Christian Pulisic had taken a tremendous weight off his shoulders.
The first American soccer player to perform and win in a Champions League final, Pulisic had a January to forget. He had to play in an unusual position with Chelsea and was relegated to the bench for a World Cup qualifying match against Honduras.
Now he has the United States one step away from returning to a World Cup after signing his first hat-trick with the national team.
He was the one who spurred on the national team, celebrated like a worm to please a fan suffering from cancer, received a yellow card for excessive claims and closed the night sharing the victory with his parents.
“The reason that tonight has so much meaning is because we want to be in the most important tournament, we want to play in a World Cup,” he proclaimed on Sunday after leading the resounding 5-1 victory over Panama.
In the same Orlando stadium four and a half years ago, Pulisic scored his first goal for the national team in a 4-0 win over the Panamanians. Four days later he ended up on his knees in Trinidad, his World Cup hopes shattered by a 2-1 loss that sent an earthquake through the foundations of American soccer.
The United States has almost sealed its ticket to the World Cup in Qatar in November. All they have to do is not lose by six goals or more when they visit Costa Rica on Wednesday. The record is adverse on Costa Rican soil due to the qualifiers: nine losses and one draw. They have never won there. But neither have they lost by six anywhere since a friendly against France in 1979, and not in an official match since 1957 in Mexico.
Pulisic, 23, is one of the four survivors of the team that was shipwrecked on the last night of the generation led by Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. The others are Paul Arriola, DeAndre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta. Arriola was the only one who played against Panama on Sunday night and scored a goal, as well as participating in a 17-touch play that ended in Jesús Ferreira’s goal.
Pulisic converted two penalties in the first half and capped his great game with a goal in the 65th minute. With his back to the goal, Pulisic turned to dominate the ball with his left foot, snubbed Fidel Escobar and made a self-pass. Followed, Pulisic threw a tunnel between the legs of Andrés Andrade and defined from the right before goalkeeper Luis Mejía’s exit at the wrong time.
The winger is one of the strongholds of a new crop of American talent, players straight out of high school who are now rising to prominence in Europe. Such is the case with midfielders Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna.
Pulisic captained for the eighth time on Sunday, emulating midfielder Tyler Adams, also 23.
“Everyone on the coaching staff talked about it and we went with Christian, I think because of the track record,” United States coach Gregg Berhalter said. “He had to be on the pitch when we didn’t qualify. This was like saying to him: ‘This is a new group, this is a new team and you are the leader’”.
Pulisic is already seventh in the all-time scoring chart for the United States, with 21 goals. No other American has stood out in Europe like him.
He was the eighth youngest player to make his Bundesliga debut, at 17 days and 133 days, with Borussia Dortmund in January 2016. Pulisic won the German Cup in 2017 and was transferred to Chelsea prior to the 2019-20 season. , establishing themselves in the Champions League last May and in the Club World Cup a month ago.
Beyond all that he has accomplished at the club level, Pulisic longs to shine in the red, white and blue colors of America.
“An immense night, with my first hat-trick with the national team. I am very proud,” Pulisic said. “I can’t wait to be in a World Cup and that is the feeling of everyone in this team”.