Christian Pulisic received startling news from Gregg Berhalter: The U.S. coach benched America’s top player for what was essentially a must-win World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
“Decisions like that are never easy,” Berhalter said. “The pregame conversation with him was you’re still going to affect the game, just in a different role. And we have to do what we felt was best for the team and also put Christian in the best possible position to make an impact.”
Pulisic scored the final goal in a 3-0 U.S. win Wednesday night with his second touch of the match in the 65th minute, just two minutes after entering. The Americans can clinch a return to the World Cup with four points from their final three matches — or with a victory over Panama on March 27 at Orlando, Florida, if Costa Rica doesn’t sweep its remaining games.
“It’s my job to come in and make a difference, and I’m glad I did that,” Pulisic said.
Since becoming the first American to appear in and win a Champions League final, Pulisic has experienced a series of highs and lows that appeared to sap his confidence.
He tested positive for COVID-19 after playing his first two matches of the season for Chelsea, sidelining him between Aug. 14 and Sept. 5 and causing him to miss the opening qualifier with the U.S. Then, in the finale of the first three-match window, he injured his left ankle at Honduras on Sept. 8, leading to his absence from the October qualifiers.
Pulisic returned to the field for Chelsea on Nov. 2 and scored the go-ahead goal on his first touch when he entered 10 days later to lead the U.S. over Mexico. But he’s struggled to regain a regular role with Chelsea, starting just seven of the club’s last 11 matches and scoring just twice, against Leicester and Liverpool. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, dealing with injuries, has at times shifted Pulisic from wide midfield to center forward and wingback.
“Not exactly where I want to be and how I want things to be right now.” the three-time U.S. Player of the Year said last week. “I haven’t always been playing in the positions I want to play in. But I think it’s a good quality to be versatile and be able to play in all kinds of positions and have different strengths on the pitch.”
He had subpar performances in qualifiers against El Salvador and Canada.
“I think the hardest thing to do as a coach is to talk to a player and tell him that you support him and you’re behind him 100% and then you don’t start him, because players feel somehow that you’re not supporting them,” Berhalter said. “And for Christian, it was a very difficult decision but I felt it was the decision that was made to put him in the best possible position to make the impact that the we know can make.”
Pulisic’s 18th international goal, his second of the qualifying cycle, went in after Kellyn Acosta’s corner kick was headed by Ricardo Pepi to Walker Zimmerman, and the ball bounced off a leg to the right foot of Pulisic near the penalty spot. Freed from taking corners, Pulisic was positioned centrally for the restart.
“When he’s in those positions on the field, he has the quality to make finishes like that and score goals like that,” Berhalter said. “And that’s impact that he made for the group and really helped seal the victory for the team. So it’s never easy when you’re a player, a high-profile player, and you’re not in the form of your life. And those things are very hard to always capture, especially when you’re at a club like Chelsea. But he’s a guy that means a heck of a lot to this team. He’s one of the top performers of the team over this stretch of time, and he’s going to be a huge contributor to what we do moving forward, that’s for sure.”
Canada leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 25 points, followed by the U.S. (21), which is ahead of Mexico on goal difference. Panama (17) is fourth and Costa Rica (16) fifth.
The top three nations qualify for this year’s tournament in Qatar, and fourth place advances to a playoff against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand.
The U.S. plays at Mexico on March 24 and concludes qualifying at Costa Rica on March 30. While the Americans have five wins and a draw a home, they've produced one victory, two draws and two defeats on the road.
“It’s always tricky. There’s always different conditions. There’s always different circumstances that make playing on the road in CONCACAF extremely challenging," Berhalter said. “And we all know that. I knew that as a player and now I know that as a coach. So what I’d say is that home-field is a huge advantage for us. We play really well at home, and that’s a positive thing. The formula for qualifying is to win your home games and have at least a point per game on the road, so that’s what we’ll try to do next window.”
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