The United States men's national team comfortably beat Trinidad and Tobago, 4-0, on Tuesday, ensuring that they'd win their qualifying group and head to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. But the result is hardly notable or interesting. The only thing emerging from the match that anyone wants to talk about is Christian Pulisic, the 17-year-old who shined as he became the youngest American to ever start a World Cup qualifier.
So, let's talk about Pulisic.
1. Pulisic is the USMNT's best attacking player
This statement comes without qualifiers. Even when everyone is fit, even though he's just 17 and even though we have a very small sample size of club and national team games to draw from, it's very clear that none of the other USMNT attackers have Pulisic's combination of skill, creativity and intelligence. He's looked extremely dangerous in all of his cameo appearances. In his first time going 90 minutes, he was better than any of his teammates at running at defenders, making creative passes and retaining possession in tough spots.
Here's his assist, off a great give-and-go with Sacha Kljestan.
Altidore made it 16 career World Cup qualifying goals after an assist from Pulisic. #USAvTRI https://t.co/o9cXaEX232— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) September 7, 2016
Pulisic also played in the cross that led to the first goal and made both the long run through the center and shot on target that set up the fourth. He was a huge contributor to the USMNT completing 123 passes in the final third, both with his own passing and making himself available for passes with his movement off the ball. Everyone else stepped up in the second half, but the gap in quality between him and the rest of the team in the first half was staggering.
2. Uh, is that bad? That's kinda bad, right?
Yeah. The best attacking player on a team filled with prime-age veterans of the World Cup and Europe's top leagues is a 17-year-old. That's not a great look. It might tell us a lot about the USMNT's relative lack of skill compared to their international peers. There is a silver lining, though!
3. The USMNT appears capable of rising to Pulisic's level
The most impressive thing about Pulisic's performance on Tuesday wasn't any of his stats, but that he appeared to make his teammates better, especially as they got used to what he wanted to do on the ball as the game wore on. Jozy Altidore fed off Pulisic's movement and crisp passing, having one of his best competitive matches in a USMNT shirt. Kljestan and Fabian Johnson had excellent connections with Pulisic throughout the game. The team played quickly, crisply and with the confidence that its runs would be rewarded with good service. No one stood around. It was great to watch.
4. You are not Pulisic's parent, doctor, psychologist or coach
It's entirely possible that Pulisic should not be a key player for the USMNT at this young of an age. It's possible that his body isn't ready for the workload of a full season. It's possible that, if thrown into a big match against Mexico, he could fold under the pressure. And we don't know any of those things.
Good journalists will do good journalism and ask his coaches and doctors and parents about how he's doing. They probably won't get honest answers, and will press harder for honest answers, and probably still not get them, and keep trying anyway. But until someone with expert knowledge breaks ranks and decides to spill all the secrets, we won't know if he's not ready, or tired, or struggling emotionally. Leave that stuff to the people who have some knowledge. We don't know anything.
He also seems like a very level-headed kid, with parents and coaches who care about him. He doesn't need your concern.
5. Pulisic is not Freddy Adu
Freddy Adu was clowning fellow 12-year-olds when he was a pre-teen, and by 14, he was holding his own against 20-year-olds. As incredible as that was, he also wasn't a first-choice player at his first Under-20 World Cup and did not score a goal in that competition. He was signed to a pro contract and anointed the Michael Jordan Of American Soccer anyway. The Adu hype train was based on some youth team performances, then totally manufactured from there.
The Christian Pulisic hype train is not based on that, because thanks to Adu, we know better. When Pulisic was tearing it up for the Under-17s, fans followed along with level-headed interest, thinking they might be seeing a very good future USMNT player. When he made the step up to Under-20s and played well at that level, the hype ramped up, but no one was comparing him to Jordan or Pele. The Pulisic hype train only started to threaten to come off the rails when he started scoring goals in the Bundesliga and UEFA Europa League against top professionals with seven-figure salaries.
Pulisic has already played and succeeded at a higher level of soccer than all but a handful Americans have ever reached. There are USMNT players in their mid-20s whose career aspirations are to do what Pulisic did last year in his first season as a pro.
There are lots of unknowns with 17-year-olds, even ones of Pulisic's caliber, but he is not any of the previous overhyped American teenagers. He has already achieved significantly more than all of them, against grown adults in major competitive matches. It's OK to get excited because there's no reason to guess about what he might become. He's an impressive player who is helping the USMNT right now.