ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Christian Pulisic looked like the weight of millions of American soccer fans had been lifted from his shoulders.
The first American to play in and win a Champions League final, Pulisic struggled in January, was played out of position by Chelsea and even was benched for a World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
Now he has boosted the United States to the cusp of a World Cup return with the first international hat trick of his career. He had fired up his team, celebrated by doing the worm dance for a fan, earned a yellow card for dissent and crowned the night by sharing victory with his mom and dad.
“The reason that tonight meant so much is because we want to be on the biggest stage, playing in the World Cup,” he said Sunday after leading the U.S. over Panama 5-1.
On the very same field 4 1/2 years ago, Pulisic scored the first goal and set up another in a 4-0 victory over the Panamanians. Four days later he crouched on a field in Trinidad, his World Cup dream destroyed by a 2-1 loss that upended the U.S. Soccer Federation from the presidency down to the national team staff and roster, where 114 players have cycled through. Pulisic, who scored the U.S. goal that night, buried his face in his hands at the final whistle.
Now all the U.S. has to do to qualify for this November’s tournament in Qatar is to not lose by six goals or more at Costa Rica on Wednesday night. The Americans have nine losses, one draw and no wins in qualifiers at Costa Rica, but they haven’t lost by six goals anywhere since a 1979 friendly against France, and not in a competitive match since 1957 at Mexico.
Pulisic, a 23-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, is among just four holdovers from the team that flamed out in that final night of the Clint Dempsey-Tim Howard generation, joined by Paul Arriola, DeAndre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta. Arriola was the only other one on the field against Panama, scoring and assisting as part of the 17-touch sequence capped by Jesús Ferreira’s goal.
Pulisic converted a pair of first-half penalty kicks, and his 65th-minute strike was exquisite. With his back to the goal, a spinning Pulisic took a touch with his left leg, spun around Fidel Escobar and dummied the ball through his own legs. Pulisic poked the ball with the outside of his right foot through the legs of Andrés Andrade and slotted over a leg of sliding goalkeeper of Luis Mejía with his right foot from 8 yards.
He is part of a new era of American soccer that left home during high school and debuted for a big-name club in a big-time European league, with Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna following.
Pulisic was given the captain’s armband for the eighth time, matching Tyler Adams, also just 23.
“The coaching staff talked about it and decided on Christian, I think, because of the journey,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “You have a guy that’s been there before — he was on the field when we didn’t qualify, and this was us saying to him, 'This is a new group, this is a new team and you’re a leader’ and we wanted to show that and we wanted to highlight that. And I think when I look at his performance, besides the three goals and the hat trick, everything else was in line, everything else was exactly what we needed him to do in terms of his work rate, his effort, his energy, his intensity and his leadership.”
Pulisic already is tied for seventh on the U.S. career scoring list with 21 goals. His European club career is unparalleled for an American.
He was the eighth-youngest player to debut in the Bundesliga, at 17 years, 133 days when he first appeared for Borussia Dortmund in January 2016. Pulisic won the 2017 German Cup, earned a big-money move to Chelsea for the 2019-20 season and won the Champions League last May and the Club World Cup in February.
But for all that he has achieved in black and yellow and then blue, he longed for success in the red-white-and-blue.
“I think it was a big night, of course. I mean, scoring my first hat trick with the national team, I’m extremely proud,” Pulisic said. “I just really want to play in a World Cup and so does this team. And that’s why tonight was so important to us. And I’m just really happy that we’re able to be in a good position to do that and finish the job off.”
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