CINCINNATI — Christian Pulisic was there. He was there for a week of hard training. He was there in the dressing room as the players gathered round. He was there as the game began to tip in the second half. He was there in front of goal. He was there in the middle of that magical, glorious celebration that set TQL Stadium aglow.
Pulisic was there with the message on his shirt, the perfect person — the only person — who could deliver that necessary missive to Mexico, the one that makes clear this United States men’s national team is not interested in being anything other than its precocious, penetrating self.
No one could say that Pulisic was the best player on the field in the thrilling 2-0 victory over its biggest rival Friday night. Pulisic played only 25 minutes and, in truth, even had it been 90, it was hard to imagine him (or anyone) surpassing the dynamic Timothy Weah, who delivered nothing less than everything you could want from a winger attacking from the edge against a dangerous opponent.
But after missing the past three U.S. games because of an ankle injury, Pulisic reminded everyone, including Mexico, that he is this team’s talisman. Its star. Its leader, the kind of player who can, at any moment, grip a match in his hands and bend it just so.
He came into a scoreless game. He pushed and pressed and prodded. He made a precise run at a precise moment to meet Weah’s impeccable cross. He headed the ball past Guillermo Ochoa, the Mexican goalkeeper who suggested earlier this week that this young U.S. group has accomplished so little that it still sees El Tri when it gazes at its own reflection.
As Ochoa floundered then in the bitter cold late Friday, Pulisic ran toward the corner and proudly pulled up his jersey to reveal the words scrawled in black marker on his undershirt: Man in the mirror.
It was a flawless riposte, sly and knifing all at once. The Americans howled. The Mexicans slumped. The days of the U.S. being bossed by its rival are long since past.
Even Pulisic, ever stoic with the media, allowed himself a relative crow. “We’ve come a long way in the past few years,” he said.
Earlier in the week, in a conversation at the team hotel, I asked Pulisic how he felt about the U.S.’s progress as this arduous World Cup qualifying cycle approached its halfway point. “I think we’re in a good position,” he offered quickly in the head-down, muted murmur that is his default. Then he paused and looked up. “In a week and a half, we could be in a great one,” he said.
They nearly are. If the U.S. can get a result on Tuesday in Jamaica, it will head into the new year in excellent shape to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar — a goal that, Friday’s excitement aside, is far bigger than any one win over a reviled neighbor.
Pulisic, of course, is the only link to the 2018 World Cup qualifying failure, and he does not hide his desperation to lead this group back from those dregs. That is what made his injury so much more difficult to manage. Missing games for Chelsea was gutting enough, but having to sit idly by as the national team played three critical matches in the last window without him was brutal for Pulisic.
Stuck in London, he went to sleep early on days the U.S. played and woke up in the middle of the night to watch the games, pacing in his living room. When his recovery progressed to the point he could rejoin Chelsea’s training a few weeks ago, he immediately began thinking about targeting a return in time for Mexico.
He craved it. Pulisic makes no secret of the fact that he is not wired to be a vocal captain like Tyler Adams, but he nonetheless sees himself as a leader of this youthful U.S. group. And so he wanted to be present, to be visible, to be close.
“I just want to lead in my own way,” he told me, “and I hope that the other guys can see that and then try to follow.”
He needn’t worry. Even if many of his teammates are only a few years younger (Pulisic, remember, is still only 23), it is clear there is an abiding connection. Brenden Aaronson, who was among those asked to fill in with Pulisic out, said Pulisic “means so much to our team,” adding, “It’s like another confidence boost just having him here.”
Weah said simply, “He’s our star player. He’s so deadly.”
It was Weah and DeAndre Yedlin who came up with the idea to put “man in the mirror” on a shirt, and it is emblematic of Pulisic’s place within the group that he was the one who got to show it.
It should be said: It is not his team. There is too much talent for any one player to take on that load, and the truth is that the U.S. is better because of it. But there is also no denying that Pulisic remains the ideal fulcrum around which this American roster pivots.
That is what U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter — and, very likely, just about every American fan in the stands — thought when Pulisic took off his warm-ups, gave his coach a hug and ran onto the field late Friday.
“When we brought in Christian, it gave the team a boost,” Berhalter said. “And it also, I think, put some fear into Mexico.”
Sports is, so often, simply a results business, and that concept is especially true in World Cup qualifying. Yes or no — did you accomplish that which you set out to do? Reaching Qatar next winter is, at bottom, the only measure that matters for this American team.
But the journey remains important. The moments do have meaning. And Friday in the arena with their most important opponent was a moment for the U.S. players. They imposed their will on the game. They played their style, not Mexico’s. They threatened. They defended. They were patient, trusting that their work would be rewarded even if it took so long to arrive.
Even more, they did not act surprised by their victory, did not lay false claim to being some sort of massive underdog who pulled off an upset. Their skill is indisputable and, to some, might even be superior. They had their crowd. They deserved to win on Friday and they did. It was a formative experience in the story still to be written about this gifted group.
Now comes another moment. A road game in Jamaica feels like the classic comedown, the kind of match that slips away easily if not held with care. A win is ideal, of course, but even a steady draw would show the sturdiness of character to which the U.S. aspires. CONCACAF is hard and the most important course of action is often just figuring out how to avoid undoing the positive work you’ve already done.
It is not clear what Pulisic will be able to offer on Tuesday in Kingston. He had played less than half an hour for Chelsea before rejoining the U.S., and the conditions in Jamaica — hot, humid and on a field that inevitably resembles the rough on a chewed-up golf course — are lacking for a fit player, let alone one coming back from an ankle injury.
Might he come on as a late sub again? Perhaps. But even if not, the power lies in knowing that he is available. That he is back.
Pulisic was there on Friday. Right where this U.S. team needs him most.