SAN JOSE, Calif. — Christian Pulisic said he was ready, and he was definitely not kidding.
Asked Thursday if he felt more comfortable playing as a playmaker than a winger, Pulisic made it clear he was capable of playing either, but also noted he was ready for the responsibility of being the U.S. national team's chief playmaker.
Bruce Arena believed him enough to give him that role Friday night in a crucial World Cup qualifier, and by the end of a 6-0 dismantling of Honduras, Pulisic had made believers out of everybody watching.
The 18-year-old midfielder scored or helped set up three goals, dazzling the crowd with his passing, marauding dribbles and tireless motor. He could have had two goals if not for an excellent save, and he even left his teammates amazed by his defense-splitting pass to set up one of Clint Dempsey's three goals.
"Christian I think is just a natural," an impressed Arena said after Friday's win. "The game’s easy for him. He’s got exceptional skill, vision, he’s pretty smooth."
You know those kid gloves we were using to try and temper the expectations and protect Pulisic from the kind of hype that has ruined other promising young Americans? You can take those gloves and throw them in the trash. Pulisic isn't being burned by the spotlight. He's thriving in it, and Friday's virtuoso performance — in a pressure-packed match — shows that Pulisic was dead serious when he said he was ready.
Honduras tried to offer some resistance, but Pulisic needed just five minutes to rip a hole through the Catrachos attempted bunker. He sped down the middle, worked a beautiful give-and-go with Altidore and forced a tough save out of Honduras goalkeeper Donis Escobar. The loose ball fell to a wide open Sebastian Lletget, who scored the night's opening goal.
Pulisic played provider on Dempsey's first goal of the night, sending a perfect chip that caught Dempsey in stride as he powered past the Honduras defense to blast home the third U.S. goal of the night.
Pulisic could have left the match at halftime and he would have been lauded for his performance, but he looked even more dangerous in the second half. He raced onto an Altidore pass and finished with ease just seconds into the second half. Just two minutes later he delivered another assist to Dempsey, hitting a perfectly weighted 30-yard pass that would have made Andres Iniesta proud.
“Man, he’s a great player,” Dempsey said of Pulisic. “He can beat people one-on-one on the dribble. He creates mismatches because of that. Someone else has to kind of push to him, and if you’re able to make good runs he’ll find you. It’s great to have players like that, that can win that one-v-one battle and break teams open.”
The youngster was far from alone in shining for the U.S. on Friday. Dempsey netted a hat trick in his first national team appearance since last summer's Copa America, and Jozy Altidore was outstanding with his passing, having a hand in three goal sequences. The tie that binds those two excellent veteran showings was Pulisic, who looked like he had played with Dempsey and Altidore for years even though it was actually the first time he and Dempsey started a match together.
"Clint's an easy guy to play with. It's really fun playing in behind him and off of him," Pulisic said. "It was cool combining with him and Jozy. it's a good team."
"(Dempsey)'s strong, he's technical, he makes good runs and he always gives good support," he added. "That's exactly what we need from a forward, and he's clinical."
The Pulisic-Dempsey-Altidore triangle overwhelmed the Honduran defense, and while few at Avaya Stadium could have predicted a 6-0 demolition, Arena sounded like someone who saw that kind of display coming.
"I’m not sure anything I saw tonight surprised me," Arena said. "We’ve seen Clint do this before right? That’s not a surprise. We know Jozy’s quality and Christian I’ve kind of seen a little bit of this in the last couple of months.
"I’m not surprised they played well together."
It can't be overstated what having a dynamic playmaker in the heart of the attack can mean for the U.S. it makes everybody better, and makes defenses struggle to keep up. Pulisic will certainly face tougher opponents than Honduras, but what we saw Friday was a player who is capable of being the playmaker the U.S. team has sorely needed.
Yes, Pulisic is only 18, but that doesn't change the fact he has shown over and over he isn't your typical teenager. He's a player ready for the big stage. He knew that even before he took the field on Friday, and now we all know it.