from Pulisic like they do at Dortmund. Again, in the latter it is up to the coach to surround Pulisic ,who need to get the ball, with players, not Zusi for example, to make him be more effective. In sum, the coaching needs to create a strategy to help Pulisic be more effective and also protect him through how they position him on the field and thus reducing the onslaught on him.

  6. R2 Dad replied, September 7, 2017 at 11:06 a.m.

    Agree, but since THAT'S never going to happen, I expect CP to have more "injuries" during CONCACAF qualification, to be unavailable for selection, to avoid these away matches that are so detrimental to their professional career. We're playing against teams that refuse to install proper fields, that insist on playing in the heat of the day, that rely on poor officiating to get results. Fine; since CONCACAF refuses to protect our players, give CONCACAF what they want. Choose the biggest and toughest goons we have, play kickball, park and counter, score crummy counterattacking goals--who cares? US Soccer will just have to find twice as many other matches for the non-goons to play so the A team can get enough reps ahead of the next world cup.

  7. frank schoon replied, September 7, 2017 at 11:21 a.m.

    R2, I agree but this is just a fact of life in soccer. This is the reason why Cruyff invented the false #9 , 45 years ago, and left that position for fear of getting continually kicked playing in the center forward position. Just look at Cruyff's build, you can understand why...LOL. Those defenders in those were thugs. This is why the dutch play a non -physical game for they would lose every game, otherwise. The dutch are not good playing physical soccer like the English, Italians, Germans or even South American like Argentinians. The dutch play smart game employing space and passes that don't caus 50/50 duels for the balls. They decided against trying to play "goon" soccer and play with their brains....

  8. Scott Johnson replied, September 7, 2017 at 2:05 p.m.

    " They [the Dutch] decided against trying to play "goon" soccer and play with their brains...." Apparently, someone didn't watch the 2010 World Cup final.

  9. frank schoon replied, September 7, 2017 at 2:30 p.m.

    Scott ,I'm talking about soccer as a style the dutch play. What they did with Spain was not Dutch and they were certainly chastised for it by Cruyff and other dutch people., including myself. One game against Spain is in no measure representative of what the dutch have done for soccer in the past 40 years.

  10. Scott Johnson replied, September 7, 2017 at 2:46 p.m.

    Fair enough, and the Dutch played beautiful soccer in 2014 (and taught the Spaniards a lesson), but there is a bit of a danger in speaking too broadly of a nation's "style", especially without reference to a date. In 2010, the Spanish looked more "Dutch" than the Dutch did, and the influence of Cruyff on Barca is a big part of that. At any rate, there are many modern Dutch players (de Jong being the most prominent example) who are both highly skilled, and highly physical to the point of being brutal.

  11. frank schoon replied, September 7, 2017 at 3:23 p.m.

    Scott, I agree with you on some points but I disagree with you on De Jong who I think is a thugsand thugs are not skillful and certain not highly skilled. His position on the team at midfield was to stop and prevent plays, certainly not descriptive of a highly skilled player, in others words he was a piano carrier. And the game Holland vs Spain at WC '14 was a joke. This dutch team was the worse team ever to have played and so aptly stated by Cruyff "forget WC'14". Spain lost because they sucked at the WC'14. It was over them, it wasn't due to great dutch soccer. As far as style goes ,the dutch do have a style and way of playing which so many teams have tried to copy the elements of like Germany, Bayern, Barcelona, Spain....

  12. Kent James, September 7, 2017 at 10:36 a.m.

    Pulisic had some tough games, but he's learning, and I have no doubt he'll continue to improve. I was impressed with his unflagging energy, even after being hacked again and again. I hope he takes Messi as his role model (simple, but lightning quick, don't dive, don't complain to the ref; use the defense's aggressiveness against them by playing 1-touch when 2 or 3 defenders are drawn to you (but still dribbling out of trouble if there is no pass available)). I thought both Nagbe and Pulisic tried to do much on their own against CR (though their teammates could have provided more passing options); but they definitely add a dimension we don't normally have...

  13. Miguel Dedo, September 7, 2017 at 10:41 a.m.

    Without Germain Jones the US has no enforcer to remind opponents that they, too, can be hacked. Accept the reality of CONCACAF soccer, find a tough guy.

  14. Ed M, September 7, 2017 at 10:49 a.m.

    It's not the Referees who didn't score until a lucky bounce got a goal for the US. Stop blaming CONCACAF Referees and start blaming US Soccer. Pulisic is only one player, the US needs to play as a team and learn when you hold the ball and when to attack. Get rid of poor players like Gonzalez who consistently give up goals because of lazy play. It's not the Referees. The US had many free kicks and wasted them. Pulisic likes to 'go down easily' at times looking to the Referees to help him play. That's a sign of age and not maturity he just doesn't have yet no matter where he plays or for whom.The US needs to start playing as a team

  15. MNT's Bundesliga Boys, September 7, 2017 at 3:07 p.m.

    The situation is critical. There are many aspects that would take too long to address here. B/c of that, I am putting out a YTube video on it about the 9th Sept. The Tico AND Honduras games precede us. We've got to pull this situation back from the brink. Or we will have two hellish games in Oct. from opponents who smell success! Right now, we must get JERMAINE JONES on the field. How good he is at soccer is not as important now. He's an EXPERT at enforcing. Known Europe-wide. If he's fit. Or can hobble. WE NEED JERMAINE TO PULL US THROUGH THIS CRITICAL TIME. By "MNT's BUNDESLIGA BOYS" YouTube

  16. Glenn Auve, September 7, 2017 at 3:21 p.m.

    Taylor Navas?

  17. Nick Daverese, September 7, 2017 at 7:07 p.m.

    When a team knows or thinks he is a dangerous player you can stop him. If they are not as worried about his other team mates.

  18. James Madison, September 7, 2017 at 9:35 p.m.

    Pulisic doesn't "walk on water." When he surrounded by a better team, he will be less of a target and both he and the team will do better.

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