Christian Pulisic took precisely two minutes and five seconds to show everyone that he was not screwing around on Friday night.
In the first meaningful event of the USMNT’s match against Panama, he picked up the ball 35 yards from goal, turned around, dribbled past three Panamanians, sprinted toward the top of the box, and passed to a wide-open Jozy Altidore. His pass wasn’t great and Altidore’s shot was blocked, but the message was clear: Pulisic was intent on dominating the game.
Who knows why this didn’t happen in September, when the United States lost to Costa Rica, barely drew Honduras, and pundits said Pulisic still had a lot to prove. Perhaps he was carrying a slight injury, or just needed more games to get into top form, or wasn’t comfortable playing on the right wing. Maybe he let himself get complacent for a second and needed to hear some criticism.
In any event, something was different about Pulisic on Friday. Motivated, fit, in a must-win situation and playing at the heart of the American attack, in a central role with freedom to roam, Pulisic made it clear with his first touch of the ball that he was the best player on the pitch.
He put the USMNT up 1-0 five minutes later with this goal, in which he nearly breaks the sound barrier by scampering past four defenders faster than can be easily comprehended on first viewing, then rounds the keeper and scores. His celebration is angry; Christian Pulisic looks ready to fight everyone:
Just 11 minutes after that, he switched roles with Altidore, turning into the provider. After being played in behind the defense, Pulisic has the option to sprint to the endline and whip in a cross, but he knows better.
He picks a better option by slowing down and looking inside to get the defense to freeze, then creates space with a quick first step. Instead of running full speed, all of Panama’s defenders have gone flat-footed. Three players are seemingly in position to block his cross or stop the ball from getting to Altidore, but because Pulisic made them stop, none is able to pull it off:
Panama’s coach did not do his players any favors. Playing a wide-open, attacking 4-4-2 formation away from home is a bad idea for just about any team, and it’s a very bad idea against Pulisic. It’s a tactical setup that offered no protection for 36-year-old central defender Felipe Baloy, a Panama and Liga MX legend who did not deserve what happened to him on Friday.
He was regularly isolated in space against a teenager who’s too young to have any idea who the hell Felipe Baloy is or why attackers once feared him. To Pulisic, Baloy was just another slow defender ready to be eaten alive. This will happen to dozens of other defenders over the next decade.
It’s impossible to tell what Pulisic’s ceiling is in the world game. He might have found his level as a good player for Borussia Dortmund, but not much more. He might never dominate a World Cup or a Champions League final. But for the USMNT’s purposes, he might as well be world class. He is the best attacking player at the CONCACAF level, capable of singlehandedly shredding CONCACAF defenses. At his best, he is already completely unplayable by anyone North America has to offer.
Friday night was a milestone in the young career of a player who seems to reach a new one every month or two. He makes plays no other American player has ever been able to make, and he’s now made them in a must-win World Cup qualifier. He doesn’t need many touches to take over a game. He is the best American player ever, the current best player in CONCACAF, and any further development is just gravy for the USMNT.