The Slow Road To Russia

Tim Hall’s View From 101

In conversation with a fellow United States Men’s National Team fan before the start of this past weekend’s World Cup qualification twin-bill, we determined that, while obviously everyone would want all six points on offer, the realist within both of us eventually decided that if the US could come away with four points, that would be just about what the doctor ordered going forward. 

So let it be written, so let it be done. 

First up for the Stars and Stripes was a home turn in Colorado against Trinidad and Tobago. This always figured to be the easier of the two matches the US would have to face in this break, as T&T has never successfully beaten the US in a qualifier. This did not mean, however, that the US could afford to take it easy on their tropical adversaries. This is CONCACAF, after all. The balls and the calls both have a strange way of bouncing around here. CONCACAF foes are like horror movie villains: leave them mortally wounded and you run the risk of being snuck up on and having your head detached from your shoulders. Better not to fuss about and instead kill them outright.

For the first half, however, the Soca Warriors looked like they might play the role of the big baddie in the horrible mask, withstanding all the US Men could throw at them and surviving. The breakthrough finally came seven minutes into the second half when 18 year old Christian Pulisic slid to poke home a wormburner cross from DeAndre Yedlin. Ten minutes later it was Pulisic again, taking a through ball from Jozy Altidore into the box and beating Trinidadian keeper Jan-Michael Williams short side to double the advantage, which is where the scoreline would stay.

This left US fans pleased, 75% of the way to the pragmatic goal of the weekend. But there were also emotions of tempered enthusiasm and excitement.

The muted enthusiasm was for the man of the match, Christian Pulisic (technically, Pulisic could not be named Man of the Match because that award is sponsored by a beer manufacturer, and Pulisic is under the legal drinking age. Yes, this an actual thing that happened.) The game against T&T marked international goals six and seven for Pulisic in only fifteen caps up to that point. Combine in assists and earning fouls leading to free kick goals, Pulisic was in some way responsible for eight straight USMNT goals. And Pulisic is getting good playing time for Borussia Dortmund, including in Champions League play. So to witness the one man show the young man put on, it left even the most grizzled and cautious US fans admitting that the kid might just be for real.

However, the reason for US fans to be cautious is because they’ve been burned before. One only need to remind everyone of the name Freddy Adu, the first of the modern era American wunderkinds. Adu made his debut at thirteen. As a teenager he was on MTV and shooting commercials with Pele. Now at age 28, when many players are just finding their prime, Adu is without a contract as a professional and has not appeared for the national team in six years. The man that assisted on Pulisic’s second goal, Jozy Altidore, was looked at by some as the one to pick up Adu’s flag and go forward, and while Altidore has had a fine career for both clubs and country, he certainly hasn’t been any earth-shattering revelation. So there is an understandable hesitation from many to give Christian the crown, knowing how heavy it can be.

Still, there was a feeling of electricity in the air, because even if Christian Pulisic isn’t the future, he was pretty hot in the present, and just young enough to not be overwhelmed by what was next on the schedule: Mexico away.

The fans and the TV networks and the advertisers were all waiting for Pulisic to have another headline grabber, while the naysayers and doomsayers were waiting for the kid to fall flat on his face and look lost at Estadio Azteca. Both ended up disappointed, because he had a fine, unremarkable performance. Invaluably, he put in a ninety minute performance for a team that rotated heavily from the previous match due to altitude concerns and the quick turnaround. One of the understated benefits of young legs.

Instead the focus of the attention was on Michael Bradley, another American who got his start as a gawky teenager, was given a miss by most of the hype train, and has slowly and steadily worked his way to a very good career that has seen time in Italy, Germany and England. Now the New Jersey native is captain of his national team, and showed just why when he intercepted a pass, strode forward on the counter and chipped the ball over Mexico keeper Memo Ochoa from about 35 yards out to open the scoring in the sixth minute.

Bradley is indicative of this current generation and iteration of the US Men’s National Team. In previous cycles of qualifying, the Yanks would show up in Distrito Federal and just try to not get embarrassed, and, invariably, they would get embarrassed. But perhaps like a boxer who needs to get his once or twice to really know they’re in a fight, those losses seem to have galvanized the Stars and Stripes. The US teams traveling south of the border now play with confidence and self-assurance. Sure, Azteca is a difficult place to play, and the fans are rabid, but the game itself hasn’t changed between the lines, and the security detail is going to get you all out of there in one piece.

Mexico did come back to level the scoring, and the US saw the game out in a bunker-and-counter formation that did not allow them much possession, but a few good chances to steal all three points.

Still, though, four points from the weekend, all the realist can hope for.