The United States men’s national team will play one of their most pivotal matches under coach Gregg Berhalter as they travel to Estadio Azteca to face rival Mexico with a trip to the 2022 FIFA World Cup hanging in the balance. Coverage on Thursday begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+. The U.S. are currently second in the Concacaf qualifying table with 21 points — four points off of Canada’s pace and only ahead of Mexico on goal difference. Although it’s unlikely, there are slim scenarios where USMNT can punch a ticket to Qatar with a victory and out-of-town results, but it’s likely that they secure qualification later in the window.
Then again, there is a chance that the team crashes out the way they did in the 2018 cycle if things don’t go their way. Speaking to media in the leadup to the match, Christian Pulisic says he thinks the team is more confident and will trust its quality to see qualification out. With injuries around the squad, Pulisic will be someone who will need to step up although he might not want to overextend himself with the need to put pressure on himself to perform.
After the tides have changed at Chelsea with Pulisic getting back into the starting lineup following Romelu Lukaku’s struggles, he was upbeat speaking ahead of Thursday’s match.
“Now that’s the beauty of this sport and this profession,” the 23-year-old midfielder said. “I’m feeling very good and I feel in a good rhythm at the moment, and I’m really happy to now be back with the national team and really try to help the team.”
Since returning to the starting lineup for Chelsea in mid-February, Pulisic has scored three goals and assisted one more in all competitions which will help him come into the biggest game of his young national team career in good form. Pulisic is no stranger to big games having scored seven Champions League goals while assisting eight more but the pressure at Azteca always manifests in different ways.
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Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta, DeAndre Yedlin and Pulisic are the only members of the USMNT who have appeared for the team at Azteca starting the 1-1 draw in World Cup qualifying in June of 2017. Given the team’s history at Azteca, that’s likely a good thing. Players who are expected to lead by example don’t have a history of losing to Mexico as they come into the match with a little more confidence.
Things will certainly be different for Pulisic as he will start only his third match of qualifying without Weston McKennie on the left side of the midfield to overlap with him. Not only has Pulisic assisted McKennie headers in the box, but McKennie creates space for Pulisic and the rest of the forward line to operate.
As a defensive-minded midfielder like Kellyn Acosta could replace McKennie, this is why Jesus Ferreira might be a solid option at forward. His vision and passing ability will help play Pulisic and either Tim Weah or Gio Reyna into space to finish chances while he can also take his own. Small lineup decisions like this will be critical for Berhalter but it’ll all come down to Pulisic’s play and putting the failure of not qualifying for the World Cup in 2018 behind.
Pulisic was to the point when asked about that failure: “Of course, we use it as motivation. We were extremely upset and now we want to qualify. So we have the opportunity now. And yeah, we definitely don’t want to go through that again.”
That fire will drive Pulisic and the national team to produce during this window while inevitably booking their trip to Qatar for the World Cup. But a win at Azteca, a Mexican cathedral of football where legends are made, could do even more for the American star.