Thursday, May 26, 2022

USMNT World Cup qualifier: Christian Pulisic hat trick exorcises the ghosts of USA’s 2017 failure

After not qualifying for the World Cup in 2018 due to the disaster against Trinidad and Tobago, the United States men’s national team wanted to ensure that didn’t happen again. Of the players who took part in Sunday’s 5-1 victory against Panama, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Christian Pulisic were on the field for all or part of the match which resulted in the USMNT missing the 2018 World Cup. It’s impossible to believe that memory wasn’t in their minds during this match where the United States essentially secured qualification (barring an unthinkable six goal or more to Costa Rica on Wednesday). 

But from start to finish, all eyes were on Christian Pulisic. Before playing Mexico, he spoke about the failure to qualify saying, “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.”

In Orlando, Pulisic came out wearing the captain’s armband with a fire in his eyes and one mission, putting as many goals past Panama as possible to qualify for the World Cup. After the match, Berhalter talked about how Pulisic has been here before and knew what to do, but no one would’ve expected a hat trick on the night. And with seven members of the squad missing thanks to injury, illness and suspension, the team needed all that they got from Pulisic.

It was Pulisic’s first hat trick in a USMNT shirt, and the sixth in World Cup qualifying team history joining Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson, Peter Millar, and Aldo Donelli. it also brought Pulisic into a tie with Johnson for the fourth most USMNT goals in World Cup qualifying with 12. He’s now one behind Landon Donovan for third all-time. He’s also only 23.

Pulisic got the scoring going in the 17th minute after Anibal Godoy fouled his Nashville SC teammate Walker Zimmerman in the box. After some nice decoy work from Jesus Ferreira who held the ball as if he would take the penalty, Pulisic eventually stepped up and drove it home with confidence. Antonee Robinson put a ball on a plate for the shortest member of the USMNT, Paul Arriola, to head it into the net for a 2-0 lead before Arriola’s silky turn to play the ball to Jesus Ferreira for the third goal put the USMNT ahead 3-0 only 27 minutes in.

As the game got stretched, it was Godoy who made a mistake again this time fouling Miles Robinson in the box after a free kick. Pulisic stepped up again and even though Luis Mejia went in the right direction, no one was stopping the spot-kick as Pulisic placed another with confidence. The celebration that followed, was a special one for Pulisic.

Pulisic said, “I met someone really special yesterday. His name was Mason, and his one request was that if I scored, he wanted to see a worm celebration. That’s what that was for.” Mason Ogle was the one nation game ambassador for the match after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.

Panama’s plan was to hack Pulisic, to stop him from getting going but it didn’t work as the rest of the team found space to score. Pulisic was fired up in a way that we haven’t seen as he channeled having the armband into standing up for the team and ensuring the job was finished. While he has spoken about not wanting to try to put too much on himself in the past to lead the team, tonight more was expected of him.

As Berhalter said, “I think the important thing was he did his role and his role involves making special plays and scoring some goals. But there’s a whole other bunch of things that come with it, and that’s what you saw tonight. His work rate, his defensive work rate, his duels, his second balls, his challenges, passing. I mean, dribbling, you name it he did it tonight. He got the coach’s man of the match for an obvious reason, but a really strong performance by Christian, glad to see that.”

Pulisic’s third goal was the best of the bunch as he had to one-up Arriola. Settling Robinson’s cross, Pulisic then megged a Panama defender before putting the goal in the back of the net. 

With the look on Pulisic’s face after the goal went in, you could see the release of pressure both when it comes to the joy of a hat trick as well as what the team did to put themselves in great position to qualify for the World Cup, which is not a done deal despite what a banner said at the end of the game.

While the job isn’t done, the team would need a historic loss to Costa Rica to miss the World Cup at this rate. As long as they don’t lose by six, the USMNT will head to Qatar in November and with a victory and there’s still an outside chance at being a Pot 1 team in the World Cup draw if Portugal misses the World Cup. While it has been a team effort, Sunday Pulisic was central to the success. 

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