Home Sports Christian Pulisic, the USMNT’s face, has become its catalyst and leader: ‘People want to follow him’

Christian Pulisic, the USMNT’s face, has become its catalyst and leader: ‘People want to follow him’

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ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JUNE 23: Christian Pulisic of the United States reacts during the CONMEBOL Copa America 2024 Group C match between the United States and Bolivia at AT&T Stadium on June 23, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Texas — Back in the Golden Boy days, when Christian Pulisic’s voice was soft and his thick, dark hair was always combed, there were times when he procrastinated.

He was already the face of the United States men’s national team as a teenager. But when he first put on the captain’s armband, at age 20, “I really didn’t know what to do.” So he tried to lead by example, which can sometimes be a euphemism for not leading at all. He often ceded the floor and responsibility to USMNT elders, partly out of respect, partly because he was an introverted young adult still trying to find his place in the world.

But in the last five years, Pulisic has found himself. He has become the “Captain America” ​​that the country longed for him. He has become their main goal creator, but also their cornerstone, a 25-year-old who is “very comfortable with who he is, very comfortable within this group and a leader in his own way, his way. a true leader,” as his coach, Gregg Berhalter, said on the eve of the 2024 Copa América.

His leadership was evident in the USMNT’s first Cup game, and throughout this month, perhaps more than ever.

He propelled his team to a stabilizing draw with Brazil on June 12, and then gave them an early lead against Bolivia on Sunday.

“That,” teammate Tyler Adams told Yahoo Sports after Pulisic led the USMNT to a 2-0 victory, “was the performance of a captain.”

And Adams added: “Everyone will talk about the goal and the assist he had, but what he did (defensively) was very important for our team. Because when people see players like (Pulisic) doing that, everyone wants to do it.”

His leadership, however, is no longer solely a function of his unparalleled talent and play. Yes, Pulisic is playing the best football of his life, but he knows his work doesn’t end when the whistle blows and the lights go out. He knows that part of his job is to “expect more from (teammates), demand the highest level at all times,” whether in the hotel or on the training ground. He has always tried to do it with actions; In recent years, he has learned to do it with carefully chosen words, too.

“He just talks more. “It’s a lot louder,” said Tim Ream when asked how Pulisic came to the captaincy. “He says much more what he thinks, drives standards and demands more from everyone.”

And when he speaks, several colleagues have said, everyone listens.

When they hug in the locker room minutes before kickoff, and when Berhalter gives the floor to Pulisic for a concise pregame speech, “people look at it, people listen,” Adams said. “And people want to follow him.”

Steadily but surely, Christian Pulisic has found his voice on the US men’s national team and grown into the captain’s armband that once seemed too big. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)

For as long as Pulisic and those around him can remember, he has been a relatively shy and reticent person. He was almost always the best player on his soccer teams as a preteen and teenager, but he was “rarely” the captain, he said in a 2022 book. So when an interim coach handed Pulisic the USMNT armband in 2018, It didn’t exactly fit him naturally.

When Berhalter took office a couple of months later, he began delegating responsibilities to a “leadership council.” Pulisic was a member but not a figurehead. He wore the bracelet occasionally, but not always. At 20 or 21, he didn’t need or necessarily want the captaincy, which can be a privilege and a burden. He was a leader in the sense that his teammates looked up to him and looked for momentum on the field. But he was not, and he has never been, an extroverted human connector or an aggressive, rah-rah talker.

In that sense, he has never been Tyler Adams.

“I yell at everyone 24/7,” Adams said Sunday with a smile.

Adams is the captain par excellence, and was chosen by his teammates to wear the armband throughout the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

However, in the 18 months since then, Adams has often been injured and absent. Pulisic has always been present. She has assumed the role, has adapted to it and has put her own stamp on it.

He’s still “not the most vocal guy,” as goaltender Ethan Horvath said. “But to be captain, you don’t have to be the most vocal.” Pulisic has played the role of intermediary, staying true to himself while he chooses his moments to speak.

After last year’s CONCACAF Nations League semifinal, a fiery 3-0 victory over Mexico, he sat at his locker shirtless and felt the vibe was too triumphant. As interim coach BJ Callaghan implored the players to enjoy the victory, Pulisic chimed in: “And be humble about it, guys. Enjoy it tonight, enjoy it tonight, but we are here to win the final. “We are here to beat Canada.”

“That’s a great point,” Callaghan said.

Indeed, three days later, they met arm in arm in the same locker room. “Christian, take us away,” Callgahan said in the pregame huddle. Pulisic offered three calm sentences. He then led them onto the field, where they beat Canada.

As he is a man of few words, the ones he utters may seem more meaningful. And sometimes he barely needs to speak to convey what he wants or feels. Sometimes, Ream said, “you see the look on his face.” Other times, you’ll just have to watch it fly across the field and follow it.

“He’s a guy,” midfielder Luca de la Torre told Yahoo Sports, “who leads through his performances.”

He led the way after the USMNT’s embarrassing 5-1 loss to Colombia earlier this month.

Four days later, he won against Brazil, first with a hard foul and then with a goal from a free kick.

“He sets a really good tone,” Berhalter said, both in games and in practice.

“He is a selfless leader,” Berhalter added a day later. “He goes out and just competes, works really hard and then helps the team. And then you add in the fact that he’s very skilled and can make plays on the offensive end and create opportunities on the offensive end, he’s a great combination. And then what you see is him supporting his teammates, supporting the guys, pushing them.”

He did everything that Sunday here at AT&T Stadium. After the best season of his still young career at AC Milan in Italy, he started the Copa América with a beautiful goal in less than three minutes. He later assisted Folarin Balogun’s goal, which ended the game just before half-time.

And after half-time, he appeared to speak positively to Ricardo Pepi after one of several missed chances by Pepi. “As a striker, the problem is when you don’t get opportunities,” Pulisic said after the game about Pepi. “He’s going to score at a great time.”

He led the USMNT with actions and words, to three points and with emotion. She was asked about the source of that emotion an hour after the game, and she almost laughed at the question, as if the answer were obvious.

“It’s the Copa América. “It’s a great tournament,” he said. So of course, as Captain America, he will rise to the occasion. “This,” Pulisic said, “is a great moment.”

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