Premium: All But Done
Pulisic's Hat Trick Fuels USMNT's Blowout of Panama, Leaving a Formality in Costa Rica to Qualify for the World Cup
ORLANDO, Fla. — If you’re Christian Pulisic, your first touch is never an end in itself. “It’s knowing which direction to take your first touch, and not just receiving it,” he once told me. “It’s putting yourself in a good position for what you want to do with it.”
During the U.S.’s 5-1 thrashing of Panama in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier, Pulisic produced the first hat trick of his international career. His opening two goals came on penalties as the U.S. built a stunning 4-0 halftime lead, but the lasting image of a triumphant night will be of Pulisic’s sublime first touch—actually, first two touches—on his third strike of the game.
With his back to the goal, Pulisic received Jedi Robinson’s cross with a caressing left-footed touch. But it wasn’t just that Pulisic brought the ball down cleanly; he also pulled it toward the goal between his own legs, allowing him to turn and beat his first defender. Now facing the goal, Pulisic took a single deft touch with the outside of his right foot, nutmegging his second defender and creating space for what looked, in the end, like an easy finish.
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But none of it was easy. The hardest thing in soccer is true simplicity, as the great Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp showed us, and the most difficult place to do it is in front of the goal. When you watch the replay, it’s as if Pulisic is operating at a different speed from his opponents. The game slows down for him. Two touches. Shot. Goal. “What I like the most [about Pulisic] is his first touch,” his former teammate Nuri Sahin once explained to me. “When he gets the ball, his first touch opens him a huge space even if there is no space.”
Claudio Reyna on his son, Gio: “I remember when he was in the car and his team would lose when he was Under-11, Under-12, and he’d be crying after the game. And he’d get into the car and I would say, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’ And he felt like his teammates weren’t trying as hard as him. And I was like, ‘No, it’s probably they’re just not as good as you.’ And I was just trying to coach him through those moments. But he was so competitive.”
The truth is, though, that Pulisic needed a defining performance like this for the United States, needed to show in an important game that his quality can make the difference. He’d had an inconsistent qualifying campaign, starting just six of the 13 games (due to Covid and injury) and scoring only twice. Given the chance three nights earlier to finish a sitter and give the U.S. its first win ever at Mexico in a World Cup qualifier, Pulisic failed to convert the opportunity and pounded the ground in frustration.
There was no such moment on Sunday. It was replaced instead by exultation as Pulisic bathed in the applause of a sold-out stadium and by the dialed-up feistiness he showed during a scrum with Panamanian players. His passion was gratifying to see, even if you also wished the U.S. had an enforcer who could prevent the star from having to get in the middle of things.
The four-goal victory left the U.S. almost certain of clinching a World Cup berth on Wednesday in Costa Rica. As long as the Yanks avoid losing by six goals or more, they will return to the world’s biggest sporting event for the first time in eight years.
“Obviously, a huge result,” Pulisic said afterward. “We needed the three points bad to put us in a really good spot to qualify, and we’re really happy with the performance. It feels great to get a hat trick, of course, my first one with the national team, but more importantly just to help the team to win and put us in a good spot with one game left. Absolutely we can enjoy tonight, but the job’s not done yet. We have one more really important game, and we’re taking it very seriously. We need to go in and get the job done.”
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff also decided to give Pulisic the captaincy on Sunday, even though Tyler Adams is the more natural choice. At first Pulisic spent a lot of time fiddling with the armband, which seemed to be getting in his way—an apt symbol for a player who hasn’t always felt comfortable in a leadership position. But that soon went away, and Pulisic took over the game.
“Anyone in the leadership group can be captain on game night, and the coaching staff talked about it and decided on Christian, I think because of the journey,” Berhalter explained. “You have a guy that’s been there before. He was on the field when we didn't qualify [in 2017]. And this was us saying to him: This is a new group, this is a new team and you’re a leader. And we want to show that and we want to highlight that. And I think when I look at his performance, besides the hat trick, I think everything else was exactly what we needed him to do in terms of his work rate, his effort, his energy, his intensity, and his leadership.”
What’s more, Pulisic trusted his teammates more on Sunday. At times, a lack of trust has meant that he has tried to do too much when he’s with the national team, over-dribbling and losing possession when he could just make the simple pass. Putting faith in your teammates doesn’t mean becoming a wallflower, though. You can still show the best of your talents, as Pulisic did on his third goal.
“It was a huge honor to be captain tonight and just to really help the team and lead the team,” Pulisic said, “and with one game left in qualifying to help put us in a really good spot.”
Aside from the quest to finalize qualification for the World Cup, this window of USMNT games will likely be remembered for the tantalizing promise shown by Gio Reyna, the 19-year-old winger for Borussia Dortmund whose parents, Claudio and Danielle, both played internationally for the United States. Four years ago, I wrote about their family’s story of losing Gio’s older brother, Jack, at age 13 to a rare form of brain cancer. Nobody had a bigger impact on Gio’s rise in soccer than Jack, who sparked Gio’s famous competitive streak by letting him play in games with him and his older friends.
And nobody cheered for Gio harder than Jack, who would have whooped and hollered seeing Gio go on a jaw-dropping run against Mexico at Estadio Azteca last Thursday, slaloming through six Mexican defenders on a 60-yard ramble that only ended once he was finally dispossessed near the Mexican penalty box. For Reyna, who hadn’t played in a World Cup qualifier since September due to a muscle injury suffered against El Salvador, it was a searing reminder that he possesses a combination of talent, bravery and cojones that may be unique in the U.S. player pool.
Reyna’s inner fire is already the stuff of legend, and he flashed some of it as well against Mexico when he was visibly upset that teammate Jordan Pefok was unable to score off a tremendous pass from Reyna on the right wing. Watching that reaction, I thought back to conversations I’ve had with Claudio Reyna over the years.
A decade ago, when he was the youth technical director for U.S. Soccer, Claudio told me that American players in their early teens are more competitive at that age than kids in other countries. The American youngsters weren’t necessarily better technically or tactically than their foreign counterparts, but man, you did not need to teach them how to compete. Claudio thought it had something to do with the culture of the United States.
Recently I spoke to Claudio for my podcast, and he said some things about Gio that stood out so much to me that I cut them from the podcast and saved them for this story. It began when I asked Claudio who in the family influenced Gio’s competitiveness the most.
“Oh, man, it probably came from a little bit both of us [his mother and father], probably having an older brother when he was younger,” Claudio told me. “He was a fighter from day one, from the moment he was born. And so competitive. I remember when he was in the car and his team would lose when he was Under-11, Under-12, and he’d be crying after the game. And he’d get into the car and I would say, ‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’ And he felt like his teammates weren’t trying as hard as him. And I was like, ‘No, it’s probably they’re just not as good as you.’ And I was just trying to coach him through those moments. But he was so competitive. He still to this day does not like losing in anything. And it is, I think, an important trait to have in any player, in any sport.”
Claudio, who speaks to Gio nearly every day, remembers Gio calling him after a Dortmund training session two years ago, when he was just 17.
“I should start,” Gio told him. “I’m doing really well in training.”
“You’re still 17,” Claudio told him. “You have to just wait your time. It might be six months until you start.”
“No, no, I want to start the next game.” Sure enough, Reyna ended up making his first Dortmund start at age 17.
“I never had to push him at all,” Claudio told me. “If anything, I had to sometimes slow him down because he’d be the one who would start confrontations at practice because his team would lose and he would start arguments with his teammates. And I loved it because to me, that’s what you have to have. The players who make it at the highest level, you have to be ruthless. And so it’s great that he has it. He’s a little feisty one for sure.”
There’s a fine line between feisty and showing up your teammates, though, and Gio is still finding it, sometimes with the help of older leaders on the team like 26-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
In a recent interview, Steffen told me about a moment during the U.S. victory over Mexico in last June’s CONCACAF Nations League final, when Berhalter took Reyna out of the game. Steffen, who was on the bench after being subbed out with an injury, noticed that Reyna, sitting next to him, was visibly angry.
“He was mad. And I liked that,” Steffen said. “I like that fight, that confidence and hunger to want to be on the field to make a difference as a player. So I had to have a conversation with him right then and there, and just tell him that it’s okay that he’s mad, but the team needs him to be on the sidelines supporting and cheering them on. And after the game you can be mad by yourself and all that stuff. But right now we need everybody that we can on the sidelines so that the guys feel supported and get that extra energy and motivation on the field from us.”
Steffen went on: “He’s very passionate for competing, very passionate to be out on the field with the guys. And he wants to grow, to be on the ball, to get his touches and score goals and help this team win. That’s exactly what we need, that type of attacker who will run at players and has the confidence to just keep going and going no matter what happens. Off the field, he’s a goofball and a jokester, a great kid. And very young. For him to be like this at this age is really important for us. We don’t want him to be a turtle hiding in his shell. We need him to make an impact on these games.”
Reyna didn’t start but came on after halftime on Sunday, in part because he was one of 20 members of the U.S. traveling outfit who came down with a stomach bug after the game in Mexico, Berhalter told reporters. Once again, Reyna had a couple brilliant moments with the ball, though he misfired on a good scoring chance early in the second half.
Yet just as Steffen was quick to remind Reyna to be supportive of his teammates, the roles have been reversed, too. Last October, Steffen came into camp and had to be the No. 2 goalkeeper behind Matt Turner. When asked what that was like, Steffen told me: “How can I put this? I mean, yeah, it was upsetting. Obviously, we all want to play each and every game, and that’s why we’re who we are. We’re competitors. We’re athletes. We want to play as much as we can. But at the same time, it’s a team sport. And especially goalkeeping, you’re here to support one another. And there’s a very good camaraderie amongst the goalkeeper pool. That’s why my role was that camp, to get Matt ready and make sure he felt confident going into the games.”
You hear these U.S. players say it, but it really does seem true: There don’t appear to be any jerk teammates in this group. It’s one of the reasons they enjoy coming into a national team camp, which hasn’t always been the case with USMNT players over the last seven years. Those good vibes figure to continue on Wednesday, when the long, 14-game Octagonal journey comes to an end and a berth in the World Cup is finally achieved.
@Grant - did Gio's haircut come from the USMNT barber? Inquiring minds want to know.
It seemed to me Steffen was solid in the Azteca, but wobbly in Orlando. What do y’all think?