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.”