Perhaps the most culturally important facet of Christian Pulisic’s breakout as a bonafide USMNT star is the suddenly blossoming reality that he’s a legitimate crossover personality. For a significant portion of the professional sports-watching populace on these here shores, soccer is a dormant sport, only to be poked awake every so often for major events and happenings.
The unearthing of an International Star certainly qualifies. And Pulisic is as close to one as we’ve had… perhaps ever.
The first time I’d seen the nearly invincible Catarina Macario play, she was already a more or less established club star by the loose definition of the term. Stars don’t exist, or at least as we know them to exist, at the youth level. But within the parameters of elite club soccer, Macario’s light was as bright as anyone’s.
By the time the ECNL playoffs rolled around under a loose overhanging shelf of cloud in Seattle during the summer of 2014, Macario was in the process of polishing one of the most prolific individual seasons in ECNL history. The ECNL playoffs are a mere runway for U15, U16 and U17 teams in advance of the ECNL Finals later each summer, and that particular year Macario’s San Diego Surf U15 team was in the process of qualifying. As the pool where the country’s best girls players ultimately congregate, Macario’s Surf had their work ahead of them.
Syria has never qualified for the World Cup. So we start there. They flew closest to the tournament’s sun in 1986 before burning up on reentry in a playoff with Iraq. After a scoreless draw in the first leg of their final AFC qualifying round, Iraq took the second 3-1 and sent Syria home on the final doorstep to the tournament. They have not been all that close to qualifying since.
It is perhaps the cruelest of bitter twists that the Syria side to draw nearest to breaking that 30-year hex is being forced to do it in the most unimaginable circumstances possible.
Syria, of course, is currently embroiled in a civil war that’s claimed the lives of countless innocents over a grisly six-year period. In the midst of one of the worst humanitarian crises of the present generation, Syria’s Assad regime more or less separated out the soccer team as a point of national concern (amid accusations of more deaths and claims that Assad’s been using the nation’s soccer stadiums as bases of military operation). The soccer team’s run in AFC’s World Cup qualification battery has been among the war-torn country’s lone singular joys, and Syria is certainly flirting with soccer history in the midst of everything else.
Entering Tuesday’s match against Marcello Lippi’s China, Syria’s World Cup qualification hopes hung by perilously threadbare cloth. AFC splits its final qualification phase into two groups, with the top two in each gaining direct World Cup qualification and the third entered into an internal playoff for the right to advance to another playoff, this one against CONCACAF’s fourth-place team out of the Hex. Syria needed at least a point on China to stay within three of third-place Uzbekistan with just two qualifiers left to play. And with time winding down on the match and Syria trailing 2-1, it looked as though they wouldn’t find it.
And then Ahmad Al Salih did this. Equalizer. Tie game. 90th minute. Point gained.
This game, like every game Syria’s played over the course of 2018 World Cup qualification, was not played in Syria. For obvious reasons, Syria’s played every one of its 16 qualifiers away from home. It’s “home” matches were centered in Oman for the opening phase and Malaysia in the current one, a cool 4,717 miles from Damascus. That Syria has powered through the turmoil back home to get even this close to qualification is truest to the definition of amazing as I can conjure.
But there is still work to be done.
Syria’s final two games, against Qatar on Aug. 31 and Iran on Sept. 5, will determine whether Syria takes another step toward Russia. And make no mistake, it’s an outside shot. Uzbekistan is stout, and they have a winnable game against eliminated China before facing down South Korea in an anything-can-happen matchup. Syria essentially has to have two results, and the only thing likely to get them into the World Cup considering Uzbekistan’s slate is two wins combined with an Uzbekistan loss to South Korea. That’ll be enough to swing the goal difference tiebreaker after they finish level on 15 points. With Qatar eliminated and Iran already qualified, Syria has a puncher’s chance in both.
It’s still an outside shot at this point with time dwindling. But in either case, qualify or not, Syria has the world behind it.
Watching on the TV box is one thing, but actually being in attendance dodging thrown beers and bags of… substances… is another matter entirely. One enterprising traveler in star-spangled gear was kind enough to document the trip, from the pre-game festivities in drunken conga lines to banter with Mexico fans outside the stadium to the game itself, we’ve got a bit of everything to digest in this pared-down recounting of events.
Time does not tend to abide clean lines. It is a ragged, clawed thing that rips through narrative and leaves you gasping at its ruthlessness. There are rarely Hollywood bookends.
The time elapsed between Mexico’s dizzying 2-1 win over the USMNT in Columbus and Sunday night’s 1-1 draw at the Azteca was exact, to the minute – seven months. The time it took from one to the next was practically a lifetime passing underfoot: a coaching change, a shift in resources, a new tack entirely. But it also represented two tactical gambles by two tremendously different coaches against the same eternal foil. And two entirely different results.
A surprise 3-4-3 in Columbus. A surprise 3-4-3 in Mexico City. The former failed and abandoned in a loss on home soil, the latter embraced and used to startlingly effective ends in the belly of the beast. Extenuating circumstances being what they are, perhaps we also understand there was something to this.
Unless your name is Arsene Wenger, and you have enchantment spells cast over your helpless ownership group, the life of a coach is mostly made up of small incremental moments between firings. You will win games, you will lose games, and you will not leave of your own accord. These things are invariably true.
Markus Weinzierl was reappraised of these facts this week. After just one season, Schalke fired its coach. And replaced him with a 31-year-old. The Bundesliga is a wonderland.
This is a story about how the USMNT suddenly and desperately needs an 18-year-old to reach its zenith.
There is little question among even the most conservative U.S. fans now that Christian Pulisic is the side’s best player. He is, without reservation most nights, the team’s most dangerous sword in the darkness. Pulisic is rare in that his deployment rarely bookends his night. He’s coherent enough tactically to settle where the game leads him to settle, and that means a central deployment could lead to a wide night, if the service up the central channel isn’t there. As it wasn’t in the U.S.’s most recent qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago.
You can read games by the flavor of Pulisic’s movement, and no matter where he finds himself on the field, there’s often either a purpose to it or a reasonable expectation that it’ll genuinely lead to something more positive. He’s perhaps the only player on the team with this kind of leeway, and it’s more than deserved. You can understand the exact tenor of a game (and, really, the tactical character of a team) by simply watching one man.
And the U.S. needs him now more than it ever has.
Pulisic has, incredibly, been directly or, in one case, indirectly involved in each of the U.S.’s last eight goals stretching back into the guts of the 6-0 qualifying blowout against Honduras nearly three months ago. That includes, of course, a crucial 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over T&T that featured a pair of Pulisic goals to bring his international tally to seven in 15 games. He is 18, need I remind you, and you stomp your feet on the brakes of his train at your peril. Let go.
Believe it or not, the ECNL National Playoffs is bearing down on us. It’s now just two weeks off in Rockford, Ill., and the qualified field from the U14-U19 age ranges is already set. Now we just need the playoff groupings, and we etched those in stone on Thursday night during the ECNL’s live unveil of the draw.
While the U15-U17 ages use this stage as a launch pad to the Finals later in the summer, the U14 and U18 ages will crown champions in Illinois. Which means these groups are of hugely significant importance across the board. And the ECNL streamed the draw, which you can watch in its entirety here. Happy hunting.
We are inundated with praise for FC Dallas’ academy. The positivity seems to ooze out of the league’s very fabric as the club signs one promising academy kid after another. And when one scores, well, you light the beacons to Frisco and tell the rest of the league to follow the leader.
There is something undoubtedly numbing about all this from a partisan point of view. Fans of the opposition become necessarily calloused to it – here comes more FCD academy news – but there is a method to it. The notion an academy can feed an entire MLS club is notably new, a fleeting ideal that’s never been tested in any substantive way until recently. The MLS modus operandi has historically involved a heavy dose of mistrust when it came to its own fledgling academies. Shifting that viewpoint takes time, but it also takes some small measure of indoctrination.
Somewhere on the trip between London, England’s southern shore and Glasgow, Emerson Hyndman became the U.S. national team’s great forgotten man.
There was a time not so long ago when Hyndman was the consensus Boy Who Would Be King for the USMNT. The 12-month period between August 2014 and 2015 was hugely formative for Hyndman’s budding legend, a seeming affirmation of a skill set you could practically see U.S. Soccer cradling as the kindling began to tremble and catch fire. He was getting games for Fulham’s first team in the Championship and captaining a U20 MNT run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup. Surely, by 2017, he’d have established himself as a doubtless call in every USMNT camp of record?
Now, Hyndman’s seat is cooler, giving way to super-heated names like Carter-Vickers, Pulisic, even Carleton. And in this, you understand how the twist of circumstance can subtly take a player out of your field of vision seemingly overnight.